In November 1961, Marvel Comics published a new comic book, created (with credit later disputed) by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby. It was called The Fantastic Four. It featured four superheroes, at first glance having little about them that was unique or special. Reed Richards was a scientist who gained the power to stretch his body. Susan Storm could become invisible, and generate force-fields. Her brother Johnny could burst into flame, unharmed. Their friend Ben Grimm gained enormous strength, but became hideously deformed. Nothing that hadn’t been seen before.
However, the relationship between the characters was unusual, and perhaps unprecedented. Reed and Sue were clearly going to be a couple, thus tying Reed to Johnny. Reed’s need to cure Ben from his deformity linked all four together – becoming not a group, such as the Justice Society or Legion Of Super-Heroes, but a family – held together for life whether they wanted it or not. In many ways, a gratifyingly dysfunctional family.
Each character could be defined by their flaws. Reed, by turns obsessive and reckless. Sue, superficial, vain and attention-seeking. Ben, surly and violent. Johnny, an offensive brat/hoodlum. Nevertheless they all clearly depended on and loved each other.
The group became one of the most successful in comics. In spite of numerous attempts to change the line-up, the same four characters remained, continuing to be at the heart of not only the magazine, but the entire Marvel Universe. In a medium where everyone seemed trapped in perpetual adolescence, Reed and Sue were allowed to grow up and get married. Perhaps the lack of passion and anguish in their courtship meant that settling down wasn’t the end of the story.
Some years ago I happened to be watching the BBC children’s show, the Tweenies. It dealt with the adventures of four children (portrayed as giant creatures sculpted from coloured foam rubber) in a day care centre. I noticed that the relationship between them precisely mirrored that between the characters of the Fantastic Four. Bella, the bossy one; Fizz, the girl who loved to dress up; Jake, the baby, prone to tears and tantrums; and Milo, the rough boy who didn’t know his own strength.
Clearly, there’s a world of difference between a day-care centre and the Negative Zone. Nevertheless, the interaction between the four felt familiar, once the character mappings were established. Surprised, I wondered if other groups followed the same template.
Looking at the example of the four main characters in The Three Musketeers, I found that the same mappings existed. Athos is clearly the boss, Porthos the muscle, D’Artagnan the kid, and Aramis, while not effeminate, is undoubtedly the dandy of the four.
I even saw the same relationships in real-life groups of people, such as The Beatles – at least in their public personae. John and Paul acting as father and mother to baby George and burly Ringo.
It was something of a relief to find that the template is not, after all, universal. The four March sisters in Little Woman don’t fit the grouping, and nor do Richmal Chrompton’s Outlaws. It’s a way to assemble a group of characters that interact in potentially interesting ways – but there are many ways.
What’s the lesson for a writer? It’s a tool that can be used, and if done subtly and ingeniously, it can bring a set of characters to life – but if used clumsily and overtly, can appear forced and clichéd – as we seen in endless series where the same characters march on the same Heffalump Hunt.