My Charlie Brown/Snoopy Theory of Artistic Success!

My good friends know that I’m a major, long-time fan of Charles M. Schultz’s Peanuts comic strip.

It’s funny, touching, and brilliant — one of those truly rare artistic projects that was both wildly popular and a critical success. (Full disclosure: the strip had its hey-day from about 1959 until about 1978. After that, it still held nostalgic charms, but for whatever reason, it became a mere shadow of its former self.)

Being a storyteller, I’ve often asked myself, “Why? What made this strip so damn successful on every level?” Obviously, Schultz was simply a genius. A psychiatric booth in place of a lemonade stand? Linus’ security blanket? A guy who plays Beethoven on a toy piano? This stuff is gold! (And don’t get me started on the fact that adults never appear — something I totally ripped off in my Russel Middlebrook books! — and that the strip is always seen from the lower, visual perspective of a small kid.)

But I’ve also come up with a theory about the strip that I think applies to almost every artist and every artistic project.

I call it the Charlie Brown/Snoopy Theory of Artistic Success.

The two main characters in Peanuts — sort of alternating protagonists (and sometimes antagonists!) — are Charlie Brown and his dog Snoopy.

Charlie Brown is a neurotic, wishy-washy, guilt-ridden, perpetually depressed loser. All his friends hate him (except for ever-faithful Linus, but including Snoopy, who calls him “that round-headed kid”), and he fails at absolutely everything he tries.

Doesn’t really scream “break-out popular success,” does it?

Enter his dog Snoopy, who is imaginative, fun-loving, mischievous, whimsical, and almost always completely care-free.

But Charlie Brown and Snoopy aren’t just character-opposites; they’re thematic opposites.

Charlie Brown gives Peanuts its angst, its heart, and its very, very profound message: life is usually really shitty, we lose far more times than we win, but maybe we need to keep going anyway. No matter how many times Lucy pulls the football away, it’s better to believe that this time it’ll be different.

Impish, whimsical Snoopy makes this cold, hard truth palatable. In other words, a spoonful of sugar makes the medicine go down.

It’s not that the jokes involving Charlie Brown aren’t funny; sometimes they are. But it’s laughter through the sting of tears.

And it’s not that Snoopy’s irreverence isn’t in its own way very profound. But, well, come on: Snoopy is never going to make you cry. He’s pure “fun” — the id to Charlie Brown’s super-ego.

I’m sure you see where I’m going with this.

But I’m not simply saying that Snoopy (or “fun elements”) make it okay for a writer to include Charlie Brown (“depressing” or “bittersweet” elements).

It’s that sometimes you need Charlie Brown and Snoopy.

Charlie Brown alone isn’t just depressing; it’s not necessarily truthful. Yes, life sometimes really sucks. But life is also sometimes a lot of fun.

On the other hand, Snoopy alone might be fine for a laugh. But for any audience member over the age of 10, it’s going to get boring fast. And if you’re writing for the ages, well, Snoopy alone just isn’t going to get you there.

If you don’t care about popular success, by all means, go all Charlie Brown (and more power to ya!).

But if you’re interested in supporting yourself with your work (!!!), ask yourself: is there a Snoopy for my Charlie Brown?

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4 Responses to “My Charlie Brown/Snoopy Theory of Artistic Success!”

  1. Chris OGuinn 5 June 2013 at 9:06 pm #

    Really interesting essay. I've long known about the necessity of "Snoopy" but I've always just called it "Comic relief." I like how you show that it is really much more than that.

    Of course, being me, I have to argue with the assertion that having a Snoopy and a Charlie lead to success. None of the Harry Potter characters really could be called Charlie–Harry's life sucked, but he generally refused to acknowledge that. And you had to go into the supporting cast with the Weasley twins to find a Snoopy. Percy Jackson was all Snoopy. Though I guess one could argue that the angst came from the story itself.

    I do think that if you are going to have a Charlie, you must have a Snoopy–the spoonful of sugar, as you say, That was hard for me, starting out as a writer. I was mired in and loved angst. I knew that I needed comic relief, but I was bad at it so I kind of ignored it. Strangely, now I am more interested in writing Snoopy than Charlie, but it's my observation that people actually want more Charlie these days.

    Anyway, great essay! Much food for thought.

    • bhartinger 5 June 2013 at 10:56 pm #

      Yeah, I think "comic relief" is another name for it.

      I think Harry Potter is a much more traditional hero than Charlie Brown. Yes, his life is shit, but let's face it, he's also a classic hero: it turns out he's really a wizard with this cool backstory, the whole "chosen one." I think the "Snoopy" in Harry Potter might be the magic itself — the wacky, delightful stuff that happens.

      But I TOTALLY agree with you about Percy Jackson. It's all Snoopy, which is why I don't think it's all that good. ;-)

      I think I'm more interested in the lighter side of life now too, honestly. Angst seems so self-obsessed.

      Thanks for the comments!

      • Chris OGuinn 5 June 2013 at 11:46 pm #

        Well, now that's just not acceptable. Percy Jackson is ever so much better than Harry Potter. You may not be forgiven for your clear lack of good taste. :)

  2. lgnetworksinc 16 July 2015 at 5:23 pm #

    I do think that if you are going to have a Charlie, you must have a Snoopy–the spoonful of sugar, as you say, That was hard for me, starting out as a writer. I was mired in and loved angst. I knew that I needed comic relief, but I was bad at it so I kind of ignored it. Strangely, now I am more interested in writing Snoopy than Charlie, but it's my observation that people actually want more Charlie these days.


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