Humanoid turtles who are ninjas... and teenagers... and named after famous artists of the Renaissance.
How could this story concept ever work?
Yet it did work, and it worked well. And what with the original comic series, a Saturday Morning Cartoon series, a handful of arcade games and various console games, three live-action movies, a live-action television series (a la Power Rangers), a cartoon series that sent them into the future, and now an anime-styled animated movie... you can't deny that there was something about this concept that caught public interest.
If only there were some way to make lightning strike twice....
This page, then, is here to discuss the elements that made Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles into the worldwide success that it became, and to help you see how you might use these elements to craft your own series.
Don't forget to check out So You Want To Write A Story for advice that holds across genres.
A team of heroes who fight the bad guys yet hide from the innocent bystanders. Sound familiar? So far, this is just X-Men, although of course most of the X-Men at least looked human until they turned their powers on.
The story began as a parody one-shot of contemporary Super Hero comics, especially Daredevil, but quickly developed into a tough action series in a Fantasy Kitchen Sink setting, without forgetting the characters and their relationships. Once the turtles entered their most familiar incarnation - the Saturday Morning Cartoon version - well, it was a light-hearted action comedy with laughable villains and excellent theme music.
Well, you can't plan for Executive Meddling changing the whole tone of your story - but then, that cartoon series was probably the best thing that ever happened to the turtles. And it proved that they work well as a concept no matter the trappings.
After all this time of staying in hiding so that people wouldn't freak out... it could be that society is a bit more understanding than the heroes gave them credit for. Hey, it worked for Buffy: The students even gave her an award for saving their hides ("We don't exactly know what you've been doing, but we know we owe you one. Thanks").
Suggested Themes and Aesops
The idea of being a hero even when people hated you cropped up more than a few times. However much the team batted the idea around, they weren't about to stand by and watch the humans get attacked, and it didn't matter that at the end of the day, there they were back in the sewers.
Colors worked well: blue for the calm leader, red for the hot-tempered Lancer, purple for the inventor, orange for the party dude.
Set Designer / Location Scout
You might not want to go the Absurdly Spacious Sewer route, but if your heroes are pariahs, you're going to want a place where they can hide from the world. The inside of their hideout should give us a good feel for the personality of these heroes as a group: Notice the homey atmosphere, the sofa and TV, the refrigerator full of pizza... and a training room they made use of every few episodes. Not to mention: bunk beds.
Aside from that, the turtles went to various parts of town, had a few jaunts to other dimensions, and occasionally followed the villains down into their tunnels and the giant burrowing monstrosity that was Krang's lair.
Each turtle had a distinct weapon: sword, sai, bo, nunchucks. They're not the weapons that the American audience is used to, and they worked out very well. And you know what else? Each turtle suited the weapons assigned to them - the calm leader took the weapon with the most skill and heroic qualities attributed to it, the angry dude took the most savage stabbing weapons that required you to get close and personal, the party guy took the noisy, distracting weapons and the technical pacifist took the least lethal, longest range weapon.
If you're going to go the same route, choose distinctive weapons that are simple yet outside the mainstream. And be aware that Executive Meddling might Retcon the weapons into useless costume artifacts that, if they get pulled out at all, are never used for combat, unless it's against robots... or the odd chance for the villain to disarm the hero.
Paper-Thin Disguise somehow managed to let them walk around in trenchcoats, hats and freaky-lookin' masks. Heck, they even got into swanky clubs in that getup. Aside from that, they wore... their shells. No, really, no clothes, just shells, plus belts and masks (both color-coded).
Splinter went around in a simple robe, whereas April... okay, that yellow getup of hers was just weird. And let's not even go into Casey Jones and his sports-equipment fetish.
The Turtles form a Four-Temperament Ensemble:
- Leo (the Leader) is Phlegmatic: rational, observant, unemotional.
- Raph (the Lancer) is Choleric: dominant, easily angered, charismatic.
- Donnie (the Smart Guy) is Melancholic: creative, perfectionistic, easily depressed.
- Mikey (the Fun Guy) is Sanguine: cheerful, optimistic, impulsive.
You could make a Five-Man Band with April (the Chick, obviously). Mikey, who is no larger or stronger than the others, isn't The Big Guy, unless you want to say he counts for mental characteristics (not exactly dumb, but... more prone to flights of fancy than the others, at least).
Then there's Splinter (the Mentor) and Casey Jones (the Sixth Ranger), plus a few of April's co-workers who show up now and then.
Now, pay attention, because this is a big one: These guys cared about each other.
It's the secret that boosted Star Trek to its position of prominence, and the secret behind the success of ElfQuest and Harry Potter and probably the majority of the more idealistic works from the get-go. Passion and compassion, as ElfQuest puts it: Make your characters care about what they're doing, and make them care about each other, and that'll make us care about them.
As much as Raph and Leo ended up fighting with each other over this or that, and even given the few times that Raph stormed out, this team was always a team. They're brothers, and fellow warriors, and they'll stop at nothing to help each other, to save each other. When they did fight or split up, something bad always happened. But that split was always, always, temporary. They always made up by the end of the episode.
Hoo boy. This is where you're gonna have fun.
The turtles are an active lot. Outdoors, at least in some incarnations, they used Roof Hopping. In fights, they used all manner of acrobatics - especially after the Executive Meddling axed their weapons - and some creative use of whatever was at hand (see Mikey in the first movie, using pepperoni for nunchucks... and he or another turtle using a yo-yo as a weapon). When the turtles charged the baddies and the theme music started up, you knew you were in for a fun ride.
These guys are ninjas. As the fourth TMNT said, they strike hard, and fade away into the night, and they look good doing it too. Rooftop chases are a great way to show off their Olympic quality acrobatics, and then there's fight scenes where you can put their weapons to good use, or if you're not allowed to, get imaginative with the furniture. Or maybe use the weapons in a way that doesn't kill anybody. It's no less indicative of their skill that they can kick the asses of 200 Foot Ninja without seriously harming any of them.
Disney's Gargoyles borrowed liberally from the outcast heroes tropes established by the Turtles.
Biker Mice from Mars is at least as good, maybe better, than its inspiration.
Also noteworthy: SWAT Kats, which ramped up the violence while slightly decreasing the humor level.
The Epic Fails
Remember Street Sharks? How about the Cheetahmen or Extreme Dinosaurs? No? Consider yourself lucky. There's a reason Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles has three animated shows, each with a devoted fanbase... whereas the best Street Sharks got was a parody of being a knock off of TMNT on Robot Chicken (and the Cheetahmen might have become a Great had Action 52 not been an Obvious Beta).