RSSCategory: Resources

#30 Martha Schwartz

| November 29, 2010 | 0 Comments

Nuff said, me and my posse

Day 7~ Cats

| November 18, 2010 | 0 Comments

D: I don’t have to explain myself to the likes of you!

Creating Great Characters Part II

| October 7, 2010 | 0 Comments

…(Or Why Wolverine is Everywhere)
(Note: This column first appeared last year in Tyler James’ Creating Comics! The Art + Craft column at Comic Related.)

Last time, we discussed the qualities of great comic book characters. I’ve been using a certain short, hairy mutant with an adamantium laced skeleton as an illustrative example of these concepts. Once again, I’ll plug Scott McCloud’s excellent book “Making Comics” as a must have for your comics library and as providing some structure for this piece. In the first part of this article, I discussed two qualities of great characters: An inner life and visual distinction. Now let’s turn to the third characteristic- expressive traits.

3. Expressive Traits- This is often the hardest one to nail down. If you’re a strong and creative artist, you can probably come up with a killer costume design without too much trouble. And if you’re a good writer, you can dream up a fabulous inner life for a character by simply asking and answering good questions about them. But all that will be for naught if all your characters walk, talk, fight, make love, etc. JUST LIKE YOU. Sorry, but you’re just not that interesting.

As writers, we need to recognize that the default voice we’ll lend our characters is almost always going to be our own. Do that though, and all your characters might look different, but will come across as oddly similar. And it’s the differences in characters that create conflict, and thus make for interesting situations and stories.

When thinking about expressive traits, think about body language, speech patterns, key expressions, and common poses. All the great characters have them. Homer Simpson has his “D’oh!” Charlie Brown has “Good grief.” Ebeneezer Scrooge has “Bah Humbug!” House has his cane and awful bedside manner. Kramer has more expressive traits than I could post here. “Giddy up!” What are your characters’ expressive traits? What’s going to make them stand out from the pack?

The expressive traits you choose for your characters should derive from the inner life you’ve generated for your character. His or her background or where they’re from should impact the way they talk and the expressions they use. Spend some time and do your homework on this. If your character is from Australia, don’t think you can just replace the word “friend” with “mate” and call it a day. Find some people with similar backgrounds and really listen to how they put their words together and what expressions they use, beyond the most stereotypical stuff you see on TV.

How does Wolverine stack up in the expressive traits category? Pretty well, I think. Be it calling friends and foes “Bub,” chomping on a cigar, or his trademark “SNKKKT,” when the claws come out, there are plenty of ways Logan can make an impact on a scene. And that’s really what it’s all about. Characters with expressive traits STAND OUT. And they’ll make your stories stand out, too.

So, now you know Scott McCloud’s secret for making good characters. It’s served me well, and hopefully it’ll serve you well, too. One tool that I’ve been using lately to help me flesh out my characters is a Character Grid. What I do is make a table in MS Word or Google Docs, or even just a sheet of loose-leaf. In each row, down the first column of the table, I list important questions I should answer about my characters. Each column of the table contains the names of major characters in my story. For each character, I answer the questions to help reveal their character.

Here’s an example of the types of questions I’ll put in my grid, filled out with two characters from Over my romantic comedy online graphic novel. On the one hand, both of these characters serve a similar purpose in the story- they’re friends with the main character, Felix, and there to help him pull his life back together after a tough break-up. However, using the character grid, I was able to make sure that the two characters were very different in just about all other ways.

Full Name Tony Tuttle Malcolm “SK8” Skaton
Role/Purpose Tough love for Felix, Kick in the Ass Comforts the protagonist, encourages him to “get back in the game”
Age/Sex/Race 48, M, White 23, M, Black
Main Goal Get Felix to finish issue 12 of “Fire of the Pendragon,” Keep Blam! Comics in business Wants to be a top comic artist, work for DC/Marvel
Occupation President and EIC of Blam! Comics Comic artist, Pizza Delivery Boy
Motivation Build Blam! Comics into a respected comics powerhouse Prove to his brother and parents he can make it as an artist
Inner Need Respect in the Comics Industry Validation as an artist
Flaw Rough exterior but gentle soul, worried not cutthroat enough a business man to make it in comics, poor people skills Outwardly cocky, but inwardly lacks confidence; young and fears being taken advantage of
Backstory Ultimate comics fanboy, but never the talent to create them himself. Worked for family accounting firm, when parents died, he sold the business to start Blam! Comics. Three years and the business has yet to turn a profit. “Fire of the Pendragon” is his only profitable title. Has been sketching and drawing comics since a trip to Comic Con at 8 years old. Met up with Felix at a con who got him to draw his fantasy comic. Has been waiting patiently for the last 2.5 months for the script for issue 12, but Felix has been MIA. He thinks Felix is trying to replace him with another artist.
Core Trait Rational, Mr. Dollars and Cents A fighter
Good/Bad Habits Overweight and eats too much. High strung and drinks too many Redbulls. Nice guy, but mischievous. Can fly off the handle, overly sensitive
Secret Has been chipping away at his inheritance and life savings to support Blam! Wishes his parents respected him as much as they respect his older brother.
Skills, Knowledge, Props Knows business matters very well, LOVES comics and reads more than just about anyone. Outstanding artist with unlimited potential.
Quirks Drinks a lot of Redbull. Uses a lot of comics book references. Always has a sketchpad on him. Usually has ipod earbuds in.
Attitude Gruff Defensive
Dialogue Style Blunt and to the point. No sugar coating his words. A fast talker. Some urban slang thrown in, but educated, middle-class, New England background.
Celebrity Look alike Dennis Franz Bow Wow

The great thing about doing the grid is that it allows you to see all of your main characters together in one spot. This makes it easy to see where certain characters may be redundant, and you can make changes. Feel free to borrow my grid, and definitely add your own categories.

The character grid also reminds you that it’s important to flesh out ALL of your characters, even the supporting ones. There’s some stuff in the grid above, such as the fact that Tony’s bleeding his own bank account dry to support Blam! Comics that will never make it into the graphic novel. However, that fact colors Tony’s actions and reactions to the other characters, and makes him easier to write. It can’t just be your main character who has goals and wants and desires. All of your characters should have these things.

From the information in this grid, it was fairly easy to come up with decent character design sketches. As an artist, character design is not one of my strong suits, but I’m fairly happy with how this first stab at a design for Skate and Tony came out.

Remember, when you’re creating your stories, you’re creating stories FOR HUMAN BEINGS. As a result, the most important part of your stories is the characters that inhabit them. While I said that it’s damn hard to create make-believe characters that your readers will identify and care about, the funny thing is, your readers WANT TO CARE. They wouldn’t be picking up a comic or popping on a movie if they didn’t want a break from their own problems or the real people in their lives’ petty concerns, in order to see what someone make believe is dealing with. Use that to your advantage. Flesh out your characters by giving them an inner life, visual distinction, and expressive traits, and watch your readers respond.

Creating Great Characters Part I

| October 5, 2010 | 1 Comment

…(Or Why Wolverine is Everywhere)

(Note: This column first appeared last year in Tyler James’ Creating Comics! The Art + Craft column at Comic Related.)

Wolverine has been busy. He’s starred in a summer blockbuster that’s grossed $180 million, ensuring a sequel. He’s got a new ongoing series written by Marvel rising star Jason Aaron, in addition to his other solo books. He’s been mixing it up with Ultimate Hulk in the comics and on DVD. A new Wolvie video game is letting gamers get their berserker rage on. And all this is in addition to his regular duties as a part of the X-Men, X-Force, New Avengers and Lord knows how many other teams. In short, Wolverine is everywhere. But why?

Today, we focus on the important topic of characters. Creating characters that readers will care about is the hardest task you have as a writer. This goes for comics especially. And for good reason. Think about what you’re asking of the reader for a moment. Whether you are writing comedy, drama, action or suspense, as a writer you are trying to evoke an emotional reaction from your reader. You want to make them care.

Guess what? Making your readers care is not easy. Think about it, how many times have you listened to a real friend tell you about real problems and thought to yourself, “Meh. You think that’s bad? I once had a hangnail…” Of course, you’d never voice your feelings and probably feigned interest and empathy. That’s what friends are for, right? But truthfully, you weren’t that interested. And these were REAL PEOPLE. With REAL PROBLEMS. As a writer, your challenge is to make readers empathize with your characters, who are MAKE-BELIEVE PEOPLE, with MAKE-BELIEVE PROBLEMS. You have your work cut out for you.

So, how do we do this? How do we go about creating characters that will elicit the emotional responses we want from our readers? First, just acknowledge that there are no guarantees. Not all of your characters are going to resonate with everyone. But there are some things you can do to increase the chances that readers will give a damn about your story people. My thesis here is that the main reason Wolverine is everywhere is that he’s just one hell of a character. And when it comes to comics, character is king.

To help structure this article, I’m going to borrow copiously from Scott McCloud. Scott’s done more thinking about the art form of comics than practically anyone living, and I think he covered characters exceptionally well in his book Making Comics. According to Scott (and ME!) a good comic book character contains the following traits:

1. An Inner Life

2. Visual Distinction

3. Expressive Traits

Let’s take a look at each one of these traits, and apply them to arguably Marvel’s most popular and ubiquitous character over the past 20 years, Wolverine. In Part 1, I’m going to talk about “Inner Life” and “Visual Distinction.” In part II, I’ll cover “Expressive Traits” and share “The Character Grid,” a valuable tool for thinking about the many characters in your stories.

1. An Inner Life- By an inner life, McCloud mean’s that your character should have a unique life history that shapes the character’s world view, determines his desires, and colors her actions. An inner life is more than just “personality.” It’s not enough to say your protagonist is a “tough guy” or “the girl next door.” There needs to be a unifying purpose behind your character, a reason for being. You need to create factors or events in your characters’ lives that give reason for everything they do. This will help you predict how your character will respond to conflicts and action, and is how they’ll start “writing themselves.” The best way to flesh out an inner life is to ask and answer a whole lot of questions about your characters. Who were their parents? Where were they born? What’s the best and worst thing that’s ever happened to them? What secrets do they hold? The more questions you can answer about your character, the more real they’ll become.

Does Wolverine aka Logan have an inner life? Bet your ass he does, Bub. Behind his rough exterior hides a man with so rich a secret past, even he doesn’t know it all. Wolverine is a mutant who possesses animal-keen senses, enhanced physical abilities, retracting bone claws and a healing factor that allows him to recover from any wound (I believe he was tossed into the sun at one point and barely ended up with a sunburn.) He was used by a government program Weapon X, where an indestructable metal was bonded to his skeleton and claws and he was made into a supersoldier. As a parting gift, they also wiped his memory.

That’s just scratching the surface of Wolverine’s 30+ year history in comics, tv, and film, but here is a character with an inner life. And it pays off in the story telling. Tyra Banks’ closet couldn’t fit all the skeletons Logan has in his, and his history often comes into play in his adventures. For example, abuse at the hands of a shady government organization makes Wolverine especially protective of mutant children who are being used and abused. A strong inner life makes Wolverine a character that we can empathize with, and root for when the claws come out.

2. Visual Distinction –
In movies, visual distinction for your characters is important, but not as much as in comics. Sure, Jack Sparrow wouldn’t be half as fun if Johnny Depp and the costume design team didn’t go full on Keith Richards pirate with him. But there are plenty of movies where all you need is an unshaven Bruce Willis’ scowling mug or Jessica Alba in tights to draw a crowd. But in comics, you’re not casting A-list actors who have a history with their audience. You’re creating something new. Comics is a visual medium, and your characters NEED to stand out visually. On the practical, you need to give your characters a unique look so that they stand out from each other.

Think of the most popular comic book characters out there. How many of them could you still identify with nothing but a silhouette? A whole bunch, and Wolverine certainly. (Hint: There’s a test for your character designs- black them out. Can you still pick your character out of a lineup? If so, you’re probably heading in the right direction.)

There are plenty of popular artists working in comics today whose male protagonists all look the same. If it wasn’t for costume or color, we’d be clueless who was who. Don’t make that mistake. When designing a character, pay attention to their weight and build and their fashion sense. It also helps if their attire or costume is a visual reminder of their personality. Throw a “Got MILF?” t-shirt on a character in your comic, and it’ll be pretty easy for your audience to recognize, “Hey, that must be the comic relief, Stiffler-guy.”

While Wolverine’s backstory and compelling inner life make him a fun character to write, he wouldn’t be showing up in 20 different Marvel books every month if it wasn’t for this simple fact…He’s damn fun to draw, too! Whether it’s the claws, or the costume, or the muscles, or the sneers, Wolverine just looks cool. And looking cool can take you a long way with a character. Not the whole way, but a long way. Just ask Hugh Jackman, whose career was launched because he bore a strong resemblance to the character and played him well.

Alright, next time we’ll continue to discuss the shared qualities of great characters, and Wolverine in particular. In the meantime, think about some of your favorite characters. Do they in fact have an active and detailed inner life? And are they visually distinct? Then think about the characters you are creating. How can you can you make them even better?