Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Comic Dish How-To: Writing A Character

In this short how-to article, I'm going to go over some character development and writing tips for comic artists specifically. I hope to cover things like, building a character, writing dialog, and some exercises for you to try.

Beginnings of a Comic Character
Comics are a very visual medium so most people will care first about what your character looks like. However, I'm not going to cover visual design of a character but what we can do is get a basic idea of what this character looks like in words.

First, despite the style of comic you are going for, character development will pay off in the long run. Not every character needs to be super in-depth but it doesn't hurt to make them pop off the page a bit with development. Even gag comics can have endearing characters. So let's hop to it and work on building that character.

When I first create a character, I usually don't have a story in mind or only a vague idea. But I do know at least that I'm going to have a comic that is a fantasy, sort of graphic novel style comic. So I can start developing characters and hope that a story starts to come of it. Or alternatively, have a loose plot with roles to fill. Either way, characters and storylines all happen at the same time more or less. They compliment each other. (This is true for serial comics as well.)

Another way I get inspired is seeing someone else's character that I like...for example X-men's Wolverine. Or even a random doodle I make in the margins of a paper.

So for this tutorial, I am thinking of a vague fantasy story and I get inspired reading some of Wolverine's backstory. Suddenly I decide that I could use a rough around the edges, feral character. Who may or may not resemble Hugh Jackman.

Now we have our spark of inspiration. The sperm that fertilizes our character's egg and now we have to nourish it so it can hatch. We'll now go on to the next step. Get ready.

Character Development
Time to take responsibility for your creation. Knit some bones and grow flesh. There are many number of ways to do this. My favorite method is filling out a character chart. Other methods include simply writing a biography for the character, a short blurb explaining who they are. Or you could next to your character doodle just write a brainstorm about who you think they are or words you think describe them. Or Imagine having an interview with your character.

This can also double as your "Cast" page information should you make a web-comic. You should be able to answer some very basic questions about the character.

Find a method that suits you. For me it's the chart and sometimes the brainstorm. On the rare occasion sometimes great characters just appear fully made and you let them lead you around. However, it's important for consistency to keep track of some character basics.
Online you can find many character sheets to fill out. These can be both fun and helpful to the whole process. If you have lots of time to kill and want some characters so in-depth they rival Tolkien, try filling out this character sheet from Fantasy Art Resource Project.
Your character sheet does NOT need to be THAT long or in-depth.

At the very least your character needs the following:
Form (visual looks and features), a purpose (why they need to be in the story), and personality (a way to act in the world around them). Note that I did not include "name" or anything, that's because a good character will be very individual and identifiable by these other means. Although, it's usually a good idea to name your character.

So let's go deeper now and flesh out that character I was mentioning before.
Below I'm making a character chart because it's easy to display here and my favorite method.

Character Chart Example:
I'll post a blank character chart for you to fill out that's shorter than the other one. Making your own chart is encouraged because only you will know what information is important for your comic.

Just to remind you, this is a character for a fantasy genre comic with a bit of an Old West theme. I've decided that the comic will largely feature unicorns. (Because everyone knows that including a unicorn in your comic will immediately make it cool to me.) The world is full of elves, magic creatures, and humans. So onto the character.

Name: (I don't know yet)
Nickname: Rough Rider
Race: Human
Gender: Male
Age: going by Earth years probably about 30
Visuals: Rugged, very Cowboy western, sun-reddened skin, dark hair, blue eyes, hardly ever shaves. Beefy.
Occupation: Head Unicorn Driver/Trainer/Breeder

Personality Traits - has a hard time communicating with respectable folk, bit on the rude side, prone to take things personally, physical, very clueless about women
Likes - riding, breaking horses and other magical beasts, catching new animals, making money, the ranch, breeding hybrids, dancing and singing loud
Dislikes - elves, high society, staying clean, suits, cold meals, being accused
Hobbies - singing, managing the ranch animals, riding, sometimes cooking
Talents - singing, trick riding, hand to hand combat

Birthday - in the Fall
Homeland - near elf lands
Religion - he is religious but work prevents him from practicing faithfully
Education Level - equivalent of an Earth's high school education with some expertise in business.

Immediate Family - Father
Other Family - Mother (not married to his father and not living with them), half-brother
Friends - Two fellow riders and their wives, a snake charmer
Romantic Interest - in development...a half-elf girl

Nervous Ticks/Bad Habits - swears, picks fights, spits
Worst Memory - his mother taking him from his father to live with the elves
Biggest Achievement - unknown
Most Precious Possession - the ring his father wanted to give his mother
Greatest Fear - losing the ranch and having to adapt to elven society
Greatest Desire/Goals - Own the Ranch

Here's a couple of alternative character charts that I use.
(Example Chart) (Shorter Chart)

Now as I was filling it out, I started getting more ideas like his history and family matters. I knew at the beginning I wanted this to be a bit of a love story (because I'm a girl I do that). Further developing the character helps me to dream up story events and other characters such as this guy's parents and friends.

There are some weaknesses because this may not tell a reader very much about the character but what IS important is what it does for you. Now the next portion will cover dialog.

Putting words in their mouth
Writing dialog for a comic is a fickle thing. Unlike other visual mediums like games or animations, the dialog is read and not spoken. Similar to games, in comics readers do not want to be hit with a wall of text. Like the example below.

Let's avoid this travesty please. This can be done with clever writing and dialog.
First think about your everyday conversations. Usually it's a quick exchange probably only a few syllables. Some of the nice things about dialog is that you can ping-pong a conversation to break things up.
Give a character at most two sentences. Then the next character responds with their own few words. The dialog is paddled back and forth until the story is told.

There's also a risk of corny conversation or "out-of-character" pitfalls. The easiest trick (and the best as I'm told by dialog writers) is to read your dialog out loud. Your ear is your greatest tool in weeding out awkward or unreal sounding dialog.
Avoiding "out-of-character" can be solved by your character development.
Younger or less educated characters have a more limited dialog.
Females generally use more adjectives and have a wider vocabulary and talk more. (This is pretty generalized but for the most part true).
A character may talk with an accent or mispronounce words (which you can reflect in dialog by spelling the word incorrectly and more phonetically like Wersh instead of Wash).

When you're writing your dialog and after you've read it out loud, consider it's length. Can you say this in another way with less words and still not lose character? Can you break it up over several bubbles in one panel or over a couple panels. Is this dialog necessary at all?

It takes some practice, but eventually writing your character's dialog will become second nature.

Now it's your turn. You are free to try these on your own work or take some of mine for practice.
For example, use the image below to write dialog of what could be going on in that scene.

Next, I've got some ideas for other characters in my story for this magic cowboy. Try your hand at character developing by picking one and writing a bio for them or filling out a character chart or whatever your favorite method is.
- His married Friends
- His Half Brother (a half-elf)
- His Romantic Interest (a female half-elf)
- His Father
- His favorite horse
- A pet companion
- Any other character you can think of.

Lastly, my favorite character development tool is to take a cliche or archetype and just add something that goes against preconceptions.
Like my cowboy who herds unicorns.
Or a fashion model who goes big game hunting.
I'm sure you can think of more examples but here are a few suggestions in case you're struggling.
- A Pirate
- A Super hero
- A Gamer
- A Dancer
- A Doctor
- A Gangster
- A Police Officer

The Summary
Hopefully this helps you start on your way to building better characters and avoid boring, flat cliche characters...or worse...Mary Sues!
My last bit of fun is the Mary Sue Test for Original Fiction. Please take note that the test was built specifically for Gargoyles fanfiction and not original comic characters.
Mary-Sue Litmus Test


Sunday, February 22, 2009

Writing Homosexuals in a Straight Way

Recently, I've started writing a character that is completely unlike who I am. It worries me if I write a "gay" character in a convincing way or not. In general I write males in a fairly similar fashion. They're either family oriented (which a majority are) or very singularly focused. Part of this problem is that I don't like loose ends like "open relationships". But this isn't about relationships...I'll write that later, this is about sexual orientation.

I have had one character that I've written for online role play who is a gay character. At the time, I was just experimenting and ended up going on some very cliche routes. Most of it was for reaction purposes because I was role playing with many young, straight males. The character, Demonycus, was openly and flamboyantly gay. He'd be flirty with other males, cross-dress, wear "alternative" clothing and had an obsession with snakes. As the role play progressed other players were just annoyed by my "gay antics" so I stopped the act all together and just played along with no suggestions.

As I've matured and further developed Demonycus for other purposes, his sexuality became less of a spectacle and more a part of who he was. Demy is now not always trying to show off his homosexuality, but rather adopts the alternative life-style. He feels both pride and oppression for his sexuality and deals with it more rationally. In role plays, I usually do not bring up his sexuality unless it can be played into the story.

So there is my first example of a slightly failed attempt to write something I was totally unfamiliar with outside of what media portrayed. Now that I've gone through more material including scientific research and social experiences, I feel a bit more confident about what I am writing.

My first step for this character, because he was to be an antagonist was to design him in a way that made him unique and believable. I did my archetype exercise where I imagined an archetype or cliche role and added something unexpected.
So my conquering overlord was a powerful and well-respected general. He was ruthless, disciplined and strong. To add something that didn't fit I decided to play "what if" and asked myself, "What if he was also gay?" And it worked beautifully. Now one of the antagonists has other motives to betray his people and join the enemy, which I did not have before.

What I worry about however is that my story will come off as a bit preachy for either Pride supporters or anti-gays. While personally I am against the whole movement and I know that will show through my writing, I do not want to be unfair to my character because of it.

I have to keep reminding myself that bad things will happen to my gay character NOT BECAUSE OF HIS's because he's a complete douche-bag. (Well...he IS). The character is immoral (according to the beliefs of the world) in other ways too. I keep checking myself to make sure I'm not villainizing him because of his sexuality, that's only a small part of it.

Recently I happened upon a live journal blog full of fantasy writing rants and was happy to find one specifically on my fears. Writing Homosexual characters. (See it here). So far I think I'm in the clear. Taking the bullet points from the rant here:

1) No hinting - It will be blatantly open that the general is homosexual and has a bi-sexual partner. There are also other lesser characters that fall into the homosexual category but the thing is that I don't plan to make sex too much of a deal in my stories. Except possibly in the third one but that one is more about unwanted pregnancy.

2) Angst - The homosexual characters are older men. Two of them have been married (on and off) for the equivalent of 20 years. (Although they're married mostly for political reasons now rather than any affection. They're tired of each other.) Point is that they've past the "angsty" age of teens and 20s.

3) Rape Lesbians - Hmmm...don't really have open lesbians in my story. Bit unfair really, but I'm not about to make a "point" with my story and add them. The story works with the homosexual general, the female character who is sort of raped (not really) certainly doesn't become a lesbian because of it.

4)Fashion Templates - Yeah not gonna touch that one. Definitely not about fashion...generals wear armor and uniforms. That's that.

5)Idealize the gay love - Definitely not. The homosexual couple have it tough and disagree plenty. Their relationship has grown cold and both know that the other is cheating. One with both men and women (has a bastard child) and the other who buys male slaves. Aren't they the CUTEST COUPLE?

6) Keep the characters consistent even "in love" - Well, the general is no longer "in love" with his married partner. And although he is attracted to another character there is a distinct difference between "love" and "lust" or "attraction". Although I'm sure occasionally the couple get it on. They were in love in the past.

7)No "Gay Message Fantasy" - Definitely NOT. The focus of the story is on other characters anyway. So yeah...the message is clearly different.

I think I'll rant about relationships next.
What you should get from this is:
1) Read the Rant and follow the tips it gives about including homosexuals in your fantasy
2) Research Behavior studies and different homosexual philosophies throughout history.
(For example, see about homosexuality in ancient Greece and Rome, the Bible, and beyond. It's very different).

Getting Into Webcomics

So the first thing that usually happens is this: You get hooked on an anime series or video game. Then because you have a slight talent for art draw some short comics and decide to post them online. Voila! You're a webcomic artist. And now you're addicted. People like what you drew and you decide it's time to become serious and not just make random comics but make it a series.

In the beginning you make lots of mistakes and usually after awhile you get bored with your idea and abandon it. Such is the fate of many a beginner. I think it's how nearly everyone gets started.

It's certainly how I got into it. Although for me, I was unaware of this concept called web comics. I just liked posting my pictures online and some of them were short fan-comics. This was back at the new millennium when telnet MUDs were the MMOs and geocities the only real place to upload a free website. Around this same time I discovered my first few web-comics by veterans NeonDragon and Luka Delany. Inspired I tried it for myself with something original.

MSK was intended to be an online graphic novel like NeonDragon's comic Timescapes and she listed hosting. For awhile, I just posted on geocities before transfering to drowtales. Drowtales recently dropped the comic hosting and MSK now resides at Comic Dish (mirrored on Drunk Duck).

Before jumping into webcomics there were very few things I considered. Like how much time I would dedicate to it and how much school would interfere. Some things I wish I knew before I started, like better site design and how long it would take. I assumed that MSK would be finished by the time I graduated high school or at least a little bit into college. It ended up finishing about the time I graduated with my undergrad degree instead.

But I did do a few smart things like, prepare buffer, I could draw fast, and I met a lot of great people.

For me I recommend coming in easier before trying the graphic novel approach. It takes much longer. Now there are many many more resources for first time web comic artists/writers that I did not have at the time.