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


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