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Thread: Week 3- Characters

  1. StevenForbes Guest

    Week 3- Characters

    “I yam what I yam an' that's all that I yam!”

    Did I just date you again? If I didn't, you haven't done enough reading or watching good television, and I'll leave it at that.

    Anyway, the above statement is from one of the best known sailors in the world- right behind Sinbad- and goes very far for making a case for all characters everywhere. It doesn't matter if you're talking about Scarlett O'Hara, Phillip Marlowe, Charlie Brown, or Superman, a character is a character, and they have to be true to themselves.

    Last week was about plotting, and like I said, this week will be about characters. We can spend a VERY long time talking about characters, but we won't. My objective isn't to teach you how to write, my objective is to teach you how to write in comic books. Vast difference, there.

    In comics, writers have a very unique power. There is no other medium that allows them to play with their audience as much as we do in comics. In film, everything has to be connected, one to the other. There are camera tricks and so forth that can be played in order to evoke a visceral experience in the viewer, but it doesn't get as deep as they do in comics. In prose, the paragraph has to make sense with the others around it, building on each other until something resembling sense is made. That takes time. Not so in comics. In comics, everything is right there in the panel, immediate and accessible. We can play with time, go forward and back, and see directly into a character's head. We have the best of both worlds- a limitless budget for visual effects, and the ability to get right into the heart of a character through words. Film and prose don't really come close.

    However, even though everything starts with the Great Idea, the Great Idea turns into just a regular idea if it's not populated, and even then, it has to be populated properly. “Proper” will be defined by what thee Great Idea is, and the overall thrust of the story.

    So, what makes a good character? I'll be the first to admit that that's a great question, and that I don't have the foggiest clue. Now I guess it's time for me to explain.

    Even though all characters have certain traits, it's really about their reactions to situations. These reactions have to be true to the character, not to the writer, and I think a lot of that is missing from today's stories. The characters are behaving like the writers would, instead of as the characters would. In and of itself, that's wrong. The characters should have something of an internal consistency, and while that's built over time, it's also something that needs to be taken into account whenever you write. It doesn't matter if you're writing Spidey or The Mighty Pen-Man, correct characterization is key.

    The question becomes, what's good/proper/correct characterization? That depends on the story you're telling. In Spider-Man, Peter always has the choice to either beat up on Electro, or try to make it across town to do something with family and friends. He always, ALWAYS, tries to do both, and ends up failing at either one or the other. However, the dictates of his characterization states that he has to try. If not, something even worse is going to happen (or so it will seem in Peter's world). He always cracks jokes as Spidey, as well. It started out as a way to cover up his fear as being Spidey, but has evolved into something totally different. To my mind, Spider-Man is the comic book version of Bugs Bunny- someone who always finds a way to win, and will make you absolutely crazy because he's humiliating you while doing it. Now, this example is blatant and obvious, and paints characterization with a wide brush. Definitely unsubtle.

    So what's subtle?

    Deadpool. (Can you tell I'm a Marvel fan?) Okay, pick your jaw up off the ground, and stay with me. Under Joe Kelley, Deadpool became more than just a merc with a mouth. He became a three dimensional character- one that has hopes and nightmares, and a twisted way of showing his emotions. He does the wrong thing in trying to do the right thing, and we all fall for it because it's both tragic and hilarious. Under Kelley's direction, Deadpool became a hard character to write, because you had to put him in situations where doing the wrong thing for the right reasons became enjoyable to watch. Compared to Spider-Man, Deadpool is difficult to write. While the characters seem similar on the surface with their big mouths and hilarious dialog, they're both very different characters underneath. Their motivations are different. Peter operates out of guilt he can never get over, and Wade's enforced mental state has him doing things he normally wouldn't.

    I guess the next question is, how do you get subtle? I have an entire universe of characters- a hundred million and growing- and I know all of their names and powers. First, there's the main-

    Stop. Hold it right there. Take those hundred million characters and put them to the side for now. We don't need a hundred million characters for the moment. Right now, we only need one. No, you don't get to pick. I do.

    Pen-Man. Writer of words, coverer of paper. What he really needs is to undergo an interview.

    No, I'm not talking crazy. You want subtle? This is the way to go. Stop yer whining. I know you have a hundred million characters- I didn't tell you to make them. You want people to read the stories? You want the characters to be better than Gambit (cool powers and a name and nothing more)? Then put them through an interview.

    When conducting the interview, you have to do a few things. You have to step outside yourself, so that the character's responses are not your responses, and you have to remain consistent with the questions. And you have to do it for every character in your story.

    A lot of work, you say? “Whiner,” is my response. Alan Moore, writer of some of the best comics you've ever read, creates entire worlds when he writes. Character bio's, political affiliations, how the world governments work in minute detail- things you've never even thought of because right now, all you have is Gambit.

    Do the interview.

    Okay, what questions to ask? Start with the basics: full name, family, physical description, powers (if any), and basic character- hero or villain/nice guy or prick. You get the idea. Besides the basics, I suggest you go to the web and do a search on fictional character interviews. Use them, modify them as you wish, but only by knowing your characters intimately will you be able to say your characters truly have character. It doesn't matter that Pen-Man likes lemon sorbet, or that it may never come up in a story. It's a tool to help make him more real.

    The interview will do other things for you, as well. Besides uncovering intimate details of Pen-Man's life, it might spark other ideas for future stories, or help determine a new path to take the story you're already writing. Don't forget to make notes on how the character speaks, mannerisms, quirks, or anything else that might help to make the character more real to you. I know you have a cast of a hundred million, but are they all real to you? All of them? Favorite colors are easy. Did you know that Pen-Man is allergic to tofu, and has nightmares about being drowned in cottage cheese? Yeah, didn't think so.

    After you do each interview, print them out, punch holes in them, and put them in a binder. Separate them as you would, but keep them. When you don't use a character, details fade, and keeping the interviews on hand means that you don't have to do the work over again- you can just brush up on the character's interview and bio to make sure they fit the needs of the story, and you're off to the races.

    The kicker? It's not hard. It's tedious, yes, but it's not difficult. You'll be surprised how much info a decent interview will pull from you. The tedium of doing it over and over again will be more than offset by the gains you'll have when actually writing.

    Eventually, you'll reach a point when you feel you don't need to do the interviews. What will happen is that you'll be writing all of these stories after doing the interviews, and then you'll create more stories and only want to do them for the main characters, and then you'll create more stories and think you got it down. You're only writing a limited series, so who needs to know that Frank Wells likes to knit as a way of releasing tension? This is normal. It happens to us all. It may even be true.

    My simple advice is to fight it. I suggest you do the interviews and write the stories for at least a few years (yes, I said years) before deciding you don't need it any more. Trust me, you're not the prodigy writer you think you are. You've been listening to family and friends who love you and don't want to hurt your feelings. Generally speaking, they wouldn't know a good script from trying to land a 747 safely. Sure, they'll recognize a few dials, but will crash and burn almost every time without some training. So with that going against them, why are you going to listen to them when it comes to your writing?

    So fight the urge to take the shortcut. The interviews are self-training to creating believable characters, and after a few years, you can let up a little or let up altogether. However, it's needed for your development as a writer. Think of it like this: can you tell a story without the use of a character? Everything becomes a character when you start to talk about it: inanimate objects, pets, emotions, whatever. In the Batman milieu, even Gotham City is a character. So, can you really tell a story without one?

    So, I guess it's time for homework. Homework is simply this: create a character, go through the interview, and talk about your results. Paste one to the thread. Superhero, non-superhero, spy, supporting cast member, bum on the street- I don't care. The object is to learn something, and talk about what you've learned.

    There's the bell. Be safe out there. Next week: writing the pitch!

    Any specific questions, ask them in this thread, and I'll answer them. If it's something of a more delicate nature, e-mail me. I check my e-mail constantly, and will do my best to get back to you within twenty-four hours, depending on the number of you who decide to flood my inbox. No attachments, please. They'll be deleted without being opened. (I know, I know, but blame the virus-makers.)

  2. Join Date
    Jun 2008
    Post Thanks / Like

    Steve, this is such a great idea!

    So deceptively simple, and yet brilliant!
    I really wanna do this homework assignment.

    ..I'm skeptical, however, to post one of my unpublished characters on this new fangled intro-net thing-a-ma-bob, but, time allowing, I'll make a guy just for this!

    Each column you post is more helpful to me than the last! I love it!
    "Living Robert Venditti's Plan B!"

    CAT. 5

  3. DavidPaul Guest

    Another great lesson.

  4. StevenForbes Guest

    Thanks, guys. I appreciate it.

    I know I'm taking my time before getting around to scripting, but it's groundwork that many new writers don't do before they sit down to the keyboard. I'm not saying that my steps need to be followed, but by following them, it should make the job of scripting easier.

    So bring on the characters! We'll be revisiting this when I talk about superheroes. (Didn't think I was going to leave out the bread and butter, didja?)

  5. DavidPaul Guest


  6. StevenForbes Guest

    Heh. I understand, but I'd be absolutely remiss if I didn't.

    You may scoff at them- hell, Warren Ellis scoffs at them- but you'll still write them, given the opportunity.

    And there's a knack for writing them. There are conceits you can have with supers that you can't get away with in other stories, and I'm not just talking about powers, either.

    Anyway, they gotta be mentioned, but that's down the road.

  7. Dungbeetle Guest

    This was a really good read... I've always found characterisation one of the most enjoyable parts of writing. Even with something like the show Lost, I'll sit and try to work out what roles each character has... you can often break it down to something as simple as D&D classes/alignments:

    Locke is a druid. He is mysterious and represents neutrality. He is more aligned with his environment than his fellow humans.

    Jack is a cleric (doctor, duh) or paladin. He is self righteous, a self-declared leader who seems to have a view on everything.

    Sawyer is a rogue... and so on and so on.

    The character classes are there, just obscured by the setting. But you knew that already. If you have a purely intellectual character in a sci-fi, who can't fight but understands politics and/or technology, then they're a wizard. Nothing else to it. Understanding systems like Tarot also makes this process easier or at least more interesting (elemental spheres etc. read the descriptions for the court cards and flesh your characters out around those archetypes?)

  8. Sliverbane Guest


    You've been listening to family and friends who love you and don't want to hurt your feelings. Generally speaking, they wouldn't know a good script from trying to land a 747 safely. Sure, they'll recognize a few dials, but will crash and burn almost every time without some training. So with that going against them, why are you going to listen to them when it comes to your writing?
    Ha! Yeah...right. Friends and family giving me advice? They have to give a shit first. It's been HARD finding anyone who is interested in what I'm doing. The advice I do get - I take note and put it with the rest.

    I've done the interview (I still do them) and it revealed so much about my characters. The most profound thing...

    I found out that some of my 'favorite' characters to write about... I didn't like. I said to myself 'Ugh, I couldn't stand this guy/chick.' Hmm? Wow! Sure they're interesting to read/write, but some of their ticks would drive me mad if I had to be in the same room with them. And yes, the interview sparked ideas and revelations that I would have over looked had I not done them. Much fun!!

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