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Thread: Week 61- Fantasy Characters

  1. StevenForbes Guest

    Week 61- Fantasy Characters

    Tuesday! It comes only once a week, but when it comes, I have to say that I’m pretty happy about it. I really look forward to spending time with you. It’s the highlight of my week.

    Welcome back to another installment of Bolts & Nuts! This week, we’re back on track in our discussion of fantasy, with an almost exclusive look at swords and sorcery. We’ve already done our overview, so this time around, our focus is going to be on characters.

    I’m going to be saying a few things about swords and sorcery that are going to be provocative. You may not like it, and that’s fine. However, it doesn’t mean that what I’m going to be saying isn’t true. You just have to look on the shelves in order to see the truth of what I’m saying.

    Characters! Every story’s gotta have them. Without them, you don’t really have much of a story, do you? Now, I spoke about characters WAY back when this column first started up, and everything I said then still applies now. However, when it comes to swords and sorcery, things are just a tad bit different. It’s those differences that we’re going to talk about this week, because we already know what separates a good character from a cardboard cutout, don’t we? And, to tell the truth, that’s going to be something of what you want to shoot for. Cardboard cutouts.

    Generally speaking, there isn’t a lot to the characters of swords and sorcery. They aren’t filled with nuance and layers. They’re not onions. What you see is what you get, and that’s about as complicated as it gets.

    Your character/class types may vary, but on the whole, your good guys are going to be good, and your bad guys are going to be bad. There isn’t a bunch of gray area in there, is it? Your characters are basically existing to move the story forward, and that’s it. Simple, right?

    There are certain things I want you to keep in mind when you’re creating your high fantasy worlds. The first thing is that EVERYTHING is a character. I’m not just talking about the characters who have speaking parts. I’m also talking about the settings you put your characters in. Those settings, those worlds, are also as important to the story being told as the character and their McGuffin. We all know where Conan’s from, right? We all know the lands he travels through and to. It’s all part of the characterization of the story.

    Let’s take one of my favorite 80s movies, The Beastmaster. Besides having hot chicks in it, you have a guy who has a bond with animals, and who helps him overthrow an evil high priest. But if you take a look at the setting of the movie, at the cities he goes through while on his quest, you’ll see that there is a visual language being represented there. That representation is as needed and as special as the characters themselves. So, you have to take that into account.

    However, when you’re writing your scripts for this setting, even though you’re building a world, you don’t need to kill your artists with a lot of needless detail in the scripts. While necessary, no one really enjoys reading scripts. No one. I don’t like writing them, I don’t like reading them, and neither does anyone on the creative team. We recognize it as a necessary evil in order to do the job. However, part of your job as the writer is to make that as painless as possible. Going down the primrose path of overdescribing things only works with few artists and writers. Alan Moore pops immediately to mind, but I want you to keep in mind that Alan’s also an artist in his own right. And there’s only one artist I know of who specifically asked the writer to be wordy, going for atmosphere rather than a traditional script, and that was Dave McKean on Arkham Asylum. However, until you are able to work with such a talent, or you are able to develop the talent of giving atmosphere to help tell your stories, I don’t suggest trying to do this. Not at all.

    Also, remember this: you’re going to be working with the artist to get down the look and feel of the world you’re producing before they EVER get the script to work with. So, all the crap you’re putting into the script for the artist because you’re “worldbuilding” is actually just that: crap. Leave it out of the script. It’s only going to bog it down into unreadability, and no one wants that. We don’t want to read the script in the first place, remember?

    Remember, when we’re talking high fantasy, we’re generally talking about pre-technology days. I’m talking about before steam engines—hell, before “engines” themselves! Go back at least a thousand years, and you’re still too far ahead for your setting. I’m talking about going back to the time when making a sword was the highest technology to be found. The timeframe is part of your setting, and thus, part of the characterization of your setting. And again, I’m speaking in general terms.

    Now that we have that out of the way, let’s talk about characters that have some literal meat on their bones. You’ve created Brahem Duk, who’s a barbarian from the South, who’s traveling north to seek his fortune. Brahem Duk is youngish, brash, and while not fearless, he’s definitely reckless. What are you going to do with him? What paces are you going to put him through? What characters is he going to meet?

    And here, boys and girls, we start to get the tropes of the high fantasy genre when it comes to characters. A lot of this was formalized with the creation of Dungeons and Dragons, and then refined even more with Advanced Dungeons & Dragons. Even if you don’t think so, you don’t have far to go to find a Paladin, a Thief, a Cleric, et al. These character types are so ingrained that if you DON’T have them, it doesn’t feel like high fantasy.

    Of course, everyone knows about the Barbarian. We have Mr. Howard’s Conan to thank for that. Dictionary.com gives us several definitions for the word, but most of us think of the first one when we think of a barbarian: a person in a savage, primitive state; uncivilized person. While this will define Conan and characters like him to a “T,” don’t mistake it for the character being stupid. Straightforward and unsophisticated, yes. Stupid? Never. Don’t fall for that trap.

    Personally, I’d go for a more cunning characterization of a barbarian. Straightforward, but with some subtlety to them. Just enough to let you know there’s something going on under the hair or topknot.

    Then, we have the forest-dwelling characters. Your Ranger/Paladin, who is usually a guide, tracker, and survivalist. Because, let’s face it: your main character’s more than likely a city-dweller, and wouldn’t know what to do after going a half-mile into a forest. Your Ranger probably doesn’t talk much, and may be uncomfortable with people. You can’t spend all that time in the woods, hunting, and be a talker. You’ll go hungry.

    Knights. For some reason, they’ve made their way in. These characters are generally going to be your moral compass for the story. They will have a code that will not allow them to do certain things—things that will cause strife within the group. (Group?) Group.

    Remember, we’re talking high fantasy, swords and sorcery. Generally, we’re talking a quest to save the world, get something for someone, destroy a tyrant—something. And that something is generally going to require a group. Especially to save the world or resist the tyrant.

    Anyway, the knight is going to have a problem with the barbarian, and probably the ranger, and vice versa. Mutual respect on both parts, sure, but because of their upbringing, they’ll see the same things much differently. Remember to play on that.

    The knight is the first moral compass. The second will be the woman of the group. It’s doubtful that she’s going to be the barbarian or ranger, although she can, and there’s nothing wrong with it. She’s generally going to be a tagalong, a princess, or someone’s sister. She could be the knight. Whatever her role outside of the barbarian and ranger, she’s going to be the star the others steer by. Yes, yes, it’s sexist and terrible and I should be ashamed, blah blah blah. But go look on the shelves [comics and novels] and tell me what you see. Then tell me who should be ashamed.

    The thief will also play comedy relief in some instances. They’re not the one you love to hate, but the one who’ll cause the most mischief for the group by taking something and then needing the group to protect them. Generally unrepentant, and good at what they do. They also make excellent spies. Don’t be surprised, though, if your thief is one that readers respond to the most. As long as they’re likeable, that is.

    Clerics—your magic users are something of your third moral compass. They’re following whatever rules for magic you’ve laid out, and are either wise, or are young and on their way to becoming wise. They get along with everyone, tempering everyone’s personality, and do their best to smooth out any strife among the group. You’re generally going to need to have some sort of magic user on the team, because their job is going to be to oppose the tyrant, who has magical powers or a magical object. [It IS swords and sorcery, right?]

    Those are going to be your major human type of characters. You’re also going to run into other types of characters, as well. These non-human characters will be everything from elves to trolls, to include totally made-up creatures. (Aren’t they all made up, Steven?) [I don’t believe so. Elves and trolls and such came from somewhere, didn’t they?]

    When dealing with elves, you’re more than likely aren’t going to be dealing with the Keebler variety. While they may live in groves, they’re not short and cute. They’re more than likely as tall as a human, maybe a little shorter, a little slimmer, but they’ll have the signature pointed ears. [Makes me wonder if Mr. Spock was an elf, and if so, what does that say for other races. There’s a story in there, somewhere.] Elves will be magic users, or at least have an affinity for them. And if you go the route of R.A. Salvatore, you’ll have Dark Elves on the doorstep of your imagination, as well.

    Dragons. Dragons are generally old, powerful, and damned near unkillable, unless you have a magic sword, a magic arrow, or hit them just right on their armored hide. They’re also wise beyond belief, and horde their knowledge just as they generally horde gold. [This, of course, is if the dragon is able to speak. If not, forget about the gold-hording. They’re then just interested in eating virgins—which, in this day and age, generally means comic geeks like us. But I digress…] Dragons can help or hinder, and their job will be based on what you need them for. They also have an affinity to magic, depending.

    Finally, we have the nasty beasties. I’m talking orcs, trolls, giants, chimera, wraiths, and whatever else. When the troupe goes on their quest, they have to run into some of these beasties in order to give them experience, and to say something besides “and they walked through the forest and climbed over the mountains.” The beasties provide an excuse for them to band tighter together for survival, give some great characterization, and to get the reader to start feeling for the characters. If there’s no danger, no drama, then the reader isn’t going to care. And, the beasties give you another out, as well: if you’ve created a character that you no longer like and that the readers absolutely hate, you can kill them off. This will lead to mourning within the group, which also shows and builds character. It’s really a win-win situation.

    When you’re writing characters for comics, KNOW YOUR MEDIUM. I cannot stress that enough. Comics are not novels, and cannot be approached as such. You have to, Have To, HAVE TO know which medium you’re writing for, otherwise, it will fall flat. Flatter than unleavened bread. You don’t want to do that.

    What you want to do is to keep in mind that comic books are made up of words and pictures, but you have to let the pictures do most of the heavy lifting for you. Your words must be succinct [unlike this column!]. Unless you’re doing a graphic novel or an adaptation of a previously published work, you have to have a good smattering of action while introducing your characters as soon as possible. I cannot tell you how many times I’ve seen characters that were just set up all wrong in the scripting process for new writers. It’s pretty bad.

    When setting up your new high fantasy world, I suggest introducing no more than four main characters in the first issue, depending. If two of them are friends and both of them are going on the quest, then you can go six, but I don’t recommend more than four single ones. Why? Because in a regular twenty-two page comic, you’re talking about four scene changes, with each scene being between five to seven pages each. That’s enough space to get in, do an introduction, get the character in trouble, and then get out, switching to another character. If you cut the intro’s down to four to five pages each, you will then have enough pages left over for a fifth scene, setting the inciting incident in motion and leaving something of a cliffhanger to come back to. [This is also useful for the bulk of comics with an ensemble cast.]

    Get in, introduce, a bit of action, and get out. (Sound formulaic. I don’t know if I like it.) Formulas are there for a reason. They work. WD-40, Formula 409, how to make rice. They work, and if you purposely try to go against a formula, then you’re also purposely sabotaging yourself, and will submit a story that will be rejected, or spend a lot of money to create something few people—if anyone—will read.

    (Fine. What about the villains? You haven’t really mentioned them.) True. My thought on the matter is to treat the villain like a supervillain, but more simple. They have to be evil for it’s own sake. Power and avarice rule the roost when it comes to villains in high fantasy. They are greedy and crazy. The closer they get to their objective, the more mad they will become, and their total breakdown comes when they’ve come extremely close to grasping their goal, only to have it ripped away by the heroes. Then you get to see just how crazy they are or can be. Like I said, though, be simple. Swords and sorcery isn’t heavily nuanced, and if you add a lot to it, it won’t read “true.” (But I want to evolve it! I want to change it! I want to make it better than everyone expects!) Then I suggest you learn how to tell a story in it, first, and worry about evolving it later.

    There are TONS of things you can do with these character and storytelling tropes. I urge you all to go out and find a trade of Cerebus. Dave Sim told his story with humor that was sometimes scathing, and I defy you not to laugh during your reading of the first trade. You can then watch the storytelling evolve from its beginnings—but like I said, you have to tell a story within the genre first. Walk before you can run, folks. Walk before you can walk fast, even.

    And that’s it for this week. Next week, we’ll talk about saving the world before lunch, and the articles needed to do it.

    Homework? Run down your character types to see what you have and how they interact with one another. See if you need to do any adjusting.

    See you in seven.



  2. CalvinCamp Guest

    Shoot for cardboard cutouts?
    The characters exist only to move the story forward?
    Nuanced fantasy won't read "true"?

    Wow, Steven... You've said that fantasy isn't really your thing, and if you think that's what most fantasy is (or, gods forbid, is supposed to be), I'm not surprised you don't like it much.

    Your advice is usually good. Some of it in here is too (the part about the setting being a character, in particular, is gold). But, with some of this, you're not telling people how to write a fantasy story, you're telling people how to write a bad, cliched, caricature of a fantasy story.

    Yes, there are a lot of fantasy stories with cardboard cutout characters and no nuance. Just like in most other genre's, there are too many. But that doesn't mean it's a good idea to emulate them. Fantasy is no different than any other genre. The character types and other tropes should only be a starting point to go somewhere new (and, hopefully, better). Otherwise there's no point in bothering.



  3. JohnLees Guest

    I've not read a whole lot of fantasy, particularly not in comics, so it's not a genre whose trappings I'm overly familiar with. But on the subject of fantasy comics, I'm curious: where does Thor stand in this regard?

    Generally speaking, Thor is a Marvel superhero who has certain fantasy trappings about him, and as such falls more within the superhero genre, but what about something like Tales of Asgard, Ages of Thunder or Blood Oath, set in the ancient past, largely in mythical realms? Would such stories be considered of the fantasy genre, or still superhero because of their protagonist?



  4. Sliverbane Guest

    I like the homework... Will my characters fit in to the High Fantasy category? They're onions! Sounds like fun anyway.



  5. CalvinCamp Guest

    Quote Originally Posted by Sliverbane View Post
    Will my characters fit in to the High Fantasy category? They're onions!
    Good! Keep 'em that way!

    The last thing fantasy needs is another shallow, by-the-numbers, D&D pastiche.



  6. BradHuffman-Parent Guest

    The more I go back and read this the more I have to wonder...

    is this a joke?

    Mr Madelf above already said everything I'm thinking. I'm personally sick of the same old fantasy story. We need to encourage originality, not the same old crap that everyone has copied since Tolkien.



  7. MartinBrandt Guest

    YES! FOR GODS' SAKE !!!!

    No more damn regurgitated Tolkien crap!



  8. tiggerpete Guest

    so as Star Wars fans know, space is ripe for fantasy, hell, look at some of the anime out there Outlaw Star (one of my personal favorites) has a lot of action sure, but the main villains are magic users, and the main objective is a mysterious and mystical thing (plus there are the aliens who could pass for separate races ala D&D) it is a somewhat fantastical journey steeped in mystery, magic and science (just like a good RPG world should be)(BTW I would kill for a good Outlaw Star RPG)

    so to mix things up and keep things fresh, maybe it would be a good idea to make your work ungrounded (get it? because space is off the ground.........ok stupid joke)



  9. CalvinCamp Guest

    It's not even necessary to mess with the time period to keep fantasy fresh (though that's fine too - almost all time periods have been represented somewhere). There's nothing wrong with the standard tropes, they still have a lot of milage left in them. It's just the advice (from someone who ought to know better) to not delve deeper into them that makes me shake my head in amazement. We didn't get that sort of advice for horror, so why are we getting it for fantasy?



  10. AdamH Guest

    Has Steven Forbes been replaced by a pod person? How much longer will this column go on for? Is this early/late April Fools day joke? Will I ever write anything worth a damn? Find out these answers and more...soon! Or maybe a little bit later than soon.

    I'm kind of head scratching with the rest of ya'll here. We have the standards or tropes in fantasy writing and as everyone else said they're good and fine to embrace. But then we should've heard about all of the different things you can do. Play with the time period, play the character roles (get your D20 out!), hell, even mash it up with a different genre or two. Hopefully all will be revealed soon.

    Silverbane, are you're characters actually vegetables? Off the top of my head I came with some humorous vegetable/fantasy based titles: "Dungeons & Onions", "Lord of the Onion Rings" and of course "Scallion the Barbarian". Yeah, I'm a little off, it's ok though.



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