Steven Forbes recently posted up a column (part of his excellent Bolts & Nuts series) about creating comic book characters. That can be found here:
Creating characters is always hard, with each medium of fiction offering its own challenges. In terms of comics, part of the challenge is how economical you have to be in your character development. When Stephen King introduced Randall Flagg in his epic novel The Stand, he was able to devote a whole chapter of prose to establishing Flagg’s history, and his dark nature. With comics, you don’t have that luxury.
Comic writers really only have two tools at their disposal when constructing a character. The first is dialogue. The biggest contribution of the writer that will carry over directly into the finished product, dialogue is the most overt way to make an imprint on a character. This can be done through exposition – the way other characters talk about your character and tell us who they are – or it can be done through the way you have your character speak. Either way, you have to be very succinct, as you have a finite number of words: if your average page count for a comic is 22, and your average panel count for a page is 6, and your average word count for a 6 panel page is 35 (I’m being very generous here), then you have 4620 words at your disposal. And with all the narrative plates you’ll have spinning, you’ll only be able to devote a fraction of those to developing your character. So make them count!
The other tool we have at our disposal – less obvious, but probably a lot more useful, and a lot more likely to have an impact on the reader – is the artist. If you’re a writer/artist, lucky you! But if like me, you can’t draw to save yourself, then being able to convey your character to an artist, so THEY can bring them to life, is an important skill to have. They say a picture is worth a thousand words, and it’s true. To try and demonstrate, I’ll use an example of something I wrote fairly recently. It’s a Western script called The Hollow Men. Here’s a panel excerpt, where the lead character William Phoenix is introduced:
Panel 4. Medium shot in profile of the old lady and William Phoenix, sitting across from each other. The old lady is leaning forward, a concerned expression on her face. We can get a clearer look at Phoenix now, and can see he’s a fresh-faced, clean-shaven young man in his late 20s. He is very neatly dressed in a black tailored suit, with a black waistcoat underneath, and black polished shoes. He should instantly stand apart from the others in the carriage, both in terms of wearing very dark clothes while everyone else is dressed in light clothes, and also being attired like someone from a city out east. A black leather suitcase sits on the floor of the carriage by his feet. Phoenix is sitting rigidly upright in his seat, hands still resting palms-up in his lap, a thin smile on his face.
OLD LADY: WELL, I DON’T KNOW WHAT BUSINESS A NICE YOUNG MAN LIKE YOURSELF WOULD WANT TO SEEK OUT IN TOLLSTON’S HOLLOW.
PHOENIX: YOU’D BE SURPRISED, MA’AM. SUCH A PLACE CAN OFFER MANY AN OPPORTUNITY FOR AN ENTERPRISING MIND.
Now I’m no expert, and offer no suggestion that my way is the right way, or that the script is anything special. But for the sake of offering an example, you’ll see that the dialogue here doesn’t say overly much about William Phoenix. He’s talking in general niceties, making small talk to an old lady on the train. I’m expecting the artist to do the heavy lifting. The fact that he’ll look dark against the light color palette instantly marks him out as an outsider. And notice the rigid, uncomfortable body language. I’m trying to create the sense of someone whose whole body is constantly like a tensed muscle or a coiled spring, like he’s struggling to twist and contort himself into acting like some approximation of an ordinary human being. This is a frequent note to the artist throughout the script. A couple more examples:
Panel 1. Long shot of William Phoenix standing at a train station platform, having just stepped off the train. There is a sense of bustle all around him, with a crowd of people getting on and off the train, but he exudes a sense of stillness, standing rigidly upright, staring straight ahead with a blank expression on his face, suitcase clutched in his hand.
Panel 4. An over-the-shoulder shot from behind Eliza, looking at Phoenix. His body language is once again very tense and practised, with him clutching tightly onto the edge of the bar with both hands.
Panel 3. Medium shot of Phoenix, smiling with his mouth, if not his eyes.
Comics are a collaborative medium. So don’t feel like ALL the character development needs to be conveyed to the audience through your words. The artist has a big part to play in giving these characters their personality.
In Steven Forbes’ column (linked above), he suggests interviewing your characters. Even with minor characters, going into detail about their life gives you a better sense of their personality, who they are and where they come from, as well as giving you a clear sense of how they speak. A new character joins the cast of The Hollow Men in the second issue, which I haven’t written, so I figured I’d do an interview with this character I’ve not had a chance to write for, to maybe get a sense of his voice and personality.
A quick disclaimer: as mentioned, my story is a Western, set in 1899. That’s more a detail of the plot than of character, so I thought I’d just mention that here rather than asking “What year is it?” in the interview.
WHAT’S YOUR NAME?
I go by Rudy Gallows, my friend.
THAT’S AN UNUSUAL NAME.
Yeah, I picked it myself.
WHAT DO YOU MEAN?
Never did know my kin. My mama died in childbirth, and my pa, who the hell knows who he is, or was. Never met him. I was bounced around a couple of places when I was young, picked up the name Rudy at one of them. Just Rudy, though. Gallows I gave myself.
WHAT AGE ARE YOU?
35, or thereabouts.
WHERE ARE YOU FROM?
Georgia, originally. But I travel a lot, so I just like to think of myself as a man of America.
I can read and write if that’s what you mean. Don’t look so surprised, my friend!
WHAT’S YOUR JOB?
My job? Well first, if I may declare, I am to some degree discomfited to call my preoccupation a job, as if pressed I must confess I find it to be in equal degrees a combination of business and pleasure. A hobby that pays handsomely, if you will. But for lack of a better definition we’ll speak of my job. My job… I suppose you could say I provide the remedy to a very particular kind of problem, the problem one individual may have with another individual walking the mortal plain.
WAIT, YOU’RE A KILLER!?
That would be as good a term as any, my friend. Don’t look so horrified, it’s just a word. I’m not offended to be called as much. If a man that farms is a farmer, and a man that preaches is a preacher, then a man that kills is a killer. It’s as simple as that, each applying themselves to their calling in life and thus being named by their trade.
BUT MURDER IS WRONG
Yes, but what is murder? Is the bullet that goes through a man’s heart guilty of murder? Or is the gun it shot from? Or is it the man with murderous intent in mind who raises that gun, finds his target, and pulls the trigger, sending that lethal weapon on course to kill the man he desires to be dead? I don’t have a murderous bone in my body, my friend. There is not a soul alive I personally would wish dead. But I provide a service, and that is to act as proxy for those who are murderous, to act as their weapon. They point at the man they want dead, and I shoot. The way I see it, I am no guiltier of murder than the bullet or the gun.
YOU LIKE TO TALK, DON’T YOU?
Ha ha! Yes, yes, my friend! My pa always used to say, “Son, never say in 10 words what you could say in 100.”
YOU SAID YOU NEVER MET YOUR FATHER
Heh, heh, I did, didn’t I?
WHEN YOU’RE NOT KILLING PEOPLE, WHAT DO YOU DO TO RELAX?
I seek the same leisure that any red-blooded American man enjoys: the taste of good liquor and the company of beautiful women of questionable morals. I’m one hell of a card player, too. I make as much money at poker as I do killing folks!
WHAT ABOUT YOUR PERSONAL LIFE? DO YOU HAVE A HOME, A FAMILY?
No to both, my friend. I might have a few kids running around, but none that I know of to a certainty. The hotels and saloons of the frontier are all the home I need. A bed, a bath, a piss-pot… that’s all you need, and any more is just sentimentality talking.
I found this pretty helpful. The character, as I plotted, was essentially a blank slate, a walking plot device used to take other, more prominent characters from point A to point B. Certainly, the details of his personal life will never be explored in the script. But in forcing myself to think a bit more about how he might answer questions about his life, it started giving me a sense of his voice.
First came the response to his name. At first I just had him answer “Rudy Gallows”, but that seemed a bit too robotic. So I added the “my friend” to the end of it. It reminded me of an unsavory Scottish politician called Tommy Sheridan who when addressing people would always finish with, “my brother”, even though most of the time it didn’t sound in the slightest bit genuine.
From here, the whole vibe of cloying, false friendliness, and by extension this overly verbose way of speaking sprung up around Gallows, giving him a more fully-realised presence that might make his interactions with my other characters more interesting than just “point A to point B” stuff.
Doing an interview is a helpful technique for getting to know your character. But whatever approach you take, make sure you DO know your character. You only have a limited canvas to give your character a personality and a life of their own within a comic script, so knowing your character in a lot more depth than what you’ll actually include in the story will help you in making those few words count.