A quartet of comic book pros shared their tips for creating unique characters Sunday at the Chicago Comics & Entertainment Expo Moderated by Comics Experience founder Andy Schmidt, the afternoon panel featured writers Kyle Higgins and Joshua Hale Fialkov and artists Robert Atkins and Mike Perkins talking about their work and how to avoid overused cliches.
A former editor at both IDW Publishing and Marvel Comics, Schmidt founded Comics Experience to give creators the types of courses he wished existed when he was trying to break into the comic book industry. “There are a couple of essential building blocks to create a protagonist,” said Schmidt, chief among them giving the protagonist that is both clear and achievable. Once that goal has been found, the next step is to determine the hero’s motivation for pursuing it. As an example of this, he mentioned Indiana Jones, who is motivated by greed for most of “Raiders of the Lost Ark.”
Moving away from protagonists, Schmidt said even minor characters in a story need to have their own motivation and points of view. Referring to the X-Men’s Professor X and Magneto, he said that while they have a very similar goal, the way they go about achieving it is drastically different. “It’s their backgrounds and point of views that causes them to be enemies,” he said.
According to Schmidt, great antagonists are often the opposite number of the protagonist and stand in direct opposition to the hero’s goals. “Your antagonist can be competition,” said Schmidt. “They can actually have the same goal.”
Schmidt also said that writers shouldn’t limit themselves to characters when figuring out obstacles to place in front of their protagonists, noting that forces of nature or even geography can be used to make things more difficult.
“Like the movie ‘Dante’s Peak,'” said Fialkov. “It’s great because Pierce Brosnan has this scene where he’s yelling at a volcano for killing his wife. It’s pretty awesome.”
Schmidt also said main characters in comics should have unique visual designs that make them stand out. “We’re looking for something unique,” said Schmidt. “Indiana Jones has the gun, the whip and the cool hat.”
Perkins citend the end credits of “Captain America: The Winter Soldier” as a great example of simple but powerful character design. “I loved the credits at the end because it was just silhouettes,” said Perkins. “It was fantastic.”
Fialkov said writers should also keep in mind that artists often have one primary model they use to base their designs on. Usually it’s the artist sitting in front of a mirror looking at their facial expressions to get ideas on how to convey a character’s emotions and figure out lighting and angles.
“A lot of the guys are just drawing themselves or versions of themselves,” Fialkov said. “Which means you have a book that has five 35 year-old white guys who all have short hair and beards. You can’t tell them apart,” he joked.
According to Fialkov, older Spider-Man stories often had fights with enemies who were designed with diverse clothes, costumes and skin colors because it was easier for the reader to track the action on the page. “So when Spider-Man would fight a gang it would be this crazy multiracial gang,” he said. “So you’d have a strong visual cue — like a short guy, a tall guy, a fat guy and some girls. It makes a huge difference.”
The writer also said that because most comic books only have 20 pages per issue, creators are often forced to rely on shorthand to convey things to the readers.
Atkins said one trick to give readers a better understanding of a character’s personality in such a brief space is the design of their environment. The artist said locations like the Batcave or Peter Parker’s apartment can give readers a lot of insight into a character.
“You can throw things in the background,” said Atkins. “The types of props these characters use really inform the reader about that character.”
Stay tuned to CBR News for more coverage from C2E2.