And there certainly were enough new projects announced, particularly from DC, some that even sounded interesting: a new JONAH HEX series at DC proper to bookend Brian Azzarello’s western LOVELESS at Vertigo (so I like westerns, sue me) and… uh… um… well, lots of stuff announced anyway. (Too bad Warren Ellis isn’t creating a new teen book for Marvel – someone misunderstood “team” book – as I really wanted to see that.) But my favorite comment reported from WWLB was, as reported by Newsarama:
“- On the subject/question of videogames being the reason kids don’t read comic books anymore, [Marvel editor-in-chief Joe] Quesada said that is the excuse of the unimaginative, citing that once videogames were cited as the reason kids don’t read anymore until Harry Potter came along. This according to the E-I-C showed that if you make compelling content it will pull people in.”
This put me, for a change, in a nostalgic frame of mind, as I vaguely remembered seeing something like that before. Then it hit me.
It was the second Master Of The Obvious column I wrote, in August 1999:
“I walked into a comics shop on the Upper West Side of Manhattan one day in 1983, shortly after Capital Comics released WHISPER #1. (For those who came in late, Whisper was my first creator-owned project: a woman who pretends to be a ninja and then finds herself trapped in the role; the series, a cult item but hardly a general hit, was published by Capital and First throughout the decade.) The clerk, recognizing me, raved about how happy he was the book was being published.
“You liked it?” I asked.
“Not really,” he admitted. “But it’s the only comic my girlfriend reads, and if I can get her hooked on Whisper I think I can get her to read the X-Men.” I didn’t really see the connection, but I wished him luck, made a mental note to carve his image on a candle and hold a voodoo mass, and went on my way.
One of the cherished beliefs of the industry is that there is a vast beast out there called “comics fans,” and that among these there’s a subset called “superhero fans.” In the mid-60s this may have been true – while the superhero was on the ascendant then, there will still lots of other-genre comics, from MY GREATEST ADVENTURE to MILLIE THE MODEL to THE TWILIGHT ZONE – but, as we push to the next century, we should probably admit that comics fans are a subset of superhero fans. Or they’re intersecting sets. But they’re not synonymous.
All kinds of fingers are pointing these days over why the comics audience has dropped off so precipitously from the glory days of only half a decade ago. Kids spend all their money on videogames. There are no entry level comics. Comics are too complicated. We abandoned the newsstand. All wrong.
Sure, kids play videogames. Some videogames. Most videogames die on the open market, just as most comics do. Some videogames are compelling. If comics were as compelling as video games, kids would be reading them.
“There are no entry level comics.” All comics are entry level comics. Whatever comic book gets a non-comics reader interested in comics, regardless of content, is an entry-level comic.
“Comics are too complicated.” Again, some are. What “complicated” really means is “it bores me to the point I don’t think it’s worth my while.” A thousand different names and 6000 accumulated years of history for 5000 variant parallel Earths may be daunting on the surface, but if you’re interested enough it becomes fascinating. I’ve watched 9 year olds studiously memorize the name of every known Pokemon, as well as their battle attacks and various other data. Very complicated. But they do it because they’re interested.
Instructive on these points is DC’s decision several years back to rent the Mighty Crusaders from Archie Comics and turn them into the “entry level” !mpact line. The theory: the DC universe had 60 years of backstory and was too complicated for new readers, so a new line would be created without all the complications. The practice: obsessed with creating a vast coherent world, !mpact developed a sprawling backstory for their line that immediately complicated the hell out of their titles.
This was the common flaw of all the “universes” created in the gold rush of 1993: ignoring that Marvel was built over a decade and DC over five decades, they tried to compete as wholly developed universes and backstoried themselves to death, squeezing out whatever energy might have remained in what was, let’s face it, nothing more than a marketing gimmick.
Let’s review: kids play videogames = comics aren’t interesting. There are no entry level comics = comics aren’t interesting. Comics are too complicated = comics aren’t interesting.
As for newsstands, the comics business didn’t abandon the newsstand for the direct market. The direct market was created because the newsstand abandoned us. They don’t want us. Even at $2.50, comics are a low profit space consuming commodity for most newsstands. Want to get newsstands interested in comics again? Publish books that take up very little space that they can sell for $7.95 instead.
Some comics are still on newsstands anyway. I go into local supermarkets and superstores and I see comics on the magazine racks. It’s interesting which ones: THE SIMPSONS, various Archies, a handful of the more popular Marvel and DC titles. You want to see variety in comics, check out newsstands. Want to see a variety of comics on the newsstands? Forget about it. That won’t happen until both the price point and the readership jump, and it’s unlikely both can jump simultaneously.
Unless we start publishing really interesting comics.
The undercurrent of all the pre-translated “why comics are dead” arguments is that, really, there’s nothing wrong with comics at heart. This is where you can start to separate superhero fans from comics fans, because only superhero fans make that argument, and comics are largely published by superhero fans. (Or, as in the case of Marvel where the publishers don’t seem to know what they’re publishing, the editors are superhero fans.) Comics shops were mostly started by superhero fans.
Don’t get me wrong: I’m not saying you shouldn’t like superheroes. Be my guest. But the mentality that says the long term goal of introducing people to comics is to get them to read X-Men (or Spider-Man, or Green Lantern, or WildCATs, whatever) has killed the business. The idea that any story worth telling is worth telling as a superhero story (and I’ve had more than one person tell me with a straight face that the superhero genre can accommodate any kind of story, when it only comfortably accommodates one kind of story) has killed the business. The sheer stubborn unwillingness of the comics industry to accept that somewhere it took a wrong turn has killed the business.
There’s something gamblers call the prime roll, which is that hot streak where you just can’t lose. Prime rolls end, and when they end they end hard. The comics industry went through its prime roll in the first half of the 90s and operated like it would never end and the world was theirs to pick off at will. But that roll has been over for a long time and aside from financial cutbacks everyone’s continuing as if all they have to do is keep behaving as they did in the prime days and those days will come back. But it’s rare for gamblers to hit two prime rolls in a lifetime.
The secret great event of the 80s was the sudden plethora of different material available. LOVE AND ROCKETS. Ed The Happy Clown. WATCHMEN. SANDMAN. A comprehensive list would take pages. These projects got noticed, they brought in a lot of readers who wanted to be interested in comics. They wanted to like more comics. And publishers tried to feed them superheroes instead. Marvel, for instance, turned the graphic novel – potentially a major breakthrough item for comics if they had put anything of substance in them on anything resembling a regular basis, instead of making people go hunt for them – into little more than longer issues of MARVEL TEAM-UP, and flooded the market with them. There were superhero fans who had grown up in the 70s who wanted more sophisticated (not the same thing as complicated) fare to feed their expanding tastes. They all went away because the industry got to a point – mainly prompted by the fratboy marketing frenzy of the Image era – where nothing was being produced that maintained their interest.
Those readers are the great untapped resource of the comics industry. There’s no reason to believe they couldn’t be enticed back – if there were comics they wanted to read. They’re the people with money, and now with families. Forget the myth of the kid stumbling across comics for the first time on the newsstand; while I’m sure it happens, it’s much more common to be introduced to comics by friends or relatives who already read comics. That’s the chain we broke. In houses where parents read, children read. In houses where parents read comics, children read comics. That lost generation will feed us the next generation, if we can get them back.
To get them back, we have to make comics interesting again. That may mean something other than superheroes, it may mean an interesting superhero concept. But until comics can compel readership, it’s not going to happen. Designing the right costume isn’t going to make it happen. The only thing that’s going to make it happen is getting fresh content – real content – into a medium stale to the point of extinction.
Which means endlessly reiterating the material we dug as kids in an effort to recapture the excitement we felt then has got to stop. A comics industry that is conservative in nature is not an industry that can compete on the entertainment landscape. The past is the past; it’s not the road to the future.
As the nights grow long and the days grow bleak, it’s time to figure out what is.”
Curious to read that now and see how much and how little has changed. Marvel is no longer run by people who don’t seem to understand what they publish. Graphic novels – or, rather, trade paperbacks, though ‘graphic novel’ has expanded in the common vernacular to mean any comics material published in book form, and, to some extent, any comics material at all, regardless of length, if for some reason you don’t want to call it a comic book. Most of the rest of it hasn’t really changed. The dominance of the direct market – the comics shops that have always depended mostly on Marvel superheroes for their well-being – and Diamond’s dominance in distribution, with their strong emphasis on Marvel and DC product, have maintained the dominance of the superhero in comics, reinforced by the recent spate of successful superhero movies. (Not complaint, just observation.) Sales are up somewhat, in spots; Marvel’s certainly doing better than in 1999, but many smaller companies have just found better ways to survive on lower sales.
But what really hasn’t changed is our insistence as a business that the fault lies not in ourselves, but in our stars. That the material we’ve been pumping out for decades now – though it’s generally got bigger explosions now – is perfectly adequate and if a mass audience doesn’t “get it,” something’s wrong with them. A standard refrain I hear these days is that comics are a “niche” market, translating, basically, to “what you see is what you get.” But everything’s a niche market. The Microsoft Excel audience is a niche market. People who buy Tide detergent is a niche market. Most companies with niche markets try to follow a pattern: secure the niche, then grow the niche.
I’m with Joe on this one. Anything else is laziness. We like to posture ourselves as a medium of imagination, and, really, what else do we have going for us? If we’re not selling imagination, what are we selling? So there’s no excuse for being unimaginative, whether in creating comics or marketing them, and no excuse for simply “staying the course” and waiting for the world to catch up with the “greatness” of our material when the race has already passed us by once.
“The book your correspondent is thinking of is THE GOLDCAMP VAMPIRE by Elizabeth Ann Scarborough, from 1987. It’s the sequel to THE DRASTIC DRAGON OF DRACO, TEXAS (which doesn’t have any vampires) and unlike 30 DAYS OF NIGHT it doesn’t play the concept for horror–it’s more of a light action romp. (Which goes to show the relative importance of how an idea is developed.)
BTW, thank you for the recommendation of HOT GIMMICK in your column–I picked up the first three volumes last week and enjoyed them very much, and I wouldn’t have thought to check the series out if you hadn’t mentioned it.”
I read a lot of manga, but there aren’t many whose volumes I actively anticipate. Like I said, HOT GIMMICK‘s currently #1 on my list. Thanks for the Scarborough info.
As for which polar region THE THING takes place in:
” Depends on which version of the movie you see. The [Howard] Hawks version takes place above the Arctic Circle. The original novella and the John Carpenter version take place in Antarctica.”
I knew you guys would know. Thanks.
“In STORY, Robert McKee says, ‘The inciting incident is the primary cause for all that follows…’ I’ve been thinking about this idea recently. The author maintained that for example in stories like JAWS the inciting incident is the woman, victim of a shark attack, washing up on the beach. The appearance of Rick’s former lover in CASABLANCA. Writers in Spider-Man have been using the death of Gwen Stacy as an inciting element for years. I’ve appreciated you sharing your craft on how to create comics and thought I’d share my two cents…
I’d be interested in your thoughts on Paul Wolfowitz being named as head of the World Bank…”
Wolfowitz and the World Bank – I couldn’t have worked that one out any better with a shotgun. (I got a kick out of the news that Bono of U2 would refuse nomination and threw his support behind Colin Powell, as if either would ever end up with the job.) There hasn’t been a time in recent memory when the World Bank was anything more than the smiley face on the International Money Fund, which has basically existed to coerce foreign nations into accepting economic and social policies more conducive to the interests of American-based multinational corporations than to the interests of the citizens of those nations. Both the World Bank and the IMF ostensibly exist to aid struggling countries and those wallowing in debt, but those who’ve followed WB/IMF guidelines (and the WB doesn’t loan money to governments the IMF doesn’t approve, while the IMF doesn’t approve governments the US Treasury Dept. doesn’t want approved) have generally declined while those, like Argentina, that have thumbed their noses at the WB/IMF have seen their economies grow regardless. As a neo-con who believes it’s the rightful job of the USA to tell the rest of the world how to live their lives or else, Wolfowitz is perfectly suited to these shenanigans, and, as a loyal American imperial, is unlikely to cast a questioning eye on the USA’s own debt-wallowed declining economy and attempt to impose the sort of unpleasant structures and demands on it regularly imposed on African and Latin American countries or the attendant rampant inflation and rapidly declining standards of living for the general populace. That’s something we can achieve without any outside help at all. Wolfowitz also fits the pattern established by declaring arch-unilateralist-anti-UN-neocon John Bolton ambassador to the United Nations, where his job will presumably be to tell the rest of the world to shut up and put up. It’s a small, American world after all.
As for McKee, isn’t “the inciting incident is the primary cause for all that follows…” like saying, “everything else that happens in your story comes after the first thing that happens in your story.” And isn’t the “primary cause” in CASABLANCA World War II? Miles Archer getting shot in THE MALTESE FALCON get the story going, but that’s not the “primary cause” of the story. The primary cause is why Archer gets shot. I know what McKee means, but it seems an obtuse way to say it.
“I’m curious as to what you think a writer’s responsibility is when it comes to putting ideas in the reader’s head. While I believe that everyone is responsible for their own actions, occasionally I come up with a dangerous idea that might make a good story but if put to use in real life would hurt a lot of people. Do you think there is a responsibility for a writer not to put ideas out there that are truly dangerous?”
Like what? I don’t know that I’ve ever run across an idea “too truly dangerous” to write about, and everyone going to have ideas they dislike and don’t want to see disseminated. But why hinder a good story on the off-chance that someone might be dumb enough to copy it? If you’re really concerned about it, you can present even a “dangerous” idea (and everyone’s got their own idea of what that is) without present a blueprint of how to actually carry it off. Ideas aren’t fought by silence or censorship, they’re fought by better ideas. A writer’s responsibility is to put out the best and most honest writing they can manage, and if that, in their estimation, means “dangerous” ideas, well, them’s the breaks. Beyond that, it’s a matter for individual conscience, and, fortunately, the writer’s the one who should be able to control what’s in the work, not some censor or the greater will of society. If you personally think something’s “too dangerous” to put in your work, it’s your option not to put it in. And if someone else reads your work and decides, “Wow, that’s such a great idea I think I’ll do it myself!” that’s their choice. Ain’t freedom great?
I believe in the open marketplace of ideas. The problem with the whole concept of “dangerous ideas” is that it can easily be applied to whatever speech some party or another is hostile or damaging to their own ideas, and the people who are usually in the best position to enforce the banning of “dangerous ideas” are those with vested interests in maintaining even bad situations the way they are. Matter of fact, the only “dangerous idea” that springs to mind is the idea that there are “dangerous ideas.” All ideas, even the most innocuous, are liable to misuse or misinterpretation. Sometimes innocuous ideas can be the most dangerous because they promote the idea that only innocuous ideas should be disseminated.
It gets hard to talk about this in the abstract. Can anyone think of any truly “dangerous” ideas? (Don’t say Nazism or racism. Those are stupid ideas, with plenty of other, better ideas to counter them.) Are there any ideas so foul or potentially catastrophic that we shouldn’t allow ourselves to write them down? Anyone?
So, prompted by DeLay’s rantings, Congress goes into a special weekend session and the Hand Puppet rushes back from one of his innumerable vacations in Crawford TX to be on hand to sign any bills Congress might ram through to… uh… gosh, it’s not very clear what it’s supposed to do aside from make Congress and the President look like deeply caring individuals, an extreme makeover they could deeply use. (Though they’d better achieve it by behaving like deeply caring individuals.) Basically, the bill, signed with a flourish by the Hand Puppet’s midnight hand, forces the issue into federal courts, where it already was once. With predictable results: the first new judge hearing the case said he couldn’t find any grounds on which to overturn the ruling of earlier courts.
What’s interesting about this is that for years, a Republican rallying cry has been against “activist judges,” meaning, I thought, judges who don’t stick with the letter of the law but who interpret the law to fit presumably their own agendas. (That the judges frequently accused of doing this, like the Massachusetts Supreme Court that struck down a gay marriage ban, are conservative judges following the letter of the law, never seems to enter the argument much.) But here’s the most conservative Congress in memory, along with a President given to denouncing the evil “activist judges” while promoting all manner of insane crackers to the bench, essentially endorsing judicial advocacy. The laws governing the fate of Terry Schiavo have already been tested, the decision rendered. But that’s not good enough for DeLay & co. No, they keep the case going to enough judges that they can find one who’ll interpret the law the way they want it interpreted. Dramatically extending a terrible ordeal for everyone involved in the process.
Congress’ interest in the case is a smidge bewildering. As far as I know, it doesn’t set any euthanasia precedents or alter the course of American society. Congress certainly never put this much effort into saving the lives of innocent people condemned to death row around the country, and has sometimes gone out of its way to ensure they stay there. (Can’t have the sanctity of the death penalty undermined by making it more difficult to kill the wrong person, after all.) Maybe they just saw a photo op and took it, but it seems to have backfired, with polls indicating 67% of Americans – which indicates a substantial number of Red Americans as well as Blue, if you subscribe to that business – oppose any Congressional interference in the matter. Coincidentally, the Schiavo story ran concurrent to anti-war protest rallies breaking out around the country and the world, but I believe that’s only coincidental, since the press here wouldn’t have covered them anyway. And Americans do love a tearjerker human interest story.
Perhaps less coincidentally, the Schiavo coverage also knocked (and continues to knock) mention of the 2nd anniversary of our presence in Iraq to the side. This may be something the government doesn’t want promoted. On the one hand, it’s our big “victory,” but, on the other, any focus on the war – and it’s still a war – brings up the possibility of other coverage they don’t want. People might start to notice the thousands of wounded, those the military allows are bad off enough to come home (instead of being held in Iraq against their will and beyond their terms of service on basically slave wages, like many other American servicemen) and smuggled in under cover of night to dodge reporters and photographers. People might start to wonder how “tiny bands” of “insurgents” in Iraq can basically grind our mighty military machine to a halt, regularly endangering our soldiers, or why desertions are becoming epidemic. (A minimum of 5500 last year, and, taking the Pentagon’s tendency to fudge numbers to their advantage into account, probably significantly enough more that 5500 sounds to their advantage.) They might even start to wonder how we can “bring democracy” to the entire Middle East when we can’t even secure a single country that has for the most part, according to the official story, rushed to us with open arms.
Okay, that’s cynical, but it’s the sort of thing to be expected from an administration that has made policy of misdirection and euphemism, as when the Hand Puppet and most of the Congress deny a call for a new “draft” but continue to push the notion of “universal service.” You say recession, and I say depression; if a word offend thee, use a different word and call it a new idea. If you want to preach one thing then do something else, as with DeLay and The Hand Puppet flipflopping on activist courts and Terry Schiavo, it’s not hypocrisy, it’s “basic human decency.” (For Tom DeLay to start worrying about “basic human decency” now is like serial killers wanting to be baptized on their deathbeds.) Interestingly, the Schiavo case shows another total Washington flipflop: Republicans are now the biggest advocates of Big Government and government interference in every aspect of life and death (the Hand Puppet doesn’t want you to be able to pull the plug on your loved one, but he’s perfectly willing to legislate to your HMO the power to do that), while, bizarrely, the Democrats are becoming the new champions of States Rights all over again. We’re back in the Reconstruction, and there’s nobody left in Washington but the carpetbaggers.
This is a continuing down and dirty series on making comics step by step, from conception to post-publication.
There are different ways of developing a story, and none of them are wrong. (As Mark Evanier likes to point out, whatever way the creators of the comic want to work is the right way to work.) How your story develops depends on where you started, but one principle remains the same regardless:
All stories are about people, or a reasonable facsimile thereof. Grant Morrison’s WE3 centers around experimental military animals, Robbe-Grillet wrote a famous story about a pencil, there are numerous science fiction stories told from alien points of view and horror stories about monsters, but these are all stand-ins for people. To be successful your story at some point has to connect with the reader, and the way you connect with the reader is through character.
Fiction is character. Without character, you’re writing an essay, not a story. Character is what the reader identifies with.
“Identify with” is a frequently misunderstood and misinterpreted term. It doesn’t mean, as is popularly thought in editorial audiences, the reader has to like the character. It means that there has to be something in the character plight or personality that resonates with readers, that they can see a piece of themselves in and through that gain an emotional attachment to the story. Stories can be about completely despicable characters, but as long as those characters behave in ways that make emotional sense to readers, they can “identify” with the characters.
Often comics stories, even new ones, start with a central character. Often the character is pre-developed, like Spider-Man, and the parameters of that character pre-set. A good story involving that character, then, with at minimum stay true to that character. But stories aren’t simply about a single character, they’re about interactions between characters, even if – we’ll get back to this in a moment – only one character in the story.
At the start of any story, the idea and the theme will dictate what characters are initially necessary. Characters are the means through which idea and theme are developed into story, which means all characters will have specific roles within the story to fulfill.
There are three types of characters:
– central characters
– secondary characters
– ancillary characters
Central characters are the main focus of the conflict within the story. All stories have conflicts, all central characters are the vehicles of conflict. The shorthand says there are three kinds of conflict: man vs. man, man vs. nature, and man vs. himself. On a primal level, there are only two types of main characters, the hero and the adversary. There are Jack London stories where the hero is pitted not against some other person but against his environment, and no one else appears in the story; in all cases, whatever fills the role of the adversary becomes a character in your story.
In our society, “hero” and “adversary” are loaded words; a better way to say it is “protagonist” and “antagonist.” Neither suggests any moral parameters (hero didn’t either, originally). The protagonist is simply the character through whose eyes the audience “witnesses” the story, and usually whose perceptions inform the story, and the antagonist the main proponent of whatever force gets in the protagonist’s way. Any story can be restructured so the protagonist becomes the antagonist and vice versa. From a thematic point of view, both protagonist and antagonist are the vehicles for the ideas the stories are intended to get across, even in the most seemingly innocuous stories. Many of Robert E. Howard’s Conan stories were straight adventure with no apparent higher ideal, but the underlying theme of most, embodied in Conan himself, was that barbarism, if not exactly noble, is still innately superior to civilization, and that civilization is just savagery in a pretty gown.
Secondary characters are those directly interacting with and affecting or being affected by either protagonist or antagonist. They’re the whetstone on which the conflicts, ambitions and personalities of the main characters are sharpened, focused and nuanced. They often personify the central character’s goal (particularly in stories where the secondary character’s affection or well-being is the protagonist’s reward for achieving his goal, as when Superman saves Lois Lane, though stories like that tend to become logic loops).
In “team” stories, members of the team usually take turns as central and secondary characters, though there are team stories, like Doc Savage adventures, where central and secondary characters are permanently locked in their roles.
Ancillary characters are, basically, props. This doesn’t mean they should be stick figures or not display unique personality traits (commonly they’re not on-screen long enough to show true personalities) but they’re often unnecessary to the specific action of a story and don’t much interact with central or secondary characters, existing to create a realistic sense of environment: hotel clerks, the girl in the next car over at the stoplight on whose hairdo the protagonist reflects, commuters on the subway, anyone with a bit part to play.
The real difference between secondary and ancillary characters is you need to know who and why your secondary characters are just as much as you need to know that about central characters. You don’t need to know that (you can if you like) about ancillary characters. Ancillary characters are defined by their function. Secondary characters are defined by their effects.
Some writers like to write out detailed biographies for all their characters before they start writing. (Personally, I find that a bit inorganic.) Others like to start with rough frameworks and fill in details as they go along. But the minimum – the absolute minimum – you need to work out about any central (and most secondary) characters before you begin is:
– what do they want?
– what are they willing to do to get it?
– what are they afraid of?
Those are your outside parameters, which give you the general shape to start filling in. It’s strongly suggested you figure out more about your characters than that, but, if you’re starting a story completely from scratch and have only a character non-specific idea in mind and a rough theme, those three questions provide a glass through which you can start to define a character in the context of the story. When you’re starting from scratch, your idea and theme and some light development will help determine the basics of your character, and once you’ve got that, the character will help determine the story. (If it seems I’m handling these sections out of order, it’s because, past theme, there is no rigid order of development; though we separate them for purposes of discussion, character and plot are interwoven and develop simultaneously.) Why those three questions? They start your character in the context of a conflict. Let’s take the film MEMENTO as an example.
What does Leonard want?
To find and kill the man who killed his wife.
What is he willing to do to get it?
A) try to overcome the limitations of the medical condition he suffers from, an inability to form and retain short term memory, and B) pretty much anything, including self-mutilation and deluding himself that he can outwit anyone trying to take advantage of his condition.
What is he afraid of?
A) that his memory of what happened to his wife may not be accurate; B) that his condition leaves him vulnerable to manipulation by others; C) that he may not be able to remember if he does find the man who killed his wife.
Obviously, that’s worked from hindsight and I have no idea where in the development Christopher and Jonathan Nolan worked all that out, but answering those three questions, while they don’t give anywhere near a complete picture of Leonard’s character, gives enough of a framework to hang the rest of the character, and much of the plot, on.
Characters need conflict. (In most cases, central characters will experience more than one conflict, and in current fiction both an internal and external conflict is generally de rigueur: while a seemingly invincible force threatens to crush everything he holds dear, the mightiest man in the world is consumed with feelings of his own inadequacy. Etc.)
Characters need context. It’s one thing to decide your central character is going to be a World Series champion baseball player, but a champion baseball player, say, sidelined by an injury or an unjust accusation and delivered back to the rundown neighborhood he grew up in is going to be a far different character from a champion baseball player who falls through a warp in time and ends up in a post-apocalyptic 23rd century where civilization has crumbled and the dead feed on the living. You can’t see what your characters are going to be or how they’ll behave outside the specific context of your story, whatever that story is.
Characters are the story. It’s not Batman having a fist fight with the Joker that’s the story, it’s how those character behave during the fist fight, and how the fight and their behavior achieves or thwarts their goals. Their behavior, their hopes, their dreams, their effect on the course of events – that’s the story.
As with theme, while some aspects of character need to remain stable throughout your development, others will shift and mutate as your story develops. You might realize that your character would behave differently than you earlier supposed, particularly when you sort out the character’s background, history, emotional state, family ties, experiences, etc. Never be afraid to make changes in your characters that will make your story better, but if you do, never hesitate to retrofit your characters for consistency. Your characters will only be “real” if their behavior, responses and psychology is consistent throughout the story. Anything less would be cheating, and when an audience realize you’re cheating – and they will – you lose them.
There’s infinitely more to be said about character, and thousands of books on the subject. Don’t hesitate to read at least some of them.
In earlier segments, I proposed the idea that fossil fuels are all but used up, and someone discovers and secretly taps into one of Lovecraft’s Great Old Ones sleeping at the bottom of the sea for an apparently pollution free, seemingly endless cheap fuel source. The theme would be that any use of power (in all of its many definitions) has unforeseeable, unpredictable consequences, and what is intended to make things better may only make things worse.
So what kind of central character would work for that story?
Personal inclination figures into all these things. The premise suggests a specific world: a post-fossil fuel society, bright and clean to the eye, and happy, where power is a cheap resource. But it’s a tainted world, though those in it don’t know it yet. It’s a world where whoever controls the power supply – it would almost certainly be corporate in nature, though whether it’s “evil” per se is a question that doesn’t yet need to be answered – has enormous influence and possibly control. And jealousy. Given the nature of the power source, it would almost certainly be a closely-guarded corporate secret; the corporation’s power, again in many senses of the word, would depend on nobody else being able to tap and distribute that power.
Which gives us a central character: an industrial spy. His line of work wouldn’t prep him to kill or other things political spies might do, but he’d need a flexible moral sense in order to do the job. Like his world, he’d be pretty on the outside but tainted. Old enough to be experienced but still young enough to face the physical challenges the work might pose, which would also require a decent fitness level: mid-30s. Personable, something of a chameleon, able to take on whatever characteristics allow him to blend in and avoid discovery.
Let’s see… what does he want? The characteristics necessary for his job – secrecy, duplicity, manipulation – would run contrary to stable relationships, so he’d probably want two things: a paycheck and a life (though he’d likely tell himself that’s unimportant to him) and whichever he chooses makes the other more difficult to get. At least at first, those are probably the twin poles of his world, and he wouldn’t be concerned with higher issues; he’s venal but he’s venial. In the course of the story, he’ll come to learn how important the higher issues, not to mention the consequences of his actions, are.
What’s he willing to do to get what he wants? In the short run, deceive and use others; in the long run, deceive himself.
What’s he afraid of? That what he has is all he’ll ever have, and that the dark underbelly of life, not the shiny surface, will turn out to be the implacable reality, for him and for the world.
And what makes him the central character is this: he’ll be the one to reveal the corporation’s secret to the world, because he’s uniquely situated to discover it. Where exactly in the story he does this, that’s where further development comes in.
If you’d like to know what Joe Quesada will say next (just kidding, Joe) all my old Master Of The Obvious essays have been collected in .pdf e-book format as TOTALLY OBVIOUS, over 300 pages of controversial genius, with insights on culture, creativity and the comics business under one virtual room for a mere $5.95 – cheap at half the price, as Ralph Macchio loves to say. (See? You wouldn’t have learned that if you hadn’t read this. There are tidbits like that all through the book.) Click here for more details.
Did Congress pass a law that all network and basic cable shows worth watching must air on Tuesday night or something? Rejoining AMAZING RACE (CBS, 9P), HOUSE M.D. (Fox, 9P), and VERONICA MARS (UPN, 9P), not to mention the rapidly dippening SCRUBS (NBC, 9P) and guilty pleasure NASHVILLE STAR (USA, 10P) is THE SHIELD (FX, 10P), which followed an extraordinary third season with a fairly subdued fourth season debut episode that effectively established a changing of the guard and set up a whole slew of new conflicts for the forthcoming season. That’s good news. The better news is that HBO’s DEADWOOD (Sun, 9P), which hasn’t dropped a stitch in its second season, is apparently exempt and the second best reality show on TV, Spike’s 11:05 Monday ULTIMATE FIGHTER (which makes NBC’s much-touted THE CONTENDER look sick), is a born rulebreaker. But please, networks, enough Tuesday entertainment. How about something worth watching on the dead zones of Wednesday and Friday instead?
Don’t forget to pick up my CSI: SECRET IDENTITY mini-series – ask for it by name! And coming in April from Dark Horse is a “Weird Date” story drawn by Norm Breyfogle in the Will Eisner issue of THE ESCAPIST, which features the team-up of Michael Chabon’s escape artist hero and Eisner’s legendary Spirit. It’s like Christmas all over again!
I’m really no good at this hype crap, am I?
Those wishing to comment should leave messages on the Permanent Damage Message Board. You can also e-mail me but the chances of a reply are next to nil these days, given my workload, though I do read all my e-mail as long as it’s not trying to sell me something. IMPORTANT: Because a lot of people apparently list it in their e-address books, this account has gotten a slew of virus-laden messages lately. They’re no real threat but dealing with them eats up time I don’t really have, to the extent I can no longer accept unsolicited e-mail with attachments. If you want to send something via attachment (say, art samples) ask me first. If I say okay, then send. Unsolicited e-mail with attachments will be wiped from the server without being read. You can also leave messages for me and have discussions on other topics at my Delphi forum, GRAPHIC VIOLENCE. Please don’t ask me how to break into the business, or who to submit work to. The answers to those questions are too mercurial for even me to keep up with.
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I’m reviewing comics sent to me – I may not like them but certainly I’ll mention them – at Steven Grant c/o Permanent Damage, 2657 Windmill Pkwy #194, Henderson NV 89074, so send ’em if you want ’em mentioned, since I can’t review them unless I see them. Some people have been sending press releases and cover proofs and things like that, which I enjoy getting, but I really can’t do anything with them, sorry. Full comics only, though they can be photocopies rather than the published version. Make sure you include contact information for readers who want to order your book.
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