Thursday, March 19, 2009

Webcomic Writing: Developing Great Characters

Here's another one of those lists to help you write. This one archives character flaws. Have a look.

I have my doubts about this one, compared to the symbolism I discussed recently. I can see it helping young writers, but the point comes pretty early where if you need this, maybe you shouldn't be writing. Still, it might come in handy for quickly adding dimension to minor characters.

I believe that major characters must be built around real people. I also believe writers must live their lives, at least their early years, surrounded by real characters.


He sucked on his cigarette, barrel chest inflating his t-shirt. The cigarette burned the callouses on his fingertips. I saw the yellow crud in the corners of his eyes. The exhale came like a mighty spout of cinders. He rubbed the smoldering butt in the dirt.

"Your ex-wife," he said, "is the laziest woman in the world. And I should know, because I am the laziest man."

You've got to cut me slack, because I didn't slave over that vignette, trying to show myself at my best. I forced myself to write it straight into the blog, edit a few phrases, and leave it.

As a character sketch goes, it's hardly complete, and I'll leave it to you to judge whether it is of any appeal. What I wonder, however, is how you get from a list of attributes to a "round" character, and I don't think you can.

I think it is hard to make up a compelling character from the imagination, because it is polluted with figures from a thousand stories. You have to pull real people into fiction and work them over until they are your character, not a profile. Once you forget their origin, they are yours.

Attributes are fairly uni-directional. Real characters go up, down, sideways, backwards, forwards, shrink, expand... They defy reason, they defy self-interest, they reverse themselves....

If you have a different writing strategy, you may find this flaws list more useful, but relying on composites for believable characters is a good way to sabotage your stories.

That vignette I cranked out? I've been studying that guy for over 30 years. Despite thousands of pages of comics, zillions of letters and two books, a lifetime invested in proximity to colorful people keeps it pouring out of me.  If you want to make characters that resonate in the memory, you have to live a real life, not an escapist distract-a-thon built around video games and TV.