April 02, 2007

Comics and Characters

I've been eagerly devouring a birthday present I requested from my mom, the new Scott McCloud book Making Comics: Storytelling Secrets of Comics, Manga, and Graphic Novels, and I can't possibly express how fantastic it is if you're at all interested in the process of drawing or writing visual narratives. (Plus, one of the Editorial Consultants was none other than Mr. Neil Gaiman, who occupies a rather prominent location in my personal pantheon.) McCloud has an amazing talent for being clear, informative, and funny all at once, and for using the comics medium itself as a highly effective instructional format. I love it! I'm especially amused by his illustrative examples--I suggest taking a look at his online supplement Chapter 5 1/2 for a sample.

Anyway, this newest book in his series about comics focuses on creation--how to construct your narrative, different ways of using panels, creating characters and rendering them visually, and so on. One thing that's struck me so far is how many of the principles I use as a writer in preparing stories and building characters pertain just as much to creating comics narratives--more so, in fact, since it's necessary to use highly specific visual cues. You have to KNOW what your character looks like when she's laughing; you have to know how far his pants slouch. There are so many considerations. I'm hoping to just absorb what I'm reading, like a sponge, and perhaps when I work on a comic of my own one of these days the knowledge will seep out subconsciously at the appropriate times.

In the notes for "Chapter 2: Stories for Humans," I was highly amused by the way McCloud talks about that old writers' tale, characters that "write themselves." This has always been an idea I take issue with, simply because that's never really how it works for me. Sometimes I can sort of freewrite a character when I'm doing a short piece, but when I'm writing a novel, the process of figuring out what a character is going to say or do, and how they say or do it, is much more deliberate, and frankly, lots of times I mess up. I have to go back during revisions and make sure my character behaves consistently, changing little things here and there. TadMack is great at catching those moments for me (thank you, T!!). Anyway, what McCloud has to say is this:

I've heard creators literally say that they're not so much writing their characters as relaying what the characters themselves want to do....It's actually a pretty common attitude among successful comics artists.

And lunatics, of course.

All I have to say about that is, hear, hear! And har, har, as well. If you're one of those people who are lucky enough to have your stories flow from just listening to your characters do what they want to do, then bravo (though I'm not sure I believe you!) and go to it. But for the rest of us mere humans...I guess it still comes down to Butt In Chair. Which I'm going to go do. Right now.

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