[Heathen City] Quickly defining characters in comics

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Alex F. Vance

Apr 29, 2010, 9:59:45 AM4/29/10
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Drenthe, Zoosh, thanks for those thoughtful responses to the message about disposable characters!
There's a particular challenge to writing rich characters for comics, but there's fantastic opportunities too. Zoosh is more aware of the thought that goes into each character than any reader can be since only a fraction of what we discuss and review can actually be represented on the page.
Disposable characters in particular are difficult to convey because they're only on-screen for a few frames, and usually they're too busy moving the plot forward to expand ont heir personal histories and motivations. The same applies to their dialog; they only get a handful of lines and those typically need to propel the plot as well, leaving less room to define their character. I try to assign different speech patterns for different characters depending on their origin, personality and emotional state, but that's also tough to convey in only a few lines and its value must be weighed against the impact an unusual turn of phrase might have on the flow of the reader's experience.
Thankfully, the interplay between text and art and the placement of multiple characters synchronously allows much more to be inferred by the reader han is expressed by the page. It also harnesses the creativity and insight of both writer and artist, since a good artist (such a Zoosh and the many others I've been fortunate enough to work with over the years) does more than just draw what's in the script.
Allard, for instance, originally had neither a name nor dialogue -- nor even a species. In the script he was one of 'three thugs'. Seeing him as a horse, in a leather jacket, jeans, and with his mane bound in a pony-tail, suddenly told a lot about this character. Caulfield employed mostly carnivores, with the exception of the muscular and dim-wittedly optimistic bull he referred to as 'Beef', though whether that's a nickname or a pejorative is left unclear -- and the exception of Allard.
In HC2, Tiber alludes to the claustrophobia  and other anxieties herbivores suffer in urban environments, though he may be referring specifically to 'hoofers', those rare throwbacks whose genes express anatomical features more common among their animal kindred than anthropoids of the same species. Tiber had hooves, Allard didn't, so maybe it's easier for regular anthropoid herbivore to deal with the stress of the urban landscape. Or maybe Allard's just that tough.
Further, the best way to define any two characters is to have them talk to each other about each other. The complexities interplay between language, intellect and emotion allows each party to say as much about themselves as they do about the other. Someone who puts down someone else's addle-brained ideas is intelligent, but a bully. Someone who ignores the bully's barb and persists in his assessments is rational, but unassertive. And so, in only a half-dozen frames and about as many lines of dialogue, the personalities and relationships between Allard, Wayne and the unnamed third member of the team sent up to Malloy's apartment are clearly understood by the time they make it to the door.
This same power allows a pact to be struck with the reader when you're writing a mystery, which is what Heathen City is. You make a habit of delivering rich characters through the techniques described above, so that when there's a character you explicitly don't want to describe, you can get away with that. You can load the character up with clues, visual and verbal, which make no sense without context, and if you do this right, the reader will accept it. The pact between reader and writer, in this case, is that the character clearly expresses traits and qualities that suggest there is more to him than can presently be understood, and that when the 'key' is delivered, he will make sense.
Meanwhile, as with any good mystery, the reader gets to enjoy the thrill of curiosity, finding the clues that let him formulate the questions he wants answered and developing hypotheses to evaluate and evolve with every new piece of information he receives. Take, for example, the various executives Tiber's office in HC2. As Zoosh is all too aware, every one of them has a name, a backstory and significant personality traits, and in some cases a relationship with one of the other attendees. In the panel where Tiber places his hands on the shiny table, and we see all of them arrayed, Zoosh has in fact captured the essence of everyone in that room -- the reader simply has no way of decoding what he's seeing.
In HC3 we'll meet one or two of those present in more attentive detail, and some of their posture, behavior and attitude will make a little more sense.
Pay attention, if you will, to the threateningly arrogant Irish wolf Connor Skromeda, if you have a copy of HC2 on hand.
Look at those pretty, pretty eyes...
- Alex

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