Benefit of Writing Comics: Character Growth

February 20, 2015

It’s time for another installment in my ongoing series about the benefits of writing comics with respect to prose writing. Previously I’ve written about the “meta” benefits of getting in regular practice and of overcoming the fear to release your works. This time, I’ll be diving into the nuts and bolts (which sounds painful, now I think about it) of the benefits on the writing itself. Specifically I’ll be going into how comics can help with character growth. From my own reading experience, I’ve found stories have a better chance of keeping my attention if they have interesting and engaging characters as opposed to simply an interesting and engaging premise.

Way back in 2005 I started what would become the first year of Cubes. At that time I had a long list of ideas for gags and situations that I thought could be humorous to include. On the character side, I only had a single sheet of paper with one hastily done sketch of each of the main characters. Under each of the characters I wrote in their first name.

And that was it.

That was all I initially had by way of character. I didn’t do any plotting on where I wanted the characters to go. I didn’t think through their backstories. I didn’t know their specific job titles, just a general sense of what they did in the comic. Heck, I didn’t even know their last names.

Thusly unarmed, I strode forth into the first year of Cubes not knowing at all what I was doing. I released two comics per month, which meant that by the end of the first year the characters had 24 comic strips of real history behind them.

The interesting thing, at least to me, was that through those 24 comics, small bits of character started finding their way into the strips quite by accident. Here’s one example:

[Cubes 6: Trimming the Tree]
Cubes 6: Trimming the Tree

In my own life, growing up we really decorated trees for the holidays. I mean, we REALLY decorated trees. I thought it was a funny idea that a tree could crash through the floor if it was too overladen with decorations. So I wrote that into the comic and arbitrarily gave that history to the character of Frank. I also drew him with a Santa hat because I thought that was funnier too. Although I hadn’t planned it this way, those two aspects came together to give Frank the trait of being a big Christmas fan. An ounce of character growth quite by accident.

Here’s another example from later in the first year:

[Cubes 20: How to Draw a...]
Cubes 20: How to Draw a...

While releasing the comics in the first year, I had a number of people express how they felt they couldn’t draw but wished they could. Apparently my releasing the comics on a regular schedule made it look easy (FYI, I’m reasonably good at drawing, but I don’t draw fast, so I’m not a good choice for partner in Pictionary). I wanted to poke a bit of fun at the drawing in the comics so I created this one. As with Frank’s interest in Christmas, I arbitrarily gave the drawing background to Christie. And again, that became a character trait for her going forward.

Cubes has a fairly sizeable cast of characters. In the first year there were seven of them! With only a handful of exceptions, when I was writing the comics my criteria for choosing which characters to include consisted of “who haven’t I used recently?” This meant that the characters were, admittedly, fairly bland ciphers throughout year 1.

At the start of the second year of Cubes I sat down and really thought about the characters for the first time. Through year 2 I wanted to start differentiating the characters more. With 24 comic strips in a year and 7 characters, that works out to roughly 3 to 4 comic strips for each character to be the main focus. I thought that would be good to start introducing a couple character traits.

Here’s the first comic from year 2:

[Cubes 25: Power at Last]
Cubes 25: Power at Last

Apart from the so-bad-it-comes-at-funny-from-the-other-side gag, the very first comic in year 2 tackled one of the characters who was hardest to write at that point: Stan the Office Ghost. In year 1, Stan had been introduced as an agent of random chaos. The problem is that random chaos tends to be repetitive and not very funny. It basically goes like this: the Cubes characters are doing something, Stan shows up, he breaks things. See? Not very funny in the long run. So this comic was a conscious attempt to give him a role in the series.

For whatever reason, this comic of Stan’s continued to bubble around in the back of my mind long after I had released it. For a long time, Stan was one of the most difficult characters to write because of the whole random chaos thing. There’s not a lot that can be done with that. But what I slowly came to realize over time, because of this comic, was that Stan was that person at the office who doesn’t get anyone else’s jokes but thinks he, himself, is the funniest person around.

Then there’s also this one:

[Cubes 36: All the News...]
Cubes 36: All the News...

By this point in time I was getting very interested in my own prose writing with various short story and novel attempts. I also got involved in the newsletter that the company I was working for had started. I decided to give that writing trait to the character of Max. That choice has continued to inform Max’s character right to this very day.

Writers usually tell non-writers how they (the writers) listen to their characters. It does tend to make us writers sound more than a little schizophrenic. We have the voices and traits and personalities of all these characters jumbled up in our heads. Inevitably that finds its way onto the page and that’s where comic writing benefits prose writing.

When you establish a character in a written story you don’t want to meet that character and immediately go into her full history (well, maybe you do; I don’t, but whatever works for you). Instead, you want to reveal little tidbits of a character at a time to build her up. Unless you’re doing a character study, you usually don’t want to bog down your story with some longwinded exposition of your character.

In a prose story, where you have as many words and as much space to play with as you want, you have to choose to constrain yourself on how much you write about a character. The great thing about a four panel comic is that you’re forced to have that constraint. You can only fit in so many character traits in a single comic strip before they crowd out the gag completely.

Coming full circle to the notion that a regular comic strip provides practice in general, this is one area that it provides practice in particular. In a comic strip of this nature, you get used to sneaking in bits of character in the dialog or the situations or even the artwork. You do this while still maintaining the story or gag of the comic strip as a whole. When you come to do your prose writing, this helps you inject in small bits of character without interfering with your overall narrative. As well, once you’re practiced at developing characters over the course of many years (quite the investment, I know) it becomes easier to do that within the span of the few weeks or months needed to write a draft of a prose story.

The characters in my head are telling me I’ve expounded on this long enough (yes, Max actually used the word expound) so I’ll wrap it up here for this month. Good luck keeping your characters under control. Once they get developed they tend to get more than a little independent.

Join me next month when I’ll go into the related topic of long-term story planning. And be sure to check out the rest of the series as well.