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Thursday, May 22, 2008

Treating Your Comics Characters Like Actors

Creating characters is a fun exercise. Deciding on their physical attributes, costumes, personality traits and quirks, etc. always gets my head twirling. And thus far, the few comics characters I've created have resonated well with my audience. When I started making comics on my own, I thought that it would serve a story well if I treated my characters like actors, with me as director, and the graphic novel as a movie or a stage play.

In my casual dealings with actors, I hear them harp about the kinds of roles they get, the kinds of roles they end up with, and their dream roles. They judge the quality of a role by how it figures in the whole story, and how challenging it would be to get into a role's groove. "Role" in this case means "contribution." A role has to have enough significance in a story for it to be worth the while.

Actors look for the "character arc" in major roles, and "impact" in supporting roles. If a supposedly major role has no arc of transformation, or if a supporting role doesn't influence the progression of a story, then these roles don't hold a lot of water. Serious actors who get these parts are often in it for the paycheck.

So when you're developing your graphic novel characters, imagine whether or not your "actors" will love the parts you want them to play.

On the other end, there are roles that are simply fun to portray. Not necessarily sidekick or comedy relief roles, these characters have a unique charm about them--in their speech and manner--that actors can play and experiment with. Of course these characters should have some significance to the story, but their appeal rests in their personality.

But if there's one thing that can be gained by treating characters like actors is the idea of "truth." In acting, truth is one of the greatest virtues, and actors always strive to achieve truth when they portray a role.

For the purposes of making comics, there are two levels of truth. The first level is the story and the script. As a comics writer, your job is to imbue as much truth into your characters as possible to make them believable. Your dialogue has to be hinged on the reality of your chosen genre, whether it be Victorian England or the Bronx. If you don't read your script out loud, best that you make this attempt. You'll be able to identify the clunky and rough spots when you do so.

The second level of truth is the performance, via the comics page. Here, you will exercise and hone your ability in designing the character that fits the role, all the way down to how they hold a glass, how they smile, or how they react to different stimuli.

Exercise: Choose a scene from your story involving two people and work out a sample "performance." You set up the location and place your characters in their starting positions. As you progress through the panels, determine how you can bring out more of your character's personalities visually. Take as many panels as you like--don't limit yourself to a fixed number of pages.

As your characters "speak" their lines, what would they be doing? What would be the expressions on their faces? How would they use their hands? How would they move? Do you know enough about your characters to visually take them a step further? Can you take character "risks?" For instance, your actor might ask, "Is it alright if I go here and do this?"

"Oh, on this line in the script I feel like poking."

"Can I have a cat? I think my deviousness will come out more when I'm stroking a cat."

"I think this line is unecessary. Can I just make a long pause?"

"You designed me with long fingernails. I'd like to tap them on something."

And you, the director, can try those suggestions and see whether they work or not. During rehearsals, actors would try different approaches, so allow your characters that luxury. Play out the suggestions in very rough drafts and make a judgment call. Contenting yourself with a "safe" execution deprives you of the richness of nuance inherent in your story.

Then, when you more or less have an idea of how the final scene will play out, make another revision/edit based on the number of pages meant for the scene. You might find yourself chopping out some of the new ideas because you don't have enough screen time, and that's okay. Usually, you'll still end up with a scene that's far richer than how you started out.

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