Geez, I can't believe it's been 12 days since my last blog post, although we did wring a few days of fun out of Mr. Language Person. Sorry. Time just slipped away, as it does. Slipperier and slipperier it seems.
In the last post, reader Dave commented: "I enjoy your insights on how you design your characters. I expect I will be referring to your writings again and again. I will admit that although I have come up with original character designs, I do have trouble giving them stories. You might say that I would be better off approaching things in the reverse order - story first, characters second - and I would probably agree that it may lead to better success. But, what is a visually motivated person to do? Perhaps you have some of your own insights to share on this subject, as well."
"Insights" is too strong a word, but I have some thoughts. If they appear disorganized and even contradictory, I'd say you're observant.
Stories are important. Characters are important. Text is important, and visuals (at least in comics and educational books) are important. So be excellent at all of them.
That was easier than I expected.
Dave's question first reminded me of my experience trying to pitch stories to the various newer "Star Trek" series, which I described on my old blog back in September 2006 (I assume everyone has read all of my archives?). Boiling it down, what I learned in failing to sell episode ideas to "The Next Generation," "Deep Space Nine" and "Voyager" was that the writers and producers of those shows were VERY interested in characters and NOT AT ALL interested in brilliant sci-fi plot twists. Pitches that hinged on space anomalies, weird aliens or strange new worlds drew yawns, while a pitch that took Captain Picard on a character arc from Challenge A through Experience B to Insight C always got their attention. It took a long time to really sink in that a good story isn't about fantastic original plots, it's about people.
If there's a secret to writing, I think that's it. So to answer Dave's question, good characters are a good and necessary foundation but, I think, are by themselves insufficient.
Your characters have to have something to do.
Now, you could create some neat characters and send them off on an amazing adventure. That can work. The Hobbit works. But better still (I think) is to create characters with strong differences in perspectives, abilities, attitudes etc., plop them down in an interesting situation, and let their conflicts drive the story. If your characters are distinctive, you'll write dialog for each that could only come from them--no other character would say the same thing the same way. Create three characters, put them in a cave facing an ogre, and one will run off, one will charge ahead, and one will take advantage of the confusion to steal a golden egg. Now you've got something!
Your characters also have to change.
Another cartoonist and I once commiserated about how hard it is to develop arcs for characters. We concluded that because we really love our characters and want readers to love them, the urge to introduce them as virtuous heroes is strong. But the characters have to earn it; that's the point of the story. So they start out timid (Bilbo Baggins), callow (Luke Skywalker), greedy (Scrooge), discontented (Dorothy Gale), an abused orphan (Harry Potter), or a poor vagrant hooligan (Huckleberry Finn), and through the course of your story grow into the hero you always knew they were. Tragedy works similarly but in reverse: your heroic character is brought low by overwhelming forces or, ideally, faults of their own (Oedipus, Macbeth, Gatsby...). So give them room to grow.
Another thought: my friend Otis Frampton draws a distinction between what he calls plot and story. I think others would call it text and subtext. The story is what your tale is about; the plot is how it's about it.
So, for example, the plot of "Star Wars" is that rebels have stolen the secret plans to a horrific weapon being built by a galactic empire. Just before she's captured by the villain, Princess Leia stashes the plans inside a robot that lands on a planet and meets Luke Skywalker, who yadda yadda. In contrast, the story of "Star Wars" is that a simple farm boy yearns to enter the exciting universe beyond his humble home and, with the help of friends and mentors, defeats the villain and saves the galaxy. Change the hero's sex and it's also the story of "Wizard of Oz."
(And yeah, I've read Joseph Campbell. I even read Joseph Campbell before George Lucas read Joseph Campbell. Check the Hero's Journey if you want to spelunk that rabbit hole.)
I read a lot of graphic novels and webcomics, and the most common criticism I have is that they're not about anything. They may be loaded with characters and plot, gnashing and churning away like a clockwork meat grinder, but the characters don't change or grow. Stuff happens to them. Time passes. But there's no story.
A Litmus Test: you ask someone what their book is about and they tell you the plot, as anyone naturally would. You say, "that sounds great, but what's it about?" If they stare at you blankly or retell the plot, they either don't know what it's about or it's not about anything.
[I'll play my own game. Mom's Cancer is about the strains and cracks in a family in crisis. Whatever Happened to the World of Tomorrow is about the cultural change from scientific utopianism to pessimistic dystopianism. My dopey little zine, The Adventures of Old Time-Traveling Brian, is about regret and forgiveness.]
These notions don't necessarily apply to serialized narratives, such as comic books or comic strips, which can feature the same characters for years. There, you may not want your characters to grow, and there's a real art to providing the illusion of change without actually changing anything. That's a different problem. I'm talking about stories with a beginning, middle and end.
I can't advise Dave or anyone how to create a story. But let me suggest this: ask yourself what you have to say about life that only you can say. What's your unique take on birth, death, school, childhood, adulthood, parenthood, geezerhood, or eating lasagna on Mondays? That's where your story (not your plot) awaits. Some characters will suggest themselves. Drop them into a situation and put them in conflict. Two writers could start with the same story but one will make their characters sharecroppers in 1920s Mississippi while the other makes their characters androids on a 25th Century moon of Saturn. Now you're developing a plot.
From a literary analysis perspective this is all pretty elementary stuff. However, I've found there's a big difference between knowing it and applying it (or criticizing others' creations versus actually creating something yourself). There are a lot of balls to juggle. It's hard!
Just remember: as Tom Hanks said of baseball in "A League of Their Own," "It's supposed to be hard. If it wasn't hard everyone would do it. The 'hard' is what makes it great."
EDITED TO ADD: Over on Facebook, Otis Frampton (creator of "Oddly Normal" and many other great comics projects) responded with the following, reposted with his permission:
"One of the hardest things to do when someone asks me what my comics are about is to avoid laying out the plot. Stories tend to be universal ("heard it before, what else ya got") while plot tends to distinguish one tale from another more easily during an elevator pitch. It's a catch-22. Story is what makes your particular tale resonate, but plot is what makes it sound unique. And yet the former tends not to be the best way to "sell." Oh well. I will say this about character design... it should be the last step when creating characters for your stories. It's like giving birth to the car instead of the driver."