I'm going to break that tradition, by giving a nod to the new Fox show Lie To Me. It's worth giving a shot.
It stars the always enjoyable Tim "Everybody be cool, this is a robbery!" Roth as the world's foremost expert on the science of truth telling. Basically, he's a hotshot consultant who specializes in finding out the truth. He does so by a combination of scientific gadgets and body language analysis.
I'm particularly interested in this program, as I have been researching body language and truth ascertaining techniques for my interrogator comic, ICE. Every episode has at least a few gems worth noting. On particularly cool aspect to the show is that they intersperse clips of actors on the show demonstrating gestures that prove they are lying with real life examples. For example, a character on last night's episode tried to downplay the cost of a failed experiment. "It really wasn't that expensive," he said as he steps backward. Tim Roth's character calls it out to him, and then a quick cut to old Nixon footage of him declaring innocence while...you guessed it...stepping backward. Very fun stuff.
Supposedly the show is doing pretty well. I wonder how long they can go before they run out of clever truth telling tells, but for the time being, I'll definitely give it a shot.
IV. Characters That Make You Give A Damn
Creating characters that your readers will care about is the hardest task you have as a writer. And for good reason. Think about what you're asking of the reader for a moment. Whether you're writing a comedy, a drama, an action story or suspense thriller, at some point you're going to try to evoke some emotion from your reader. You want to make them care.
Think about that. How many times have you listened to a real friend tell you about real problems and thought to yourself "Borrrrrrrring," or "So what?" Of course, you never voiced your feelings and probably feigned interest and empathy. That's what friends are for, right? But truthfully, you weren't that interested. And these were REAL PEOPLE. With REAL PROBLEMS. As a writer, your goal is to make readers empathize with your characters, who are MAKE-BELIEVE PEOPLE, with MAKE-BELIEVE PROBLEMS. You have your work cut out for you.
So, how do we do this? How do we go about creating characters that will elicit the emotional responses we want from our readers? First, just acknowledge that there are no guarantees. Not all of your characters are going to resonate with everyone. But there are some things you can do to increase the chances, and make your characters stand out.
I'm going to borrow copiously from Scott McCloud for a moment, as I think he laid things out exceptionally well in his book Making Comics. According to Scott (and ME!) a good comic book character contains the following traits:
- An Inner Life
- Visual Distinction
- Expressive Traits
1. An Inner Life- By an inner life, McCloud (and ME!) mean that your character must have a unique life history that has shaped the character's world view, determines his desires, and colors her actions. And inner life is more than just "personality." It's not enough to say your protagonist is a "tough guy" or "the girl next door." There needs to be a unifying purpose behind your character. You need to create factors or events in your characters' lives that give reason for everything they do. This will help you predict how your character will respond to conflicts and action, and is how they'll start "writing themselves." The best way to flesh out an inner life is to ask and answer a whole lot of questions about your characters. Who were their parents? Where were they born? What's the best and worst thing that's ever happened to them? What secrets do they hold? The more questions you can answer about your character, the more real they'll become.
Does Wolverine aka Logan have an inner life? Bet your ass he does. Behind his rough exterior hides a man with so rich a secret past, even he doesn't know it all. Wolverine is a mutant who possesses animal-keen senses, enhanced physical abilities, retracting bone claws and a healing factor that allows him to recover from any wound (I believe he was tossed into the sun at one point and barely ended up with a sunburn.) He was used by a government program Weapon X, where an indestructable metal was bonded to his skeleton and claws and he was made into a supersoldier. As a parting gift, they also wiped his memory.
That's just scratching the surface of Wolverine's 30+ year history in comics, tv, and film, but there is a character with an inner life. And it pays off in the story telling. Tyra Banks' closet couldn't fit all the skeletons Logan has in his, and his history often comes into play in his adventures. Abuse at the hands of a shady government organization makes Wolverine especially protective of mutant children who are being used and abused. A strong inner life makes Wolverine a character that we can empathize with, and root for when the claws come out.
2. Visual Distinction - In movies, visual distinction is important, but not as much as in comics. Sure, Jack Sparrow wouldn't be half as fun if Johnny Depp and the costume design team didn't go full on Keith Richards Pirate with him. But there are plenty of movies where all you need is an unshaven Bruce Willis' scowling mug or Jessica Alba in tights to draw a crowd. But in comics, you're not casting A-list actors who have a history with their audience. You're creating something new. Comics is a visual medium, and your characters NEED to stand out. On the practical, you need to give your characters a unique look so that they stand out from each other. There are plenty of excellent artists working today whose male protagonists all look the same, and if it wasn't for costume or color, we'd be clueless who was who. Don't make that mistake. When designing a character, pay attention to their weight and build and their fashion sense. It also helps if their attire or costume is a visual reminder of their personality. Throw a "Got MILF?" t-shirt on a character in your comic, and it'll be pretty easy for your audience to recognize, "Hey, that must be the comic relief, Stiffler-guy."
While Wolverine's back story and compelling inner life make him a fun character to write, he wouldn't be showing up in 20 different Marvel books every month if it wasn't for this simple fact...He's damn fun to draw, too! Whether it's the claws, or the costume, or the muscles, or the sneers, Wolverine just looks cool. And looking cool can take you a long way with a character. Not the whole way, but a long way. Just ask Hugh Jackman, whose career was launched because he bore a strong resemblance to the character and played him well.
3. Expressive Traits- This is often the hardest one to nail down. If you're a good artist, you can probably come up with a killer costume design without too much trouble. And if you're a good writer, you can dream up a fabulous inner life for a character by simply asking and answering good questions about them. But all that will be for naught if all your characters walk, talk, fight, make love, etc. JUST LIKE YOU. Sorry, but you're just not that interesting. When thinking about expressive traits, think about body language, speech patterns, key expressions, and common poses. All the great characters have them. Homer Simpson has his "D'oh!" Charlie Brown has "Good grief." Ebeneezer Scrooge has "Bah Humbug!" House has his cane and his awful bedside manner. Kramer has more expressive traits than I could post here. "Giddy up!" What are your characters' expressive traits?
How does Wolverine stack up in the expressive traits category? Pretty well. Be it calling friends and foes"Bub" or chomping on a cigar, or his trademark "SNKKKT" when the claws come out, there are plenty of ways Logan can make an impact on a scene. And that's really what it's all about. People with expressive traits STAND OUT. And they'll make your stories stand out, too.
So, now you know Scott McCloud's secret for making good characters. It's served me well, and hopefully it'll serve you well, too. One tool that I've been using lately to help me flesh out my characters is a Character Grid. What I do is make a table in MS Word or Google Docs, or even just a sheet of loose-leaf. In each row, down the first column of the table, I list important questions I should answer about my characters. Each column of the table contains the names of major characters in my story. For each character, I answer the questions to help reveal their character.
Here's an example of the types of questions I'll put in my grid, filled out with a character from my recent screenplay/graphic novel project.
Malcolm "SK8" Skaton
Comforts the protagonist, encourages him to get his life back together
23, M, Black
Wants to be a top comic artist, work for DC/Marvel
Comic artist, Pizza Delivery Boy
Prove to his brother and parents he can make it as an artist
Lacks confidence, young and fears being taken advantage of
Has been sketching and drawing comics since a trip to comic con at 8 years old. Met up with Felix at a con who hired him to draw his fantasy comic. Has been waiting patiently for the last 2.5 months for the script for issue 12, but Felix has been MIA. He thinks Felix is trying to replace him with another artist.
Nice guy, but mischievous. Can fly off the handle, overly sensitive
Wishes his parents respected him as much as they respect his older brother.
Skills, Knowledge, Props
Outstanding artist with unlimited potential.
|Quirks||Always has art materials on him. Usually has ipod earbuds in.
A fast talker. Some urban slang thrown in, but educated, middle-class, New England background.
Celebrity Look alike
The great thing about doing the grid, is that you can see all of your main characters together in one spot. This makes it easy to see where certain characters may be redundant, and you can make changes. Feel free to borrow my grid, and definitely add your own categories.
From this information it was fairy easy to come up with a decent character design sketch. As an artist, character design is not one of my strong suits, but I'm fairly happy with how this first stab at a design for Skate came out.
Remember, when you're creating your stories, you're creating stories FOR HUMAN BEINGS. As a result, the most important part of your stories are the characters that inhabit them. While I said that it's damn hard to create make-believe characters that your readers will identify and care about, the funny thing is, your reader WANTS TO CARE. They wouldn't be picking up a comic or popping on a movie if they didn't want a break from their own problems or the real people in their lives' petty concerns, and to see what someone make believe is dealing with.
So use that. Give them a character that'll make them give a damn.
Next: Part V. Structurally Sound
Creating Comics! Class
- Creating Comics! starts up again this week, this time as an after-school club that meets once a week for students in my local area in grades 6-8.
- I've been fine tuning my syllabus for this class and I think it'll be a good time. We'll spend about half the time working on understanding comics as an art form and developing skills as storytellers. The other half will be focused on improving art skills. I'm looking forward to it.
- I've enjoyed writing a series of articles on writing process here on this blog, and been receiving some quality feedback. It's been a chance to reflect on the leaps I've made in my own writing over the past several months and to distill the pearls of wisdom I've been picking up from the many books on craft I've been reading.
- If you're new to the site, check out the first in the series right here.
- I'm planning this series to run for ten installments. Then I have some big plans for developing the content used in those articles further, but I'm going to keep that under wraps for the time being.
- The next article in the series will debut this week and it's all about creating great characters.
- This month I launched the Tears of the Dragon Production Website. It's still very bare bones, but new content will be added soon.
- I commissioned Koko Amboro to draw another pin-up for Tears and he went above and beyond the call of duty. I flatted his drawing with a general color palette, and then turned it over to series colorist Paul Little who absolutely killed on it.
- I'll be taking some prints of the Tears pin-up to New York Comic Con to hopefully turn some heads.
- Fingers crossed that I'll hear word from publishers in the next month or two.
- I've received the hi-resolution files from artist Damian Couceiro and finished the lettering. They look stunning in black and white.
- I'm waiting to see what happens with Tears before I make any decisions on ICE going forward. Paul Little is ready to jump on board as colorist for ICE, after doing an awesome job on the ICE Pin-up. But I'm probably waiting until after NYCC to give him the greenlight to start coloring Damian's gorgeous pages.
- I shifted gears on this project, and changed it from an original graphic novel to a screenplay. And working on this screenplay has been an incredible writing experience. Last week I finished the second draft of the screenplay, and am pleased with the results. I'm getting feedback from a number of sources now, and will probably do a final re-write sometime next month. I'm actually very proud of the work I've put into it, and it's probably the hardest I've worked at any piece of writing I've ever done. While the work isn't quite done (is it ever?) I'm happy with the product.
- Now I've started the process of turning my screenplay back into an original graphic novel. Yesterday I put in a few hours at the drawing table, the first in a long time I've spent focused on art, and produced a few character concept drawings. While I'm still keeping this OGN project underwraps from the public for now, I'll start to show some sketches and art and things in the weeks and months to come.
- No Super Seed news. Updates continue at the website. That's all I got for you.
- Waiting to hear from a publisher regarding a CounterTERROR submissions package I sent last week. This specific publisher specializes in comics content for the iPhone. To prepare the package, I had to format CT especially for the iPhone screens. I think CT actually works well in that medium. But we'll see what happens.
- While I may talk to some publishers at NYCC about CounterTERROR, I'm most likely going to shelve working on CT for the time being, in favor of Tears, ICE and my OGN. If I don't hear anything, I'll debut the work Stefano and I put into CT on the web in March.
Now you're caught up!
It's a single image that captures the essence of the story I'm trying to tell. I plan on making prints, and hope this piece will help me in my quest to find a publisher for ICE.
Hope you like it.
I'll admit, last year, I was completely overwhelmed at the con. I'm hoping to be a little more focused and get more out of this year's show (and I don't just mean buy more comics.)
Since 2009 has had a strong "goal oriented" theme to it already, I figured it'd be worth setting some con goals for myself as well.
NY COMIC CON 2009 GOALS
- Attend at Least 5 Panels- There are some great sessions this year. I attended a few interesting panels last year, but also missed out on plenty of good ones. I'll do a later post with the panels I'm most interested in checking out.
- Remember My Camera! - Last year I forgot the damn thing, which is a shame. There were plenty of interesting characters and costumes in attendance, and I definitely wish I had it on me.
- Network, Network, Network! - Another one of my New Year's Resolutions, I really want to do a good job meeting people in the industry this weekend. I'm attending the creator's only hours (yup, I'll be rocking the professionals pass) on Friday, and hopefully that will be a good time. But this year, I want to spend a good amount time in the Small Press and Artists alleys and just talk to a bunch of creators. I also want to head down to Podcast alley, and talk to some of the big comics podcasters, and see about lining up some more podcast interviews.
- Talk to the Zuda Editors- Last year I met several Zuda creators, but didn't get a chance to introduce myself to any of the Zuda editorial team. I hope to come away from the con with a sense of whether they think either of two of my comic projects are a good fit for their site, and try to handicap my chances for getting into another competition soon.
Part III: The Killer Pitch
Do you have a friend or acquaintance, maybe someone you don't see all that often, but you always look forward to getting together, because every time you do, he or she gets a twinkle in their eye and you just know a great story is coming? Yeah, I have a few of those. And it doesn't matter if it's a long story. You don't mind wading through the set-up or the background information, because you just know, the punchline is going to be worth it. For some of my friends, I'm one of those guys. In the past several years, especially as friends of mine have gotten married and settled down a bit, I found they're especially receptive to the stories we single guys have to tell. Over the years, I, and those friends of yours who's stories you love to hear, have built up that reputation. How? By consistently telling good stories. As result, ears perk up when our lips start moving.
However, aspiring writers don't have a reputation. Sure, Steven King can sell a book by simply putting his name on the cover. And Will Smith can get you to go see a movie called "Seven Pounds" without a clue as to what it's about. They've built a reputation by delivering the goods in the past. Most of you (and certainly I) have not. Just because we write it, doesn't mean it's going to be read.
This is why we need to absolutely kill on our story pitches. I'm talking murder.
First, let's clarify the term pitch. A pitch is a short document that can be used to sell your story. I'm going to cover two types of pitches in this article. The first, I'll refer to as the "quick pitch" and the second, I'll call the "synopsis." I'll define these concepts in a bit. I suggest that writing both documents at this point in the writing process will pay dividends.
"Wait? Why should I be worried about selling my story, now? I haven't even written it yet?" you might say. "Why can't I just start writing. I know my idea, I've done my research, I'm ready to start cranking out the pages?" or "Won't it be easier to write my pitch after the work is finished?" Maybe. But I strongly believe the effort you put into a pitch at this point will pay off in the long run.
Think of a pitch as a promise to your reader, and to yourself. It says, "Hey, you! Want to hear a story? Well, this is the story I'm going to tell you. And it's a good one." That's what a pitch needs to do. If you don't have a pitch that does that, you're probably going to have problems. Think about it. If you can't write a few sentences that can excite a reader, what makes you think you can write a full story, 22 page comic, novel, tv show, etc?
Remember, we already have a great idea and we've done our research and are ready to drain the sponge, so to speak. But we're going to drain it this time in a controlled manner. We're going to write out our ideas in the form of both a quick pitch and a synopsis. First, let's tackle the quick pitch.
The Quick Pitch
For screenwriters, the quick pitch is called a "log-line," those one to two sentence movie descriptions found in your TV Guide. For you Zuda contestants, it's called the "High Concept," 200 characters to pitch your story. For the quick pitch, brevity, and the efficient use of words to encapsulate your story and hook the reader, is paramount.
What makes a good quick pitch? Well, here is one of mine. Read and we'll break it down.
Why is this a good pitch? (And yes, I know, CounterTERROR has yet to be picked up by a publisher, and I know I'm not objective because I wrote the damn thing.) But trust me. It is a good pitch. Whether it's a story you'd be interested in reading is another thing entirely. It's a good pitch because it has the following characteristics:
- It's concise. I don't care how short the elevator ride, I could give any publisher or studio exec on the planet that pitch before they had a chance to dodge me, and it would give them a very clear picture of what CounterTERROR was all about.
- It includes the key components of my story. Think about it. In just one sentence, you know:
- The antogonists (extremists)
- The problem (the release of a deadly virus)
- The when (New Year's Eve)
- The where (Times Square in New York City
That's a lot of information to convey in under twenty words. (Can we agree now, it's a good pitch? Thought so.)
Now, in my pitch, I did throw in a second sentence, to hammer home the concept and make it even more acceptable. Some would say that second sentence could be omitted and all the important information for a quick pitch would still be there, and I agree, it could be (and perhaps should be.) I left it in, one, because I think it's an accurate description of the story I have to tell, and two, to have a discussion about this method of pitching.
The method employed by the second sentence of my quick pitch is a fairly common tool used in Hollywood. "This story is [insert popular, financially successful movie A] meets [insert popular, financially successful movie B.]" The idea is, if you can combine two winning concepts into one, it too will be a big success. There are some who absolutely hate these kinds of pitches. And they have their reasons.
For example, one way the Keanu Reeves, Sandra Bullock hit Speed was pitched was as "Die Hard on a bus." Okay, great. You hear that and think, "I liked Die Hard..." But what does a pitch like that really tell you? It tells you nothing of the characters. Bruce Willis as Det. John McClain made Die Hard (and Bruce's career, incidentally.) It tells you nothing of who is on the bus, why they are on the bus, nothing. All you know is that it's an action movie on a bus. I don't know about you, but all the bus rides I've taken in my life have been relatively action free. So, I don't think that strategy is effective.
I had a story that I was working on a while back (this was before I've adopted the writing process I'm currently using, mind you) called Relentless. I was pitching it as "Die Hard" meets "Syriana." What the hell would that movie be like? Yeah, I don't know either. That description is pretty much nonsense, and does nothing to get people hooked on my story.
So, why include It's "24" meets "28 Days Later" in my CounterTERROR pitch? After getting all the important information to my reader in the first sentence, the second sentence gives the reader some very clear clues as to style and genre. CounterTERROR is an action/thriller/horror mash-up. Dropping the name of a popular action/thriller TV show along with a successful horror flick gets that across. CounterTERROR takes place over just a few hours on New Year's Eve. Dropping "24" connotes a real-time sense of urgency to the pacing. And CounterTERROR is a twist on the zombie genre. By mentioning "28 Days Later" I was able to get that across WITHOUT using the "Z" word, which is showing up in far too many comic book pitches these days.
Here are some tips for writing your quick pitches:
- Keep it to one, at most two, sentences.
- It should be easily understood by a 12 year old.
- Suggest a story that is provacative and big.
- Include character, conflict and hook.
- Combine elements familiar to the genre you're writing with a unique twist.
- A man dies and becomes his wife's guardian angel.
- It's "Jaws" in space!
- A radio talk show host is out to redeem himself after his comments trigger a psychopath's murderous act.
- Her life was in their hands. Now her toe is in the mail.
So, you've written your quick pitch and are ready to turn to the challenge of writing the synopsis. The synopsis is a short, 1-3 page double-spaced description of the story you plan on telling. It needs to include a description of your main characters, their goal, the opposition to that goal, the emotional high and low points, how the character will grow or change throughout the story, the major twists and turns, the climax, and the resolution. The synopsis is a very short description of your story's beginning, middle, and end.
For illustrative purposes, here is my short synopsis for CounterTERROR.
It’s New Year’s Eve. In the waning days of a failed administration, a lame duck president is packing his office, long since abandoned by the American public and even his closest aides and political allies. Still, he clings to the one unassailable triumph of his tenure as Commander-in- Chief, that there has not been another attack on American soil since 9/11…
However, terrorists have obtained a highly contagious, weaponized, flesh-eating and rage-inducing virus that drives the infected insane and murderous. The terrorists’ plan- Release the virus throughout a New York City swelled with tourists and revelers looking to ring in the New Year via three “suicide bombers." Their goal- Put true terror in terrorism.
After an well-coordinated initial attack decimates the S.W.A.T. team tasked with stopping the plot, it’s up to FBI counterterrorism specialist Dorian McCullough to control the spread of the virus, find the man orchestrating the attacks, and stop it from being released in Times Square when the ball drops. McCullough is aided by fellow agent, Tina Montoya, the lone survivor of the initial attack, as well as support personnel from the National Counterterrorism Center. As he races to find the extremists behind these attacks before the streets run red with blood and mayhem, McCullough uncovers an unsettling connection between the virus and his own government. Before the night is over, McCullough finds he may have to sacrifice the person closest to his heart to save his city from a nightmare.
Despite McCullough and Montoya’s best efforts, the virus is released again, this time throughout the subway system, turning mass transit into mass hysteria. To make matters worse, McCullough’s fiancé is trapped in the subway tunnels with a horde of the infected and he is powerless to help her. Luckily, McCullough and Montoya are able to find the last suicide bomber, the mastermind behind the entire operation before he can release the virus.
In the climax, as the countdown to the New Year approaches, the terrorist does the unthinkable…he infects Montoya and pushes her into the crowd of Times Square revelers. The virus spreads like wild fire. McCullough will have just moments to react, and with the support of NCTC personnel, he is able to neutralize the virus before it can spread beyond Times Square, and save his fiancé trapped in the subway.
Now, I'll admit, the synopsis for CounterTERROR is not as well-written as the quick pitch. They can't all be homeruns. But I think it contains most of the key elements a synopsis needs.
Synopsis Writing Dos and Don'ts
- DO include your main characters, settings, and plotlines.
- DON'T include every bit character and minor plotlines.
- DO describe the beginning, middle, and end.
- DON'T include questions like "Will he be able to save the day?" You are the writer. You need to know the answer to that.
- DO describe the key emotional highs and lows for your character.
- DON'T run down every scene in sequential order. (There's another time and place for this, and that will be covered in a later article.)
Alright! We've covered the concepts of the quick pitch and the synopsis. I have some good news and some bad news. The good news is, once these are out of the way, you get to start working on the fun stuff, like developing your characters and hammering out the story beats and plot. The bad news is, this will be far from the last time you write your pitching documents. Those CounterTERROR pitches have been written and re-written at least 10 times, perhaps more. You should actually revisit them throughout the writing process, keeping them up-to-date as your story changes.
But this is good news, too. Because at this point, you probably won't have all your answers. You might not know exactly how it ends. (That's okay.) While you should know if your character achieves his goal at the end, you don't need to know exactly how he does so. And your characters won't be fully fleshed out. In fact, you'll probably come up with plenty of characters you haven't even dreamed up yet. By putting in this pitching work early, you've simply laid out a framework from which to build. You've made a promise. In my next article, we'll start talking about delivering on that promise.
NEXT: IV. Characters That Make You Give a Damn