Story Writing Tips 2

Character By Design
By Jerry Forney

(This article, originally written for cartoonists, applies to all creative disciplines.)

I recently received a letter from a young cartoonist that started me on a mental journey that can only be described as eye-opening. It is the policy of Future Features Syndicate to treat every artist with respect and consideration for the time and effort their work represents. When a feature is rejected, a brief critique is included with suggestions on how to improve the work for future submissions. One comment that often gets checked is the “Your characters need improvement” box. I never considered the exact implications of that suggestion until I received a letter from a young cartoonist who had taken my critique seriously enough to write back. He thanked me for the personal response then asked, “What exactly do you mean by improve your characters? Please tell me how I might go about doing this.”

I read his letter and just sat back in silence. “Interesting”, I thought, “I’ve got to give this more consideration.” Initially, my mind raced over the many cartoon classes I have taught over the years and my many attempts to convey the idea of character development to aspiring cartoonists. Few students catch hold of the concept easily and fewer still are able to do something truly outstanding with it. The question arises then, is it too difficult a concept or am I unable to adequately convey it? I began a lot of soul searching and concluded that it was probably a little of both. Since the concept of character development is so difficult to grasp, it stands to reason that it is also difficult to convey effectively.

I was determined, by this time, to deal with the subject in a comprehensive manner. I was certain it wouldn’t take an entire art book to do it. I was wrong.

I considered what a “character” is: how to create one, how to design one, how to breathe life into one. Even before I put pencil to paper, I was aware of the immensity of the subject and the many facets involved in character development. These facets have been explored by other cartoonists and writers, but never in a comprehensive way. This article will highlight some important ideas influencing character design and development, with the understanding that nothing less than a book would do the subject justice.

A character should always represent, in a memorable way, the environment in which it lives. The most common mistake made by cartoonists, when creating a character, is neglecting to give it a context in which to function. They get involved in the “look” of the character, rather than the significance of it. I can illustrate this by referencing a well known literary character, Don Quixote, the man from La Mancha. Don Quixote has been portrayed in many books and stage productions. Successive generations of artists see this character in a slightly different way. However, each designer is forced to consider the context, both historically and culturally, of the “character” Don Quixote. A modern Don Quixote could be portrayed as charging telephone booths from the back of a bicycle rather than windmills from the back of a horse. Even updated in such a manner, the significance of the core “character” would still be appreciated.

Ask yourself, “exactly WHO is my character supposed to be? What quality, behavior, or significance does my character have that makes it worth remembering?” This initial stage in character development is the most difficult, but it appears to be the most important. Now, you might easily respond with, “OK, I agree that this applies to great literary characters, but cartoons are just for fun. They’re just meant as jokes!” While this is hopefully true, it doesn’t excuse the artist from giving some real thought to the identity of their characters. It is rare that a cartoonist creates an enduring cartoon character. (Some have been around for 75 years.) Yet, I still insist that you give it a try. Remember, the “Quick” and “easy” design does not often translate into “outstanding” and “memorable”. It is unlikely that you will get exactly what you want the first time you try. Development takes time and perseverance. I encourage you to keep at it. Rather than draw a cartoon and then decide, “How is it going to act?” I suggest you describe a character acting in an environment, then design a cartoon to represent that character!

Once you have created a character, or a cast of characters, have decided on their identities and activities, your next task is to design them. The great concept that becomes a poor design suffers the fate of rejection. It is rejected because it is unattractive or confusing. Cartooning is an art. Therefore, the rules that apply to all of the other graphic arts apply here: good underdrawing, variety, expressiveness and repeatability. A design is the “package” that conveys a character to your readers. It should be well thought out, with special attention given to proportions, shapes, gestures, expressions, fashion, style and appropriateness. Outrageousness should be used sparingly and only for good effect. When contrasting two or more extremes, always refer to a “baseline” that falls somewhere in the middle, so the reader has some point of reference when trying to gauge the significance of the exaggeration. Often “normal” characters assist the “wacko” character by providing a generic background, which allows the “wacko” to stand out. If every character in a feature is radically wild, the reader is unlikely to appreciate additional outrageous designs, as they will have become the norm. The artist’s only recourse at this point is to continually top previous designs with increasingly strange ones. That’s a sure fire way to end up in burnout city. There are also artists that strive for characters that are consistently “cute” and “lovable”. Too many cute characters suffer the same fate as too many wacko characters. They lose their significance.

Just like in real life, there are a variety of character “types” in the cartoon world. The archetypes of hero, villain, victim, and clown are only a few of the many variations and combinations that are possible. Throw in biology, history, and geography. Add physical characteristics such as height, shape, proportion, color scheme, age, dress etc. to the mix, and you have additional elements to explore. Put a personal spin on your creation and hopefully you will have a character that is charming, entertaining, and above all, amusing.

A good creative writing class will definitely help.
Most writing instructors touch on the subject of “developing your characters”. One exercise, used in this instance, is known as “attribute listing”. You are asked to make a list of the qualities and attributes demonstrated by a character. The list could include: clumsy, stutters, bad posture, nervous, picky eater, underweight, afraid of heights, etc. Once you have made this list, eliminate the items that contradict each other. Then, try to envision how this character would look, talk and behave. Put this “living list” in a setting, give it a role or identity, and hopefully you will have the genesis of an interesting character.

An in-depth discussion of character development would definitely require a book. This brief list of observations can focus you during your search for exciting new characters. It will also help you give greater richness to your existing characters.

Remember, it isn’t enough to have an interesting cast of characters. They must also interact well together in the production of humorous situations that generate funny gags. Outstanding drawing and design is fundamental. Clean, readable lettering is essential! Most importantly, you must love what you are doing enough to make the investment in time and effort. Quick and easy doesn’t make for success. Hard work does.

I must report that most of the submissions I receive have weak characters, are poorly drawn and are not well lettered. Many appear to be hastily rendered without much planning or underdrawing. All too often, a promising concept is hurt by uninspired characters, weak backgrounds, poor gags and boring cliche’s.

I encourage all cartoonists who read this magazine, to keep working on your features, continually polishing them, perfecting them. Never allow yourself to become satisfied with your performance. Always demand more. Remember: the only artist you have to surpass is yourself. The best cartoon you will ever draw should always be the next one!

©1997 Jerry Forney

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