brni (brni) wrote,

Drawing a character

Way back when, when I was in grad school at Temple, I went to see Nick Cave in concert. The show was at the Chestnut Caberet, one of the larger non-stadium sized venues in Philly at the time, and it was Nick Cave. The place was packed. I ran into a woman I'd gone to college (undergrad) with, and we chatted. Theoretically, another guy from the Temple Philosophy department was there; I asked if she'd seen him.

"I don't know him," she said. "What's he look like?"

"Long, dark hair," I said. "Black pants. Black shirt. Black leather jacket."

"Um..." She looked around us. Just about everyone there (including her) met that description.

The problem of everyone-looks-the-sameism, of course, extends much farther than trying to find a specific person at a goth show. It's an issue for writers and other creative types as well. At least those creative types who don't want to create tales entirely populated by Imperial Stormtroopers, a la Star Wars. Interchangeable clones.

Television has been full of examples of late. I was watching Justified yesterday. Walked into the kitchen to get something, and when I got back, I couldn't tell who was who. Lots of ruggedly handsome men. Lots of ruggedly beautiful women. In physical type, wardrobe, and speech, they were all pretty similar. I could give you dozens of current and recent shows that suffer the same problem. But I'd have to look them up; I can't recite them because they aren't memorable.

It's a whole lot easier to remember the shows that have memorable, easily distinguished characters. First example: Lost For all its weird failures, you can't fault them for vibrant, breathing characters. Jack, Richard, Hurley, Ben, Sawyer - each of them is unique, unambiguous. Memorable. Even the folks who get killed off in the first episode they're in feel like they are fully developed, unique individuals. Criminal Minds is another - each of the characters is fully realized and unambigously not like the others. (The various CSI franchises fail spectacularly in this regard.) And of course, there's Firefly, where each character is unique, necessary, and irreplaceable.

Same thing for writers, workers in words. I'm sure all of you have read books in which, if you put the book down half-read and don't pick it up for a week, you couldn't name the characters, describe what they were like, or what roles they played. I don't need to give examples - you already have your own. If you can remember that you even read the book.

The place where the techniques to realizing distinguishable-at-a-glance characters is most easily viewed is in comics. The comics artist has to create unique and interesting characters with quite a bit less to play with than writers and directors. They have limited visual space in which to work, a limited number of words and images they can fit.

Charles Schultz had four 3" x 3" panels, no color, and a printing process comprised of pixels big enough to see. And Charlie Brown is one of the most iconic, recognizable characters in the history of the world. All the peanuts are. Why? The characters are simply drawn, but each has iconic and unique characteristics. Charlie Brown? Round head, bald. "Oh, good grief!" That expression of dismay. That sweater. Linus? Blanket. Thumb. Everyone has at least one prevalant and iconic characteristic that is uniquely hers or his.

A comic artist has just a few lines with which to define a character. This forces the artist to do the hard work right up front, the work that we as writers have to fit in over the course of a story as we juggle with plots and subplots and descriptions of settings and whatnot.

It's so easy to get distracted. To forget. To let the characters speak the words we want them to to get them where we think they need to be, rather than the words they need to say.

We need to remember to make each of our characters live, as unique individuals. Even the ones we're going to kill off at the end of the chapter. And just like a comic artist developing a character, we need to do it by giving that character unique, iconic characteristics.


Today's word count: 730 words on the pirate novel.


Jamie tapped his shoulder. "I'm going to find Canbrach," he said. "Sir."

Deadbeef shook his head. "You don't need to do that. She'll handle it."

"No, it was my idea."

"Ms. Canbrach will use people she thinks can deal with the task. If she thought you were one of them, she'd have taken you with her."

"I have to do this, Peter."

Deadbeef grit his teeth. Jamie was still green. Less than a year on the Perl, and hardly battle-hardened, much less seasoned enough to deal with death on this scale. And this intimately.

"You start this, you can't walk away. You'll have to see it through to the end."

Jamie nodded. "I know."

"Very well, Mr. Carmichael. You're dismissed."

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