One of the biggest challenges in storytelling is the creation of compelling characters. While setting and plot provide the necessary structure for a memorable story, it is the characters who we find ourselves endlessly quoting, relating to and invested in throughout their journeys.
In creating a character, one must consider their appearance, personality, mannerisms and their place within the context of a story. Be it a multi-installation sci-fi epic that spans the galaxy, or be it an intimate short story shared between two people in rural Vermont, the need for a compelling human element is fundamental to storytelling.
I reached out to Laura Lee, co-creator of the online comic series Ghost Junk Sickness, to discuss the subject of character creation. Our conversation began by focusing on bringing the abstract idea of a character to life.
There are some times Laura takes and builds upon vague ideas of character traits and features she finds worthy of exploration. Other times, when a story warrants the creation of a new character, she would consider the context of their appearance. To whom, for example, would the character be speaking? What is the character’s role in the overall story?
“More often than not though, a majority of the characters are figured out and their placement in a general sense before story lines start to bring up more characters but there is the odd instance when things change and I need to make characters on the spot.
I put a lot of thought into what my characters look like and how I portray them. I always try and double check if I’m falling into a trope or something too generic. I want people to care about the characters I create, so I try to make them as genuine as I can. I think of roles and placement and what we normally see and try to think, ‘ok now how can I make this different? How can I make this something that people won’t expect but still understand and enjoy it?‘”
Laura touched on an important point there. There’s a difference between the image of a character in your mind and what is actually shown to the world. One of the scariest traps for creators is the cliché. Clichés can be a quicksand for creativity, trapping and devouring stories, characters and even imagery. Laura had her own perspective to offer when I asked her if she ever had trouble letting go of character attributes that had fallen into tired cliques.
To her, cliché meant that she wasn’t digging deep enough. She describes designing as a process that comes in levels. As she digs deeper into the character’s personality, she sees who they really are and how they should look and behave.
“It’s like chipping something out of wood or stone until I finally make the polished product. To me, letting go of traits and clichés is not hard as long as I find out who the character really is.”
In our Q&A below, we explored the physicality of characters within comic panels, took a detour to talk about studio Ghibli, delved further into her creative process for Ghost Junk Sickness and touched on the ethics of character creation.
How do you determine how your characters sit/stand/move around within the confines of comic panels? Do their physical mannerisms come naturally with their personalities, or do you run into any difficulties translating their personalities into physical action?
“A character’s mannerisms or body language is a crucial part of how each one presents themselves, so naturally they’ll develop as their personalities and silhouette are formed. I take a lot of reference from people I see or know. It’s good to find out what kind of personalities present different kinds of mannerisms to choose for my characters. If I find that I’m having difficulty with what to do with a character in a panel, then I probably haven’t taken enough time to figure them out. I try to stay away from charts and lists that show what kinds of body language mean what; while they’re very helpful on a psychological level, they become too formulated and the character becomes a walking text book, in my opinion. I try to stay as natural and genuine as possible! Of course, I still like to draw inspiration from existing characters I know as well. If there’s something that I liked or found charming in a character in a show/movie/game, what have you, I like to try and incorporate what it is that I liked about the action into something I find suiting.
I love watching Ghibli films for this exact reason. Hayao Miyazaki makes it a point to observe people and portray simple and subtle gestures that we do to make for a more natural and interesting animation. He also makes it a point to show what people do in transit and long periods of silence; having characters behave without any dialogue is a great way to show how much you really know them.”
So long as we’re on the subject of the almighty Ghibli, is there any one particular movie that stands out to you as your favorite example of Miyazaki’s attention to character detail?
“Ohh! It’s so hard to choose because so many of them focus on this aspect of their characters! My ultimate choice would probably be Spirited Away, Kiki’s Delivery Service and Ponyo. All three of these movies have plenty of scenes of transit and silences where the character’s actions have to fill the space, especially Spirited Away!”
Ghibli movies are known for these moments of “calm”. How can these types of quiet, introspective moments be effectively translated onto still comic panels?
“There are always advantages that comics will not be able to emulate in still panels. Animation has music, frame rate and the movement to show all these small gestures that people might make in great detail, but I believe that comics still have the power to represent these scenes, at least. Large panels showing plenty of the setting making the characters look smaller, big panels and fewer small action panels to extend the feeling of the scene, less dialogue and more use of subtle sound effects (if at all) are all effective ways to portray these kinds of moments, in my opinion. Detailed and characterized backgrounds are really important in these kinds of scenes because we’re no longer just looking at our characters interacting with the environment; we’re looking at the whole setting as a character moving together to create these moments of calm or introspection. Every person’s expression and body language, even if they’re just background characters, becomes relevant to the scene. Of course, this applies to any feeling of scene you want to portray, but I find in these more reflective scenes it’s especially sensitive.
I believe that comics do have their own advantage though. Because everything is still and silent it’s a good way to make your readers look around the whole panel, almost making them look for something to interpret, which in turn allows them to spend more time on the moment in careful detail. Things that they might miss in a scene that switches angles and shots every few seconds are there as long as needed by the reader. To me, they’re two very different experiences and one is not the higher or improved form of the other. They just are as they are, and both have significant strengths and weaknesses that don’t really infringe on the other. In animation, timing is most crucial, while in comics, use of space is most crucial.”
How do you tackle the creation of characters whose identities and experiences do not match up with your own?
“That’s definitely the biggest challenge. You’re only one person, so how can you expect only to write from what you know on the most personal level? Being genuine on something you’re not too familiar with can be really difficult to pull off, and can be easily derailed into something not to the desired effect. If I’m trying to create characters that aren’t a reflection of my own identity, I try very hard to observe, listen and take example of people who might share similarities with my characters. I read a lot of different books, comics, articles and anything that might help me freshen up my perspective to help broaden my horizon of thinking and tap into those of others. I take close note of the people around me. I watch friends, loved ones or even strangers and note how they behave and think, much like we previously discussed on how to make interesting mannerisms and thought patterns. It’s important to note of who’s making these gestures and if it is collective or individual.
As one person, I can still relate to a lot of things. Like most writers, it’s inevitable that you place little fragments of yourself into your creations, but the hard part is mixing that up with other qualities and making it into something new. Introduce familiar and foreign and mash it up enough with the appropriate dosage of each to create something that you look at and think, “yeah, I can see that” or ‘yeah, I’ve met people like that’.
My golden rule, though, when it comes to this hard question, because it’s so important to me to have a wide variety of people in my stories, is to understand people’s experiences, but not to write them like they’re your own. To elaborate on that, what I mean is that I’m not here to absorb someone else’s experience and reproduce it in a differently packaged box. I want to understand many different people, but I don’t want to steal the spotlight from them to tell it themselves. For example, I might read a lot of articles and books on what it’s like to be a trans person so I can create trans characters in a sensitive manner, but I won’t turn around and write a book myself featuring my own characters on what it’s like to be trans and the whole experience of transition. To me, it’s just not my place, no matter how good you are at embodying another person’s experience; I believe it just isn’t morally right to do it. Taking reference and understanding is a good thing, but riding off the emotional coat tails of someone’s real experience isn’t. I work around this by sticking to narratives that are individual and completely specific to each character. I always approach my characters this way and usually give them motives and challenges that don’t necessarily reflect their identities.
Of course, there are exceptions; that is, the only exception would be if you’ve made a character whose context comes directly from a society/culture/history that is of your own fictional universe. You might want to explore how robots/androids are treated on a totally different planet and of course there’s no one who can relate to a robot on the most personal level in terms of identity, but we take inspiration from different instances to imagine what that may be. At that point it becomes more of a philosophical kind of thing unless that is, if you’re making an analogy. I try to be careful with analogies as well, but I think, if I’m not mistaken, there’s a bit more flexibility with them.”
When you find yourself designing non-human characters for a fictional universe, do you tend to build a character before you build the culture in which they exist, or do you create a culture that then informs the design of said character?
“I actually build the character first and then decide what I want as a part of the culture and what I want as the unique attributes to the character. I’ve probably done this for all the non-human species I’ve come up with, it may be a little disorganized, but I find it works anyway.
Usually when I’ve come to a moment in writing a story where I need to decide what kind of character needs to be placed my first thought is, ‘ok what kind of species should this character be?’, and then I decide whether or not I’ll choose from groups that I’ve already made, or just to create a new one altogether. More often than not it’s these moments that prompt a new non-human species.”
Do you keep behind-the-scenes notes on each new species you create?
“I sure do! Of course, with a story that has a big universe I can’t fit all the information I’d like in it. There’s plenty of stuff that’s just not relevant. Regardless of whether or not it’s relevant, though, it’s still fun for me to develop these ideas because you never know how they can be utilized for other plot devices or expanding with new stories. I might connect one type of species to a character that just didn’t seem to have an exact reason for unique attributes but now they do, or I might introduce another species with special abilities to expand the scope of what’s possible in this fictional universe. While it may seem tedious to fully realize all these concepts that will usually never become plot relevant, I believe it makes for a richer and more immersive setting.”
There are so many more aspects of character creation and design that can be explored, and the question of identity is a deep-running ethical issue with which many creators struggle today. Unfortunately, I can only keep Laura a hostage to my questions for a limited time.
If you would like to her work in action, visit the website for Ghost Junk Sickness. The web series is still going strong, and features an array of eye-catching and sympathetic characters.