Exploring Character Creation with Laura Lee

Image courtesy of Laura Lee

By Chris

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 clichĂŠs 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.

Image courtesy of Laura Lee

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!”

Image courtesy of Laura Lee

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.”

Image courtesy of Laura Lee

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.

Artist’s Cove 3: Laura Lee

Laura LeeBy Chris

If you have read the second edition of Artist’s Cove, you are already familiar with the collaborative work of artists Laura and Kristen Lee. In this month’s edition, we have the pleasure of getting better acquainted with Laura Lee.

Laura has for years been building worlds and delighting patrons with her drawings. For those looking for a fusion of progressive ideas and manga influence in their art, Laura’s style is an ideal subject for your attention.

Growing up, Laura often found herself drawing what was on the television screen. From cartoons like Sailor Moon, Escaflowne and Invader Zim to games Like Megaman, Kirby and Legend of Zelda, she would be there to sketch a growing roster of inspirations (a habit that had earned her teasing from her siblings).

“Later on I started to discover the games and cartoons that really resonated with me and helped me find direction with what I wanted in my style, which were Earthbound, Silent Hill 2, LoZ Majora’s Mask, Cowboy Bebop, Kuuchuu Buranko and Puella Magi Madoka Magica. “

As her craft evolved, her affinity for expressing herself through comics in particular remained.

“Comics have been a constant thing that has never wavered from my vision. Ever. The way I went about them and the type of stories I wanted to draw have changed rapidly but the core of it is still to express at least one of those in a comic format.”

For her, drawing was a coping method. It was how she expressed ideas, affections and infatuations. In times of fear, she would draw what had been haunting her, examining the subject matter along the way.

Courtesy of Laura Lee
Courtesy of Laura Lee

Having such a lucid form of expression can result in many a confrontation with your own mental limitations. So, what happens when the subject of your work pushes you out of your comfort zone? For Laura, this was a matter of deconstructing why subject matter had such a negative effect.

“These studies make me closer to whatever it is that I’m drawing because while I draw, I analyze and talk through the whole thing (in my head). Drawing/painting can be a very intense process for me because there’s never a time where I’m not creating a dialogue in my mind.”

With this approach, she is able to confront and push her boundaries as an artist. Where she typically draws a creative line is not at the intensity of the subject matter, but rather its authenticity to her. To create a work of art, she must first believe in it.

An example of this principle in action is her straying from the western idealized superhero comic (a genre that she respects, but feels is saturated). Laura has instead placed herself firmly within growing web comic industry, as evidenced by her dedication to Ghost Junk Sickness, in order to create works that are more true to her style.

“This is why I choose web comics and indulge in the growing industry because there’s so much that all these up and coming artist have to show that publishing companies wouldn’t give the time of day. People are being more progressive in one comic than the old staple publishing companies have ever attempted. In my art I try to challenge as much as I can and be as progressive as I can. I absolutely refuse to draw anything that I don’t believe in.”

An exception to this standard is made for her commission work. Pleasing her clients requires her to adopt an appreciation for the potential of the requested material, and she has used the chance to draw even unfamiliar characters as an opportunity to better understand and appreciate her patrons as individuals.

Shadi, courtesy of Laura Lee

As the years progressed, she found that artistic direction was a constant challenge. From deciding whether or not to take a more cartoonish approach to her style, to transitioning her already successful comic style into painting without slipping too far into realism, each step in her development brings with it more questions. When asked about possible future projects, she mentioned her interest in incorporating mixed media, a style that will no doubt present a fresh new series of adjustments to her creative process.

“I’m very fickle with a lot of things, especially with my art, butI feel I have sculpted something that seems suitable for the time being. I had to create something that was versatile and flexible while still staying true to every part of myself. Colour and shapes are very important to me in terms of design, so I had to figure out the right shade of everything for me to be satisfied with the work. With every painting I do I’m chipping away at what I really want to achieve, getting a little closer bit by bit.”

DJ Tekla, courtesy of Laura Lee
DJ Tekla, courtesy of Laura Lee

One such example of her creative process is the character DJ Tekla (pictured right). Designed originally as one half of a romantic couple (the other being a mopey mermaid), this story is currently still in embryo, and may see Tekla take a more central and independent role if it were to be brought to life.

But lest you think Laura’s portfolio exists solely within panels, works like the recently gallery featured Gender is a Pleasure stand as a testament to her versatility. A three-piece painting, Gender is a Pleasure puts the issue of being transgender/non-binary into a more positive light than that in which it has been cast by the media. Though Laura felt it better to leave an in-depth elucidation of this issue to transgender and non-binary people, she was inspired to at least use her skills to contribute to the dialogue in a positive way.

“I read this really insightful blog post that someone made about the trans experience highlighting that choosing transition was not always about pain and suffering but rather more of feeling happier and pleasure when associated with their gender of choice. We’re shown that trans/non-binary people must be suffering so much until they can transition so we constantly associate their lives with pain, and I think that’s wrong. After being enlightened, I just felt compelled enough to paint something for it because I may not have the experience myself, but at least having some artistic skill I can create something to bring more attention to the matter. Plus there’s not enough art featuring people of different genders, so I wanted to give it some representation.”

9aysRADWith the Ghost Junk Sickness universe building, as well as her experimentation with other media, we can only guess at what future projects Laura will undertake. For now, we have a sci-fi universe as well as a growing library of commissions and paintings to keep us interested.

Laura’s Tumblr

Artist’s Cove 2: Ghost Junk Sickness (Interview with Kristen Lee and Laura Lee)

By Chris

Courtesy of Kristen and Laura Lee
Courtesy of Kristen and Laura Lee

For those looking for a sci-fi tale replete with guns, space ships and heavy metal bounty hunters, I present Ghost Junk Sickness. Created by Kristen and Laura Lee (Fine Arts graduates and sisters operating out of Kingston, Ontatio) GJS is a project that marries their mutual affinity for space-based sci-fi adventures, as you will see in the following interview.

GJS follows the duo of Trigger Elliot, a struggling bounty hunter, and his partner, Vahn. At the time of publishing, we have gotten acquainted with the majority of the main cast, and Vahn’s curious nature is coming to light. We are clued in to the mounting tensions between the two military powers vying for dominion over a catastrophe-scarred world called June7. A bounty hunter killer named “The Ghost” is set to cross paths with Trigger and Vahn.

As the story is still in its early phase, I would strongly urge that you take a detour to their website and catch up. It’s well worth the read, and has found its way into a regular slot in my weekly media viewing cycle. You can find page 1 of this series here.

It was my pleasure to interview the web comic’s creators and gain some insight into the process of bringing GJS to life.

Note: At various points in this interview, individuals will be identified as “they” rather than him/her. This is because the character is either not gendered or has not had their gender identified.

Approaches to storytelling vary among creators. Some construct entire worlds before putting the plot into motion, whereas others build their worlds as they go. As Ghost Junk Sickness has two creative minds behind it, both working on the comic equally, how do you two decide on the direction of the story and the lore of the universe?

Kristen: A big part of it was aesthetics and common interests. We both decided that we liked space/scifi themes, occult elements and bounty hunting-themed manga. So, from there we just collaborated and would agree on what kind of themes would work and suit the story as a whole. Typically, we would derive a concept from something we liked and work it enough so it becomes separate from the original line of thought and totally our own. We did a lot of research into different things, though I think that’s a given.

Laura: Basically, we would have key points down, and there would be specific visions of characters or scenes that we wanted to see come into play. We would map them out and then just problem solve and work on how we would get there, although sometimes the scenes would turn out completely different from how we thought they would. It still worked out for the better. We’re always very conscious of what we want to portray and represent, so these key points were crucial to finish 100% in context. In our way of preparing a story, we have it all done completely down to each individual page because we always had a tendency to run into plot holes and issues if we didn’t finalize it. We’ve basically written the whole story twice now with the amount of revisions, and let me tell you, it was definitely beneficial.

Have you maintained the original overall course of the plot, or have your revisions seen the characters meet wildly different fates than the ones for which they were originally slated?

Both: Absolutely! The core of the plot still maintained the essential parts of it, but huge arcs have been rewritten to be told in a different way entirely. Settings completely change, characters’ involvements are reconsidered and character deaths were taken out entirely for a better possibility. There are still parts in the comic that we might want to rewrite if we feel they don’t leave enough impact. The series is going to be 10 books long, so we definitely have the time.

Speaking of characters, General Fiachra has quite the posse behind her. From a design point of view, what were the influences behind Fiachra’s Elite?

Fiachra and her Eliite -Courtesy of Kristen and Laura Lee
Fiachra and her Eliite, Courtesy of Kristen and Laura Lee

Laura: I designed pretty well most of the characters. As for how my process goes, I have a certain vibe that I want to present for whatever role, and I work from there. For Raine’s elite, in particular, there are different elements and images that I would take from and just stem a character from it.

I know I wanted a stoic/loyal character (Shadi) and then a more ruthless and erratic character (Beetle). And of course, I wanted one that was closest to Raine herself, since two wasn’t enough, which more or less became a fusion of Beetle and Shadi’s archetypes (Cicero).

Design-wise, I wanted them all to look different from each other. I wanted them all to clash, but work at the same time, so they would just look like this diverse group that somehow got along.

Shadi’s inspiration was actually from Zam Wesell from Star Wars, mainly because I liked what the helmet looked like with the face cover, which set the standard that everyone would wear these helmets. Everything else just fell into place,

I like beetle horns and I like sharp eyes and ridiculously long eye-lashes, which then created a whole race that exists in the GJS universe. For Beetle, she’s actually inspired by someone I know. Sometimes, I like a person’s personality so much that I make them into a character, but change enough so that they’re not recognizable. Other than that, the only thing I can think of is Beetle’s mask, which is influenced by Neon Genesis Evangelion.

Cicero was a product of wanting more Bolobogans (Boggmouth’s race) as characters, and from there, his personality was inspired by Wrex from the Mass Effect series. When I say inspired/influenced, I mean it in a way where the vaguest image is taken and just completely morphed into something new. Once we see these characters interact more and show more about themselves I’d say it’s hard to see where the inspiration comes from. Even Cicero whom I even imagine with Wrex’ voice is a completely different character than Wrex himself, unless Wrex suited himself to be Shepard’s personal lap dog and did pretty well anything for them ahaha!

Raine herself is actually a pretty old character who was inspired by Haruko Haruhara from FLCL. She and her outfit are pretty bizarre for a military General, but what I wanted to show with her and her elite was that she did as pleased, presented herself as she wanted and surrounded herself with people who thought on a similar level. This is shown in their liberties on their own uniforms and their blatant disrespect towards anyone who isn’t within Fiachra’s forces.

Is there any one character for whom either of you has a special affection?

Boggmouth, Courtesy of Kristen and Laura Lee
Courtesy of Kristen and Laura Lee

Kristen: Vahn, because they’re one of the earliest characters that I’ve ever made. Vahn has been a work in progress character that I never really figured out; they’re actually a 15 year old character that we spent all this time just trying to pin down. I’m just really happy that we’ve finally found a place for them and they’ve turned out to represent something way bigger than we thought they would.

Laura: I have extreme favouritism towards “The Ghost”. While writing, we did as much as we could to make sure each character was given the amount of attention that they need, but my favourite parts are when The Ghost finally makes more of a presence in the story. They’re a very important character to me, and I can’t wait to show more about them as the story progresses! Other than that one Boggmouth is another character for whom I have a great deal of affection. Not only is she another crucial character in the story, but she’s also my favourite character from a design standpoint!

Quick follow-up with regards to Boggmouth: if she was around in our world today, what would her top three heavy metal bands be?

Laura: GOOD QUESTION. Boggmouth’s top 3 would be Iron Maiden, Rob Zombie and Black Sabbath!

Trigger and Vahn, Courtesy of Kristen and Laura Lee
Trigger and Vahn, Courtesy of Kristen and Laura Lee

How easy is it to work with a sibling dynamic? Does the familiarity make it easier to get on the same page, or is there a fair bit of creative compromise?

Kristen: Well, the thing is, it’s extremely easy because we get along pretty well. It took us a while to establish our roles (Laura as the one that draws and myself as the one who inks the pages) but once we got past that part, everything became a lot easier. The advantage of us being siblings is that when we did have issues or arguments over the comic, we would eventually be able to work it out, as opposed to just being friends and cutting ties if the fight was bad enough. We see each other every single day, so it’s kind of hard to work and carry on with our day without at least saying something to each other.

Laura: We’ve had major advantages over other pairs because we practically grew up with a lot of the characters that we have in our story. Familiarity is a huge bonus because we’re always on the same wavelength. We never had to worry really about explaining ourselves in depth and trying to make each other understand a concept because it was always there anyway. When we talk about arguments we’re referring to instances where revisions had to be made and the other wasn’t willing to backpedal and redo something. In the end, though, it was always just to make our story better and better because, let me tell you, it would have been a completely different story if we went with our first or second draft.

You can connect with GJS via Facebook, Twitter and Tumblr.