Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Waid Wednesdays #12: Characters Are Not Furniture

Losing two of the next five days to cross-country flights, but no complaints from me. I’m on my way to the Orlando MegaCon this week, and while (like most of you) I’ve come to hate flying, it’s worth it: MegaCon has become one of the largest and best-run comics/anime/sf conventions in this country, and whatever fannish subgenre floats your boat, attending this show is worth the trip.

The casualty, of course, is that this post will be a bit shorter than the norm—but still valuable, I trust. It’s a bit of beginners’ comics-writing advice I don’t hear discussed much:

Everybody wants something. Or, to put it another way, characters are not furniture.

I know, I know. In a chumpish attempt at wordplay, I just lost you. “Characters want furniture?” No. Characters, from the main ones to the most incidental, need to do more than just stand around like furniture. When they exist solely to move the plot along, they stand out, and not in a good way In a kidney-shaped coffee-table sort of way. It’s an easy mistake to make: “Hey, I need to fill the readers in on my bad guy’s background. I know—I’ll have a cop at the crime scene explain the bad guy’s childhood. Or maybe a psychiatrist.” Or “I need to show what a twisted badass the killer is. I’ll put a gym teacher in here for him to kill.” Right instincts, but that’s building furniture. Furniture that solves your plot-and-exposition problems, yes, but it’s always worth the effort to turn these people from exposition machines into genuine characters. Otherwise, you’re missing some opportunities to entertain.

One way of turning your wooden puppets into real boys and girls is by giving them quirks. You could, for instance, have your crime-scene cop munching peanuts. You could give the gym teacher a stutter or ridiculous taste in clothing (even for a gym teacher). That’s one way of going about it—but it’s the cheap and obvious way.

The better way is to, as you write, always bear in mind that—just like in real life—everyone on the scene wants something. Even the admissions nurse who has no dialogue wants something—he wants to go home early because he’s tired, or he wants time off for his kid's soccer game, or he wants to ask the cute intern out, or he wants his nylon uniform to stop itching so much. That desire doesn’t necessarily have to be voiced or even obvious, and it certainly doesn’t have to be a story point, but being aware of what each of your characters longs for helps give them weight in a scene and is a more subtle but less clumsy way of making them feel real.

Concrete if inadvisable example: Having an unusually petite and feminine female light up a big, smelly cigar is certainly a way of making her more colorful, but it’s a purely arbitrary bit of business. On the other hand, deciding for yourself that she smokes cigars because she believes they draw attention to her that might otherwise go to the bigger, louder people around her...same visual, deeper character, and your having made this choice for her might further suggest some interesting way for her to interact with the other characters that doesn’t take us out of the story but does add something to the page.

In WATCHMEN, Alan Moore pulled off a much more elegant example of this. Rorschach, the moral-absolutist detective, is constantly snacking on sugar cubes throughout the novel. (It’s actually a plot point about midway through, when discarded sugar-cube wrappers become evidence that he was present at a crime scene, but for the purposes of the story, any sort of clue would have served: lozenge wrappers, cookie fortunes, footprints, whatever.) Having Rorschach constantly snacking on any one specific thing is a colorful quirk. That he hungers specifically for sugar cubes—hard-edged, simple, precise little building blocks that are pure white—tells us gobs about what this detective really craves, and once you make that connection, this bit of business doesn’t feel at all arbitrary.

In the comments, if you will, your preference for next week’s post: the Black Art of punctuation and sound effects, or the totally overlooked reason why Thor has remained a popular character for forty years?


Louis Porter Jr. said...

I will be at MegaCon on Saturday to meet you in person and to pitch a few ideas. I can't wait!!!

Hamilton Lovecraft said...

I just recently read Blambot's "Comic Grammar & Tradition" ( so unless you're going to be saying a lot of things not said there, let's hear about Thor, because he's totally inexplicable to me.

Rob S. said...

An artist friend just asked me for a good cannon sound, so it's been on my mind lately. Sound effects, please!

Wordverf: Soitin. Completely sure, Curly Howard-style.

Master Po said...

See you at the Orlando MegaCon! I can't wait to check it out. I have to up my collection of Iron Fist. Great Blog. I never miss it!

Captain Splendid said...

In regards to the last paragraph, could we get both?

Yeah, I know, I'm greedy.

Dean said...

With regard to Thor, I always go back to the basics.

Dr. Donald Blake had the ability to transform into something amazing, which is an appealing idea. That moment of transformation is a theme that comes up in a lot of comics. The Fawcett Captain Marvel is an extremely similar character in many ways. However, Don Blake started from a more realistic world and enters a fantasy world.

Add to that the fact Jack Kirby created characters that work really well wide-screen. In the '60s, Marvel always left a title well-stocked with the sort of mid-list enemies that make long runs by later creative teams possible. The guy behind the counter can tell you that there is a new issue that has a cool take on The Midgard Serpent, or the Enchantress, or the Executioner.

Dean said...

More briefly, I'd love to see what you think about Thor.

Earl Newton said...

Great Odin's Raven, Thor, sir. Thor.

Was that an Anchorman quote? Yes. Yes it was.

You may begin judging me now.

Mark Clapham said...

Verily, thou shouldst tell us about Thor.

McLean6 said...

Man, can't we have both in two seperate posts? Firstly, though, gotta vote Thor.

+3 Pants of Quietude said...

Thor Thor Thor Thor Thor THOR


ajay said...

“I need to show what a deeply sympathetic character the killer is. I’ll put a gym teacher in here for him to kill.”

Fixed that for you. (Can't stand gym teachers.)

Alan Scott said...

I vote Thor.

My guess: His villians. With a few exceptions, marvel villains range from silly to 'new and edgy' retcons of what used to be silly. Thor's villians, however, tend to have resonance by virtue of their mythological roots.

Andrew said...

See, I always thought Rorschach ate the sugar cubes because they're pure energy. He doesn't give one tiny goddamn about how his meals tastes, he just wants the chemicals he needs to keep living, as efficiently as possible. That's also why he eats the cold beans right out of the can. Beans are protein. Canned beans, unheated, sugar cubes, water. You can live off of that. No sane human being would willingly do so, but of course that's sort of the point, isn't it?

Scott Edwards said...

Dave Campbell, over at "Dave's Longbox" explains the appeal of Thor best for me:

But with the tile "Characters Are Not Furniture", who else thought of the characters from Disney's "Beauty and the Beast"?

Anonymous said...


stampedo said...

You're right on two very important points, Mark. The main one, and also the "stuttering gym teacher" being cheap and obvious. Also, it takes you out of the story, big-time. But the intention is right.

So far, my favourite post was the Aquaman pitch -- any chance you can use other examples from your own writing as you what you think worked/didn't work?

Your views on writing/editing are extremely valuable, even to those of us who work in other media. Keep 'em coming!