Breathing Life into Your Characters

Don't let your characters fall flat! Making 2-dimensional characters 3-dimensional.

Characterization is one of those bugaboos of writing that is especially easy to overlook on a comics project where the majority of time and effort is usually spent designing visual elements. In prose, it's hard to sell a reader on a poorly developed character. By its very nature, prose takes us into the mind of a character very quickly. In comics, it's far easier to end up with a character who is all visual flash, and not even realize it until the project has hit the shelves. How many mangas have you read featuring the adventures of a quietly sweet, inoffensive girl, with such varied interests as snacking and being nice to freshmen? Or American comics about tough, brooding anti-heros? Stop me if you've heard the one about the Silent But Deadly Warrior Woman with a Tragic Past(TM) and a penchant for wandering around her apartment in Victoria's Secret undergarments.

The importance of good, solid character development cannot be stressed enough. It is your character's words and actions, far more than how they look, that will create a lasting impression on your audience. Take the time to crawl inside your character's head and get to know them inside and out. After all, if they're not real to you, how are you going to sell a reader on them?


1. Get to know your characters sooner rather than later!

Don't wait until the last minute to decide who your character is and what they're all about. Work out as much of their personal history as early on as possible. What are their parents like? Do they have any siblings? What kind of hobbies? How about their dating history? Any allergies?

2. Draw from real life!

Remember that guy who asked you out, got completely shit-faced at dinner, puked all down the side of your car on the drive home, and then called 6 times over 3 days apologizing and begging you for another chance? Remember how you told me about that and we laughed and laughed? Ok, maybe not that last part. Wouldn't it be great to write that guy into a small role in your comic though? You could name him Bert and he could get run over by a dump truck at the end of the scene. You'll feel a little better after you've written it, too. Trust me.

3. Don't love your characters too much!

It's important to love your characters, but try to love them the same way you love your family: don't be afraid to acknowledge their faults. Everyone wants readers to like their characters, but it's very easy to make your character a little too likeable. At that point, you are well on your way to creating a Mary Sue. Also, when you're handing out those flaws, make sure you add in a few good ones! Avoid the Playboy Pin-Up Characterization – eating dessert and watching R-rated movies are not really flaws.

4. That said, avoid Mary Sue/Gary Stu's* siren song. "Luke, it's a trap!".

Mary and her male counterpart Gary will pretend to be your best friends. They will lie to you like there's no tomorrow. The lie they tell most often is, "The more perfect you make me, the more everyone will love me!".

First off, how many perfect people do you know in real life? I'm willing to bet not a one. Perfect people are boring! Nobody wants to read about someone who is physically flawless, never makes a single mistake, and is loved by the entire supporting cast for no real reason. I'll be the first to say that it doesn't help that so many actual published novels and comics are peopled with Mary Sues. A prime example of a "canon" Mary Sue is the hero of Mercedes Lackey's "Magic's Price" trilogy, Vanyel Ashkevron, a classic Emo Stu.

*For those not in the know, a Mary Sue/Gary Stu is an idealized version of the author. Read all about them!

5. Don't go overboard on the dark pasts!

Sit down and get comfy. I want to introduce you to a friend of mine. This is Shayna Darkrivenlost. Say 'Hi!', Shayna! Oops, I forgot. Shayna doesn't talk much anymore, not since losing her entire family in a tragic car accident. And whatever you do, don't ask her about her girlfriend — Valerie was murdered just last week by a dark mage. Did I mention that Shayna's also dying of cancer? And is in an abusive relationship? And is a cutter? And was molested by her entire Pee Wee Soccer team as a child?

As you can see, this gets ridiculous fairly quickly.

6. Read a few psychology books!

Thrift stores often carry decent used textbooks for just a couple of bucks. There's also a wealth of free info on the Internet. So do some research and create the best little obsessive-compulsive narcissistic paranoid manic depressive ever!

7. Writing exercises!

Sit down and give yourself at least half an hour to free-write. Create brand new characters and see how many traits you can give them. Don't over think it. Just jot down anything you think of, no matter how silly it sounds at the time. After all, 'princess who loves giant bugs' sounds a little weird when you just write it out like that.

8. Read classics!

There's a reason your high school lit teachers kept trying to cram The Count of Monte Cristo, The Brothers Karamazov and Edith Wharton novels down your throat — these people really knew how to create memorable, sympathetic characters! Don't limit yourself to the genre you're interested in writing. Read widely. The entire texts of many classics are free online. Check out The Online Books Page.

9. Get a Beta reader for your story or script!

And no, it can't be your sister, or your Mom or Dad, or anyone who is going to look up into your sad little puppy dog face and be unable to tell you the truth.

In closing, if you feel an overwhelming need to write a comic about a Japanese school girl, for pity's sake, do 20 minutes of research first. Don't just name her "Neko", or something equally improbable, and unleash her on an unsuspecting public. For one thing, it's not very nice, and for another, it's just plain lazy.



  1. Thanks for the great article! I hope that you'll write more often for the site.

    One thing that I don't agree with completely is that everyone should think of detailed backgrounds for their characters before you even put pen to paper. A novice script writer may end up writing episode upon episode upon episode of "character building" where nothing happens and that is not interesting for anyone else, instead of telling a story or entertaining the readers.

    I'd say that what is important is to have in mind how the characters would react in a given circumnstance and let that be revealing of their personality. If deciding what is their biography helps, great, but I don't think that it's that important.


    ——– Gianna Masetti

  2. It depends on the reason why the detailed backgrounds are thought up. Mostly I think it should be done only to identify the reasons for the characters' motivations. Using that detailed background as a tool to help one determine what a character would really do or how he or she would react to a situation.

    If you're doing a detail background only to them reveal it all in boring exposition, it's probably not going to be very helpful.


    – Matt Buchwald: Fodi

  3. A strategy that was useful to me with Arthur, King of Time and Space: For four and a half years before you even conceive of your webcomic, work with the characters as a sidebar to the online project you worked on previously.

    This may not be an effective strategy for everyone.

    Paul Gadzikowski,
    Arthur, King of Time and Space New cartoons daily

  4. I find one good way to create characters is to take existing steryotypes and then alter them.  For example, what's better than a megalomaniac villain bent on world conquest? A megalomaniac villain bent on world conquest who collects self-help books and has an overbearing mother. A grim, caped avenger? A grim, caped avenger who is a sexaholic and attends a sexaholic support group.Â

    When I created characters, I don't try to impose a personality on them. Instead, I listen, and in a way the character will tell you who he or she is. If you let them, imaginary characters develop distinct voices.Â

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