Heaven Forbid It Be Lavender

Next to the FAQ page, the “cast” page is almost always the first link readers click on when coming across a new webcomic. Hey, they’re lingering — one foot’s already through the door. Their fancy is caught, their curiosity piqued, they want to find out who these characters are and how they relate to one another. . . .

Here’s the thing: they don’t care what that character’s favorite color is.

A shocker, I’m sure. Just between you and me, a few hints on how not to write a character bio:

Tempted to lay down your protagonist’s entire backstory? Sweetie, at least keep an air of mystery about the kid. You know the maxim by heart: “Show, don’t tell.” It still applies to the bio page. Master the three-lines-max description. Forget those three paragraphs you intended (why is three the magic number?). Anything over the brief mention, you can cover within the story itself.

“But three paragraphs summarizing a person’s lifetime? That’s not so bad!” cries a voice from the back of the room.

Yes. It is. You’re not selling your comic via your cast page. You’re selling your comic via your comic.

You’re making your pitch to the reader, tempting them to linger, using your art, concept, and wit. Anything else is secondary. It’s not that the About/Cast page is unimportant. It’s just the appetizer to the main course. The cast page supports your comic by crooking its finger at the reader, cooing, “Come closer, my pretty, and have a gander.” It certainly does not lift its skirts and display its well-turned ankle to the masses. That’s the comic’s job.

(The cast page, see, has more class.)

Is he a flirt? Show it. Is she bilingual? Show it. Is he a megalomaniac ready to take over the world but needs to pick up laundry detergent from the store? Show — well, you know the drill.

I confess to taking the “air of mystery” thing quite seriously. The majority of my comics currently display just the character’s name below his or her image. Simple, straightforward, plus it gives me such glee when readers are able to deduce personalities and relationships purely through the story itself. It tells me that I’m doing a good job, or if I need to make things more obvious.

And hey, surely it doesn’t take long for folks to figure out which cast members are dating and which ones are brother and sister, does it?

Kidding. Maybe.

Of course, with longer, epic tales, a concise bio page isn’t sufficient. In such cases, three to five lines is still the max. You don’t really want to spoil anything for new readers, now do you?

“But what if some details don’t get a chance to surface in the context of the tale?” cries that same voice from the back of the room.

Not appearing in the story? Well, then, is it relevant to the story? ‘Cause if not, then it’s not relevant to the cast page. Take that “favorite color” example again. Is this really such critical knowledge to have to warrant special mention on your cast page? If it is. . . well, I’d say that poor protagonist needs other things on his mind.

Yes, I’m sure there are charming, whimsical quirks to your characters. That’s what makes them well-rounded and interesting, and believe me, I’m more than willing to find them out! I just prefer to find them out through the comic, that’s all — the rightful place to do it.

I tend to notice some comics, after mentioning character quirks in the bio, will think the job is done and they don’t have to cover it in the comic anymore. For example, they’ll specify an obsessive eye-twitch whenever a character gets mad, but only show such an episode once in the next 76 pages.

That doesn’t qualify as obsessive. I know obsessive.

Why talk about the guy’s love for fried chicken if the topic of poultry never surfaces in the comic? Seriously, the only time “favorite food” should make the cast page is when the whole thing is intentionally tongue-in-cheek: “Favorite food: brains. She’s a friggin’ zombie, for crying out loud.”

I think the problem is that sometimes, we artists tend to think from a writer’s point of view. Which is a good thing, and should definitely be encouraged. But it can pose a stumbling block when it comes to descriptions. Short stories and novels have leeway in describing what a heroine looks like, how a hero feels. Comics on the one hand take most of that work away (no need to describe looks, it’s pretty much redundant), but on the other hand it introduces other challenges. You can show how tough your written character is by describing the way he chews a blade of grass, but that chewing motion can’t be portrayed in a two-dimensional comic.

But that’s why we do this — we’re creative and inventive, and can find other methods to distinguish our guys from the rest of the pack. All without mentioning a favorite color.


Lynn Lau

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