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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.

Re: Heaven Forbid It Be Lavender

I can't see anything wrong with including additional character background info in a Cast List. It may not be strictly relevant to the story but, hey, the Cast List is not part of the story.

The bigger sin, it seems to me, would be to include important info about the character there instead of working it into the story. The story should always be able to stand alone.

Although not strictly a Cast List, I'd draw a comparison with the wealth of additional information provided at the end of each chapter of Watchmen. You can skip over those bits if you want. Everything you need to understand the characters and enjoy the story is in the comic itself. If you do read those additional "featurettes", however, you can enjoy it even more.

Oh and, for the record, I've always thought Rorschach's favourite colour probably was lavender!


Broken Voice Comics
Because comics are not just for kids

Broken Voice Comics
Because comics are not just for kids

Re: Heaven Forbid It Be Lavender

Actually Myth, I disagree.

A cast page should give you an idea what your characters are about. Like any story, what you don't tell is just as important as what you do.

Yes, it's fascinating that a character has a penchant for grilled salmon and has an affinity for vintage Zepplin.

But does it matter one bit to the story? Does it ad anything? If not, why include it?

Yes, if the character has, say, an affinity towards vintage Led Zepplin that causes them to turn into a leather clad Jimmy Page wannabe, but otherwise what significance does it have on the story at all?

A cast page is to introduce your cast to those who are unfamiliar with them. Your COMIC should provide the flesh. If you're not doing that then you're failing your audience. It would be like buying the DVD for Pearl Harbor and discovering that the actual CHARACTERIZATION was left off on the DVD extras leaving only a hollow, empty, pandering piece of crap film that theaters charged you $8.00 to view.

Re: Heaven Forbid It Be Lavender

But what is the point of even having a cast page if it does not add anything that isn't already in the comic? Should it really just be there as Cliffs Notes to those too lazy to read through the archive?

I always believed the extra pages on the website should cater to the fans who enjoy the comic and want more content. Isn't their time worth more than the minutes wasted reading a cast page that tells them nothing they didn't already know?

Perhaps a comic's website truly should be thought of as a DVD... You don't have to view the featurette about the characters to understand and enjoy the main feature, but if wanted it's there to give you a bit deeper look into their lives than three panels a day can manage.



Re: Heaven Forbid It Be Lavender

I actually disagree rather strongly with the idea of keeping the bio's precise - or, rather, I think there are two seperate uses for cast pages that need to be addressed.

On the one hand, you use them as you say - to sell new readers on the characters. Give them a glimpse, make them look interesting, get them wanting to read the story to find them more.

But at least for myself, I pretty much never use them for that - I generally avoid cast pages precisely because I'd rather meet the characters through the story. What I tend to look for in them, instead, is to refresh myself on stories I've been reading for a while. A character who hasn't been seen in years reappears - I want to know how they are. I can't recall which character did what in a previous storyline - I take a look and see if the cast page answers that question.

And, unfortunately, it often does not. Cast pages are usually left with a few simple lines of info - usually the same ones from when the series began. I think there is definitely a place for short, simple introductions that summarize the characters - I can easily name some good examples - but I think it is also valuable to let readers refresh themselves on what has happened without having to re-read the entire archives.

I think it is easy to underestimate how complicated keeping track of relationships between characters can be - especially considering that, since webcomics are taken in a strip at a time, I suspect scenes don't always leave as solid an imprint as when read as a whole.

Now, the best answer might simply be to seperate this into two categories - a basic cast page that serves as an introduction to the characters, and a story section summarizing events that have taken place. But while I don't think a cast page should be used to deliver information instead of doing so through the story, I do think that leaving it essentially empty of useful information is a waste of a valuable resource.

Re: Heaven Forbid It Be Lavender

Naturally, I'd rather not describe the bad behavior outlined here as "thinking like a writer." I think a better description is "thinking like a DVD commentator."

It is useful for YOU to decide what a character's favorite color is: it may give you a grasp on the character that'll come in handy later. But don't share it with the class.