Skip to main content

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.

I find one good way to

Scott Story's picture

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

A strategy that was useful

scarfman's picture

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

Best article in months

Gianna's picture

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

Gianna Masetti

It depends on the reason why

themysticalone's picture

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

Matt Buchwald: Fodi

I'm so happy to read this

I'm so happy to read this column. I wrote a nearly-identical piece about beginning a webcomic, and had all the same points. The most dull thing to a comic strip is a character that's only there to deliver punchlines. You see that a lot in vanity strips, where the creator(s) are afraid to show flaws in themselves or their characters. I often try to make the most hateable character the most sympathetic too. No one can argue that Chex and Vanderbeam are the biggest jerks in my strips, and pathetic and kind of sad, but occasionally get it right. That's the most interesting kind of character to me.

Kristofer Straub

Kristofer Straub

I definitely agree, although

I definitely agree, although I think that unless you're writing a comedy with little grounding in reality, you should never write a character with a serious mental illness. It always, ALWAYS comes off sounding fake. In movies I've only seen it done convincingly maybe twice. In The Village (not one of the convincing ones, obviously) you can almost hear Adrian Brody thinking "gosh, I bet I sure sound like I'm probably deranged right now!"

But yeah.

Twist:Ending. Ten kinds of sexual danger.

Twist:Ending. Ten kinds of sexual danger.

Great article. When I was

David Simon's picture

Great article. When I was studying Theatre at University, our playwriting lecturer gave us some good advice: In the development stage of a story, at some point it helps to switch the genders of every single character. You might find that you prefer a few of them that way, and you'll suddenly find yourself breaking some stereotypes which you didn't even realise you were buying into.


[url=]Crimson Dark[/url]

Good Article, But May I Add?

Sean C's picture

I just wrote a little article on stereotype characters the other day, and it's great to see another article highlighting the importance of good, original characters. (hardcore gamer, lone savior, etc...)

It just seems appropriate to throw the link up, since the two ideas are related.

Don't hesitate to procrastinate. See my stuff at

Don't hesitate to procrastinate. My brand new comic:

Concerning character

jfreedan's picture

Concerning character flaws...the main character of my comic has a pretty foul mouth and an equally foul attitude.

Since Issue#2 I've toned it down because I have heard people complain that they "find it hard to believe a superhero would call his mentor a crackhead". If the flaws are too severe, the audience can't identify with the character either.

Personally, I thought a teenager with a bad attitude and who -doesn't- want to be a superhero, would be more amusing, (if not more realistic) than a teenager who just *wants* to run around in tights saving people he doesn't know.

However, you also need to consider the fact the person(or persons) the story revolves around need to have some endearing qualities readers can indentify with. With Richter, he was suppose to be a hero for people who identify with those that are forced to do things they don't neccessarily want to do, but often need to. Richter is arguementive, lazy and somewhat of a coward-- but if he doesn't perform his heroic duties, he can never go back home. Even knowing this, he's relluctant to do what he knows h needs to do. He has to have constant guilt tripping from his mentor, who makes sure he follows down to the proper path to follow.

Because deep down, he's not a hero. He's just an immature kid that hasn't learned to grow up yet, and his moral compass is not very well defined.


Deathfist Ninja GKaiser Anime Parody Webcomic

Henshin heroes, magical girls, giant robots bishonen vampires, and evil teletubbies-- Deathfist Ninja GKaiser will parody it all!



Deathfist Ninja GKaiser Anime Parody Webcomic

i haven't read your comic,

oolong's picture

i haven't read your comic, but the one thing that brings up warning bells upon reading that is: if he's such an asshole, why does the mentor put up with him? seeing a character who is given opportunities and doesn't appreciate them will make him appear spoiled - which can be a good thing, as long as he grows and learns from his mistakes as the comic goes on.

and always remember that not everyone will or SHOULD like your character. that's just the way the chips fall. take other people's opinions into account, but don't compromise your vision.Â



The mentor puts up with him

jfreedan's picture

The mentor puts up with him because he hasn't any choice.

The mentor (a wizard) screwed up his "Hero Summoning Spell" and despite Richter's protests, granted him superpowers which now cannot be taken back or otherwise removed until Richter dies or saves the world.

"There's no refund for granting superpowers."

Thus, the wizard won't send him back home til Richter carries out his duties.

I suppose the wizard could kill him then grant the powers to someone else, but the wizard is too moral to do such a thing.


Deathfist Ninja GKaiser Anime Parody Webcomic

Henshin heroes, magical girls, giant robots bishonen vampires, and evil teletubbies-- Deathfist Ninja GKaiser will parody it all!



Deathfist Ninja GKaiser Anime Parody Webcomic

on the subject of mental

oolong's picture

on the subject of mental illness, i'd like to add my own (perhaps unpopular two cents):

1. If you're thinking of writing a character with multiple personality disorder, don't.

2. If you don't know the difference between schizophrenia and multiple personality disorder, don't write either.

3. Mental disorders should be character flaws, or at the very least have negative impact on the character's functioning. That's why they're DISorders. You can't write a character who is completely lucid and sweet and functional in every situation except when she's fighting with her nemesis which triggers her 'go nuts and flip out' switch.Â

4. APD, insomnia, BPD, manic-depression, GID, amnesia, ADD, pyromania and anorexia are so LiveJournal. Why not try less sexy disorders such as agoraphobia, OCD, paraphilia, autism and Alzheimer's disease? Nothing says Eisner Award like a superhero who gets a call for help from a citizen and then gets lost on the way and forgets what he went out for and buys a hamburger instead.



'Less sexy' also means less appealing.

RemusShepherd's picture

 However, be aware that the reason some of those mental disorders are 'less sexy' is because they're less understood, and thus they'll elicit less sympathy from your readers. Readers these days may be familiar with schizophrenia, and might be able to like a character with that disorder. Very few readers will like characters with paraphilias (as I've learned), so those characters will almost always come across as villains no matter what their other traits are.

You can rescue people from burning buildings, find a cure for cancer, and save the world weekly, but you fuck one sheep and they'll call you a sheepfucker forever. :)




i definitely agree. but i

oolong's picture

i definitely agree. but i think that the reason has less to do with understanding as a society or even prevalence as much as that some disorders have been successfuly made into good characters already by the media and counterculture.

take antisocial personality disorder for instance. there is no logical reason that they should elicit sympathy, because they are utterly incapable of the socio-emotional interaction that neurotypical people can understand and are indeed quite often dangerous people to have a relationship with. yet, we as a society still think of Hannibal Lecter, The Corinthian, Alex DeLarge, Punisher and Simon Adebisi as being admirable anti-heroes (if not warm fuzzy friends) because of the deep envy all of us have to a small extent to be able to live our lives without fear, guilt, loneliness or other entrapments of emotional being.

same with schizophrenia - if hallucinations weren't interesting and desirable on some level, no one would take psychedelic drugs. on the other hand, it's hard (no pun intended) to think of anything even remotely cool about being unable to get an erection without having a woman hitting you in the sack with a claw hammer. but a good writer has the ability to make that character interesting. hell, i liked Ralphie from the Sopranos and I was sad when he died. But I think I might have been the only one.



Excellent article

Jonesy's picture

Great article! The points you make are all very true.

I was actually doing a bit of research the other day on building characters and making them three-dimensional and I came across some very helpful links here:

There are some very good articles there about how your stories should come from the characters and their reactions to the world around them. Some very useful stuff.

"Don't just name her "Neko",

"Don't just name her "Neko", or something equally improbable, and unleash her on an unsuspecting public."


And, hey, consider WHY it has to be set in Japan to begin with, or why are your AMERICAN schoolgirls wearing adorable Japanese uniforms (when they're far more likely to be wearing kilts or khakis)?




"A prime example of a

L_Jonte's picture

"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."

HA! YOU ADMITTED IT! *ahem* I mean...

Excellent article, m'dear. Cool


-Lisa Jonté
Artist, Writer, Flibbertigibbet, Editor

-Lisa Jonté
Artist, Writer, Flibbertigibbet, Editor

Yeah, I admit it. I

Yeah, I admit it. I practically needed a 12-step program to get there though. ;)