Chapter 1 Reflections: how to write a fantasy webcomicDecember 14th, 2012
Welp, so I wrote my first chapter of a fantasy adventure comic. It’s not great — I wrote it as I went and it definitely shows! Here’s a couple of things I’ve learned/am musing about in the aftermath:
1. Just do it
I really don’t have any idea what Elysia holds. What I found was that trying to think out the world and the people in text or scribbles via a notebook (at least, for me) just resulted in me going back and forth about ideas that I liked then disliked then liked again. At this point, I just said “Screw this” and started drawing a comic. I’m really glad I did this, because it forced me to draw out details and these details ended up inspiring important parts of the world. For example, in the first page of Chapter 1, Gear uses a spirit ball thingy to lead the way out of the forest. We now know these are in-world things called Spheres, but when I drew that page I just kind of had a vague idea that Gear had magic powers of some kind and that’s the form his magic took. It later occurred to me that this would have to be explained or Auto would ask about it, so I had to make up something that rationalized the existing of a magic ball thing. So I came up with the idea of Spheres. It’s an example of thinking through doing, I guess.
I kept balking on starting this comic because I was continually worried it wouldn’t be good enough. Well, an OK comic that’s drawn is better than a comic that isn’t drawn. And, hopefully, I’ll get better at this storytelling thing as I keep doing it.
2. Simple concepts lead to a rich world
That leads into the second point. Previously, I had another vague notion that Auto was the chosen one somehow, but I didn’t really know why or how Gear knew about it. Was it a prophecy? Some childhood encounter they both had? Some stunning aspect of Auto’s personality that made her hero material? Uh, yeah. Boring.
Lo and behold, coming up with this governing principle that every person had a Sphere provided the framework I could fit this “chosen one” idea into. Auto had a different kind of Sphere — the last of her kind. Presto — rationale behind why she was involved in all of this stuff! And I didn’t have to resort to writing a mystical prophecy that would undoubtedly be really lame. It seems kind of counter-intuitive, but coming up with this very simple but clear world principle allowed me to come up with more details. I guess it reduced the possible space of ideas, in a way, which sounds bad but actually makes it easier to decide on something rather than juggling ideas forever.
3. Simple concepts lead to rich characters
I think the biggest flaw in Herogirl so far is that the characters aren’t really that… interesting. It’s hard to look at Gear or Auto or Bell and pick a phrase that would really describe them. I think I came into Herogirl with this goal that I want my characters to be as rich and real as possible and that didn’t turn out so well, because they ended up being like boring normal people. Stories are interesting because of interactions between characters, but when the characters are so complicated you don’t know what interactions between them would even look like, you kind of have to resort to making things up, and it doesn’t make sense.
Lothar, I think, is the only one I really succeeded with. His simple concept is “mad scientist”. At first, it was “evil king”, but I had a hard time figuring out how to portray him without making him like every other fantasy villain ever (things I considered: a dude that hides in the dark, a dude that laughs evilly, a dude that wants to take over the world). While struggling with making Lothar’s motive as a character not totally lame, I was struck with a thought:
Hey, I’m a grad student, I know a little about science HEY WHAT IF THE EVIL KING WAS A MAD SCIENTIST.
And then suddenly Lothar could give reasons for things that he did, such bringing Auto here in the first place and letting her go. It was all part of an experiment he wanted to run! And now there were also other connections that could be made — for example, why Lothar is king in the first place.
In other words, I should have approached characters in the opposite way that I did. For each character, I need to associate a simple concept with each of them. Then, the interactions between the characters will provide the richness and force the details out.
4. Write in arcs
I think this is a low-hanging fruit that I can start doing from now on. Chapter 1 was kind of all over the place, with very little coming together to create an overarching theme or clear plot advancement. I think, from now on, I need to write one chapter at a time starting with one plot goal and one theme goal. In other words, I should write an episode that focuses on a small thing. Once I figure out what that small thing is, I can tie in advancements in the larger plot to the framework I’ve already created for the chapter.
5. Keep to the deadline and update regularly
This is one of the most repeated pieces of advice for comic artists so I’m going to join the cool club by repeating it. Not only is it important for keeping an audience regularly engaged (of course, you have to write something good first!), but it’s important for you, as the story writer, because it forces you to think about your story on a weekly or daily basis rather than feeling like you can just push it off until after your camping trip or Christmas shopping or naked bike ride expedition. You get better this way!
6. Don’t use random camera angles for panels just because
I don’t really have a solution for this yet, this is just something that I’ve noticed I do. To prevent too much repetition between panels I try to change up camera angles when it makes sense, but I end up staring at my rough draft for an hour or so while I try to figure out what the camera angle should look like. I feel that I often pick them arbitrarily (mostly, views from above and 3/4 views on faces). Any ideas on how to change it up some more?
I guess this is all advice to myself as I write Chapter 2 and beyond. This is probably stuff that more experienced story writers know already, but hopefully this will be helpful to other people in the same boat as me.