Captain Nihilist says this rant isn’t about Mary Sues


From the desk of El Santo, a.k.a. Captain Nihilist:

If you chased me down, trapped me in an abandoned wine cellar, tripped me with wire to land me in a hollowed out pit, flipped open your John Locke Limited Edition Victorinox Swiss Army Knife, and demanded of me, “What is the most important thing in you look for in webcomics?”, I’d have to reply: “The characters. Please put the knife away, you psycho.”

More than anything, characters keep a webcomic grounded. The comic may go through shifts in art style. The story may evolve from a horror story or a gaming comic to a teen romance or an office humor strip. But it you keep your characters true and engaging, I’m usually happy every step of the way. It makes the webcomic memorable, even if I’m grasping to remember certain plotlines. Print comics have been sticking by this principle for decades. This is why I know that I like a decent guy like Superman because he’s a great character … but hell if I know what he’s be up to in the last ten years.

So I decided to take some time to look at characters. This is aimed at both critics and webcomic creators. I’m going to be posting excerpts from one essay in particular, so all accusations of me being myopic are probably true. Folks looking for reviews might also enjoy reading it, as it will deepen your understanding. If not, come around next week for my take on a highly popular romance comic.

“OK, Captain Nihilist,” you sneer. “What in the heck makes a good character?”

Now, I’m no expert on the subject. I haven’t written many things lately, content as I am to just enjoy the fruits of what people have spent blood, tears, and ink creating.

Webcomic-specific material is pretty sparse on the matter, too. Much of the literature I’ve read has to do with criticism over Mary Sues. Heck, there’s even a whole webcomic-centric blog devoted to it — Me, You, and Mary Sue — that point out the most egregious offenders. However, I’m not dwell on that subject. First of all, no one can seem to agree on what the absolute definition of a Mary Sue is. We all agree that the Mary Sue is based on the writer. But that’s unavoidable: the best characters are based on personal experiences. Also, at what point does the character make a leap from being a Mary Sue to a character in its own right? Second of all, most people will concede there are good Mary Sues. That more or less defeats any argument that Mary Sues are the kiss of death.

The great thing about webcomics is that they’re really just the most recent extension of the ancient art of storytelling. Fundamentals from one medium are easily transferable to another. There have been butt-loads of material written on the subject. The wisest words that I’ve read on characterization come from an essay written by James Patrick Kelly. “You and Your Characters” was originally published in Writing Science Fiction and Fantasy and is currently available, for free, at the Science Fiction Writers of America website. Mr. Kelly is quite reputable in his field, winning a Hugo and Nebula Award and is a part of the faculty at the University of Southern Maine.

“Science fiction?” you say. “Do I look like some sort of Jedi-dressing geek who talks like Yoda whenever I get the chance?”

Yes. Yes you do. But that’s not the point. Much of Mr. Kelly’s advice works in a variety of genres: mystery, adventure, romance, whatever. And it works especially well for webcomics and its similar verisimilitude of themes and characters. Modern comics in their complexity may be more directly comparable to speculative fiction than, say, the stuffy purple prose of Stan Lee’s Silver Age comics.

So what makes good characters? Let’s take a look.

1.) Pretend each character is you. Back when I was taking a public speaking class, our teacher used to say that in order to make your persentation more memorable, you should relate a personal anecdote. That’s because you’d never have to memorize it, since the person that you best know is yourself. Whether you like it or not, every character in your webcomic is going to inevitably have an aspect of your own personality. That doesn’t make them Mary Sues … that makes them real.

In my opinion, the best way to write believable stories is to pretend each character is you.

The operative word here is pretend. You couldn’t possibly be your characters since you exist in different worlds. There are no wizards or vampires in your neighborhood and you’ll probably never get into orbit, more’s the pity. The life histories you create for these imaginary people will necessarily be different from your own. You’ll have to pretend to be both male and female, young and old, good and evil. Yet no matter how far a story leads away from your own experience, or even from the familiar precincts of reality, you must strive to put yourself in your character’s place.

Imagining you are your characters can help keep you from reproducing the cast of plot-driven robots that has traditionally clunked through our genre. Take, for example, the bore. Chances are you wouldn’t dream of lecturing people in a casual conversation and you look for the exits when some bore does start to pontificate. Yet characters in badly written sf are always dumping information on each other in order to advance the story. Or consider the plot convert, who spends most of the story thwarting the hero until a moment of blinding revelation. A conversion follows which makes St. Paul’s on the road to Damascus seem half-hearted, so that the writer can present us with an ending as tidy as a military school bunkroom. In my experience, people admit they’re wrong grudgingly, if at all. Yet another example is the damn fool. Why is it that when some bloodthirsty creature clearly threatens the planetary exploration team, some damn fool always wanders off and gets himself killed? Would you leave the safety of the spaceship? Of course not! However, the damn fools do every time; otherwise there’d be no story.

All right, you know better than to make such basic mistakes. So then why does every character have to be you? Can’t you draw from your circle of friends and acquaintances? Your Aunt Mary? George Bush? Yes, by all means. Many writers base characters on real people who are not themselves. I know I have. However, I do not fool myself into imagining that I’ve captured my real life models in words. Maybe I can make my characters act just like people I’ve met or read about. If I’m lucky, I might even have the benefit of having heard my models explain why they did what they did. But most people live the unexamined life that Plato warned us of; their insight into their own motivations is limited. Besides, human behavior is overdetermined. We have more than one reason for doing just about everything that we do. When the real life murderer confesses, “I killed him because of this,” he’s oversimplifying. What he should say is, “I killed him because of this and this and this and especially that, which I had no way of knowing.” Journalists report confessions; when readers want simple truth, they buy a newspaper. But readers also crave more complex truth.

2.) Characters and world-building are not mutually exclusive. Good advice for everyone, but especially good for people who’ve got their guys stuck in bizarre worlds. If you’re going to create a dragon, how are we, the reader, supposed to understand if that’s a mundane, everyday occurrence or a major threat? You could write reams of prose, or you could simply show how characters react to it.

Creating characters is tied with everything: “Character, plot, setting, theme, idea and style are inextricably bound; all must stand or fall together.”

…beginners especially, must work as hard at characterization as we do on our ideas in order to maintain the suspension of disbelief which readers demand. When a wonky idea, a wooden character or even an incoherent sentence cause readers to realize they’re reading fiction, the writer has lost the game. And there are certain standards of characterization below which even the hardest of hard science fiction writers dare not descend. There is, however, an even more telling objection to those who maintain that brilliant ideas can carry mundane characters.

The quality of speculation is directly related to the quality of characterization. Readers presented with a new reality, whether it is a generation starship, an alien planet or a magic kingdom, apply certain tests of credibility. How long could a closed system in outer space be self-supporting? Could a world without metals support a technological civilization? What would keep the wizards from taking over everything? Although questions about infrastructure, of political and social organization may be the first to occur, readers will eventually ask another, equally crucial, question before disbelief is completely suspended.

A richly imagined world inhabited by mannequins is inherently less believable than the same world would be if it teemed with well-drawn characters who are truly citizens of their alternate reality. In my opinion, this is one reason why some of the classic writers of science fiction are now so painful to read. E.E. “Doc” Smith’s work is still chock full of intricate speculation, but who can take his characters — especially his women — seriously? It’s not only bad art, it’s bad extrapolation. The science fiction character is the readers’ guide to the ideas of the story. If she doesn’t belong, nobody will trust her; if she isn’t real, no one will believe her. Even the writer who aspires to write idea stories skimps characterization at her peril.

3.) Familiarize yourself with the different character types. When you go down the list, you may run into some revelations. Such as, “Hey, it IS OK to write a story full of flat characters!” (Warning: familiarize yourself with what a “flat character” is first.)

However, don’t get too hung up. There’s a reason Mr. Kelly saves this advice for last: “Although the vocabulary of characterization is important, it can also get in your way. In fact, even if you were to memorize all the definitions, your next move would be to forget them as soon as possible. I don’t worry about who’s round and who’s flat when I’m working on a story; I’m too busy trying not to slam into the trees.”

Antagonist: a.k.a. “the bad guy” but better thought of as the opponent of the protagonist or central character. The action of a story arises from conflict between the antagonist and protagonist, as in Baum’s The Wizard of Oz with its struggle between the Wicked Witch of the West and Dorothy. The antagonist need not be a person at all but may be an animal, an inanimate object or even nature itself. For example, the antagonist of Tom Godwin’s story “The Cold Equations” is outer space.

Cardboard character: A stereotype, mannequin, drone or otherwise uninteresting simulacrum passing for a real character. Cardboard is what you use when — for whatever reason — you fail to put yourself into your characters. It is the only pejorative I’ve included in this list. The utopia of Edward Bellamy’s didactic “idea” novel Looking Backward is entirely populated with right-thinking men and women of cardboard.

Confidante: someone in whom the central character confides, thus revealing her personality. Once again, that someone need not be a person. In Robert Heinlein’s The Door Into Summer the central character, Dan Davis, continually confides his plans and feelings to his cat, Pete.

Developing character: a character who changes over the course of the story. The central character is often but not always a developing character. However, it’s crucial that the action of the story causes some character to change. When I was at Clarion, Damon Knight used to write “Who cares?” at the end of stories in which no one develops — a characteristically terse criticism which I found devastating. A tour de force of developing characterization is Louis Sacchetti, the protagonist of Thomas Disch’s Camp Concentration, who is infected with a disease that makes him a genius.

Flat character: Someone who is characterized by one or two traits. “Flat” and “round” were terms first proposed by E.M. Forster in his Aspects of the Novel and they are often misapplied by modern critics. Flat is especially corrupted when used as a synonym for cardboard; in Forster’s usage, flat is not a derogatory term. Rather, it describes a character who can be summed up in a sentence. Gollum from The Lord of the Rings is a wonderful character who is absolutely flat in that his character is determined by his obsession with the recovery of the ring, “his precious.” Every story needs some flat characters and many successful stories, for instance Charles Dickens’ Christmas Carol, have nothing but flat characters.

Foil: someone whose character contrasts to that of the protagonist, thus throwing it into sharp relief. In Connie Willis’s “The Last of the Winnebagos,” Katie Powell serves as a foil to the protagonist David McCombe. Katie chases after David to expiate her guilt over killing one of the last surviving dogs on Earth, while David runs away from Katie and from admitting to himself that he, too, is responsible for the dog’s death.

Narrator: the fictional storyteller. When the narrator is involved in the action of the story she’s called a first person narrator. The sentence “I watched the triceratops eat my purse,” is narrated in first person. When the narrator stands outside the story, she is usually taken to be the implied author. “Persephone watched as the triceratops ate her purse,” is narrated in third person, presumably by the writer. Narrators can either be reliable or unreliable. For example, in Gulliver’s Travels, Gulliver narrates his own story: “I began last week to permit my wife to sit at dinner with me, at the farthest end of a long table, and to answer (but with the utmost brevity) the few questions I ask her.” However, he is so credulous at the start and misanthropic at the end that we know enough not to take everything he tells us seriously. Since he is unreliable we must read between his lines to discover Jonathan Swift’s intent. On the other hand, we have every reason to trust the third person narration in “Nightfall”; the implied storyteller, Isaac Asimov, means exactly what he says. The vast majority of author-as-narrator stories are told reliably. Indeed, a story in which the implied writer appears to be unreliable is usually scorned as a “readercheater.” However, there have been interesting experiments in unreliable third person narration. The implied Bruce Sterling in “Dori Bangs” makes clear that he is unreliable in pursuit of higher truth. This is all very complicated, I know. We’ll more talk about narrators when we get to viewpoint characters.

Protagonist: The central character, or the one whose name comes to mind when you ask the question, “Whose story is this?” A story ought to have just one protagonist but a novel can have several, as in Kate Wilhelm’s multigenerational novel of the Sumner family, Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang.

Round character: one who is complex and perhaps even contradictory. E. M. Forster (see Flat Characters) put it succinctly, “The test of a round character is whether it is capable of surprising in a convincing way.” If a flat character can be summed up in a sentence or two, a round character would probably take an essay. For example, Genly Ai in The Left Hand of Darkness is one of the of Ursula Le Guin’s many round characters.

Spear-carriers: minor characters who provide verisimilitude. They must necessarily be flat since they are rarely named or described in any detail. They tend to run in crowds; in movies these are the folks who made up the “cast of thousands.” The dim-witted population of Earth in C. M. Kornbluth “The Marching Morons” are spear-carriers.

Static character: a character who does not develop. Most characters in a story should be static, so as not to distract from the significant changes you will be depicting in the central character. Static, however, most certainly does not mean boring. In Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery,” all of the characters except for the scapegoat, Tessie Hutchinson, are static.

Stock character: a.k.a. stereotype, but actually a special kind of flat character who is instantly recognizable to most readers, as in the Brave Starship Captain or the Troubled Teen or the Ruthless Businessperson. In the hands of a clumsy writer, the stock character never rises above the cardboard stereotype, which is unfortunate. Even as cliches encapsulate a kernel of truth, so do stock characters reflect aspects of real people. Courage is required of military personnel; people in business act ruthlessly at times in order to survive in the Darwinian world of business. In his collection of short stories, Fancies and Goodnights, John Collier demonstrates how to bring stock characters to life — he’s particularly good with devils.

Sympathetic character: One whose motivations readers can understand and whose feelings they can comfortably share. This is the kind of character of whom naive readers will say “I could identify with her.” The protagonist is often, but not always, sympathetic. Note that a sympathetic character need not be a good person. In George Orwell’s 1984, despite the fact that he betrays Julia and his own values by embracing Big Brother, Winston Smith remains a sympathetic character.

Unsympathetic character: One whose motivations are suspect and whose feelings make us uncomfortable. The boundary between sympathetic and unsympathetic characterization is necessarily ill-defined. The protagonist of Lucius Shepard’s “Black Coral,” an Ugly American named Prince, is definitely not sympathetic, nor is he intended to be. However once he brings destruction down on himself, we feel sorry for him. The central irony of this story is that the punishment Prince receives is to become a sympathetic character.

Viewpoint character: the focus of narration, the person or persons through whom we experience the story. One kind of viewpoint character is the first person narrator. Here’s Mitchell Courtenay, the first person viewpoint character of Pohl and Kornbluth’s The Space Merchants: “As I dressed that morning I ran over in my mind the long list of statistics, evasions and exaggerations that they would expect in my report.” When author herself acts as narrator, she usually chooses to tell the story in the third person, limiting herself to the perspective of one character. While she is in his point of view, she has access to his thoughts and memories but not to those of any one else, as in “The View From Venus” by Karen Joy Fowler:

“Linda knows, of course, that the gorgeous male waiting for her, holding the elevator door with his left hand, cannot be moving into apartment 201.”

A well-written third person viewpoint can be so seductive that it appears that the viewpoint character is, in fact, the narrator; the implied author seems to disappear. However the invisible author must continue to be reliable even if the viewpoint character is an unreliable focus on the action of the story. John Kessel’s Good News From Outer Space has several limited third person viewpoint characters — some fairly reliable, some less so. Kessel maintains consistency of point of view by switching only at the chapter breaks. It’s also possible to have no viewpoint character at all, as when an omniscient author sees through everyone’s eyes. In “Day Million,” Frederick Pohl not only tells us what all his characters think but also what his imaginary readers are thinking as they read his story!



About El Santo

Somehow ended up reading and reviewing almost 300 different webcomics. Life is funny, huh? Despite owning two masks, is not actually a luchador.

Posted on February 18, 2009, in The Webcomic Overlook, Uncategorized, webcomics. Bookmark the permalink. 8 Comments.

  1. I loved that article from James Kelly, good stuff- have a book filled with articles from the old SF magazines from back in the 80s.

    What are some of your favorite characters from web comics? I could use a new good web comic to check out that updates.

    P.S You should give the web comic Girly a review, the guy has been making the pages for 5 years now, his newest chapters are pretty awesome, however the one right before the color chapter made me wanna bash my skull in with a large hammer.

    • You know, Girly has been on my list for a while, but I’ve been daunted by it’s length. I mean, it’s not ridiculously long, but 500+ give me the shivers. I’m still recovering from the time I tried (and failed) to do Sluggy Freelance. I stalled at around the 2001 strips before I was reduced to a quivering mass.

      I do have a small love for Dr. Voluptua, though (his Adults Only strip), so maybe I can go Girly.

      (Eh heh… see what I did there?)

      As well as good characters — the ones I enjoy hanging around — I’d have to include Shelly Winters from Scary Go Round, Antimony from Gunnerkrigg Court, Beartato and Reginald from Nedroid’s Picture Diary, Dr. McNinja, MacGregor from High Moon, Eve Ning from Octopus Pie, Scipio from Templar, AZ, and pretty much everyone in the cast of Lackadaisy. I love all these characters for different reasons.

  2. Brilliant. I wasn’t expecting such an in depth piece on characters when I wandered over, but that was an interesting read. Now I feel like psycho-analyzing characters now just to see how they fit.

    • Thanks, Phalanx! Though to be honest I was copying and pasting some else for the most part. 😉

      Still, I felt compelled to put it up since storytelling fundamentals seemed to be the topic-of-the-day at a lot of webcomic blogs and podcasts. I thought it only made sense to put up an essay from one of the masters.

  3. First off I would like to say superb blog! I had a quick question that I’d like to
    ask if you do not mind. I was curious to find out how you center yourself and clear your thoughts before writing.
    I’ve had a hard time clearing my mind in getting my ideas
    out there. I truly do take pleasure in writing but it just seems like the first 10 to
    15 minutes are usually wasted just trying to figure out how
    to begin. Any suggestions or hints? Appreciate it!

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