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What I Learned about Writing this Week…from Graphic Novels

Courtney Cantrell's weekly writing advice.

Courtney Cantrell's weekly writing advice.

Last autumn, Aaron encouraged me to read my first ever graphic novel: V for Vendetta by Alan Moore and David Lloyd. Since then, I’ve also read the first two in Stephen King’s Dark Tower graphic novel series and Watchmen by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons. Those friends of mine who are in the know about such things tell me that all of this is giving me a good start to my graphic novel education. Since I’m a newbie, I can’t judge; feel free to chime in and agree/disagree in the comments!

I am a writer–but when I am not writing, my next favorite creative endeavor is oil painting. I can’t remember a time when I wasn’t drawing or painting regularly. Somewhere in the world, there is a room, and in that room there are boxes, and in those boxes are The Collected Artistic Undertakings of Courtney, Ages 2-17 (Approx.). In my German high school, I took art classes equivalent to American university undergrad courses. So I think it’s safe to say that visual art has a big role in my life and is part of the way I think. Kinda funny that it took me so long to discover graphic novels…but better late than never, aye? Yea verily.

Visual and Envisioning

Graphic novels engage parts of my mind that standard novels don’t. Not only am I reading a story, I’m seeing it unfold; in a way, this is counterpart? companion? to watching a movie with subtitles. Not only do I get the pleasure of piece-by-piece revelation, I can take the delightful time to admire the artistry of characters brought to life in color, line, and shading. In the case of King’s Dark Tower series, I read the original novels long before getting my grubby little hands on the graphic versions. King’s characters were already alive in my mind…but now that I’ve seen an artist’s interpretation of King’s copious and brilliant descriptions, his characters are even more vibrant and breathtaking in my imagination.

Some of you might think that the graphic novel representations have erased my own pictures, but let me assure you: The artists’ renderings have not replaced but instead enhanced the images I’d formed of the characters and their surroundings. Suddenly, those characters are even more real–and they were pretty sugar-torting real before, lemme tell ya. And I wonder: How would it be if my own characters could become that real?

Vivid and Invigorating

If there were a Facebook group for Describing Your Characters Down To The Last Teensy Little Detail, I would not become a fan. In my own stories, I like to give a few descriptive hints, then leave the rest up to my readers’ imaginations. This might be my private rebellion against novels I’ve read in which the reader must wade through pages of frilly dress descriptions (*cough*RobertJordan*cough*), but that is another story and shall be told another time. Suffice it to say I want my readers to interact with my story as much as possible–and one way of letting them do this is to allow them the freedom to see my characters with minimal writerly interference.

But what if there were a way to make my characters more vivid and alive for me? As writers, we need to know our characters inside and out, otherwise there’s really no point to this grand and terrifying adventure we call Writing. Part of knowing someone is knowing their habits, personality traits, likes, dislikes, and history. Aaron has already given you some excellent pointers on how to figure out these things about your characters. Thanks to my graphic novel reads, I am focusing on one of his recommendations: Get yourself a visual representation of your character’s appearance.

Meet somebody online, chat with them, exchange emails, friend each other on Facebook–and you know that person, right? Wrong. For most of us, a big part of knowing somebody is knowing what they look like. (Not to mention interacting with them vis-à-vis, but that, too, is another story.) The same goes for your characters. You need to know what they look like so that they become three-dimensional in your mind. You need to know where their laugh lines are. You need to see the shine of tears in their eyes. You need to identify which crooked teeth show when they smile. The more you see them right in front of you–instead of just in your head–the better your ability to communicate that reality to your readers. Even if you tease those same readers along with nothing more than hints.

Vibrant and Unvisioned (And Yes, I Made That Word Up So The Heading Would Fit)

So take your envisioning to the next level. Get the image of your characters out of your imagination and into a form more concrete. Take that abstract vision and make it tangible. Some of us have the artistic skill to bring our characters to life through our own drawing skills. (Strangely enough, I have yet to do this myself.) For the rest of us, magazines, online photo galleries, or even clothing catalogs are the better source. What if your story were turned into a movie? Think of the actors who would play your main characters. Acquire pictures of these celebrities and peruse them as you write. Tack them to the print-outs of your Character Record Sheets. If a character “happens” to look like your best friend, older sister, or umpteenth cousin thrice-removed, use photos of those people (but don’t necessarily tell them about it). Learn what your characters really look like–and then sprinkle bits of that reality throughout your story. See if that doesn’t take your readers’ collective breath away.

And that’s WILAWriTWe!

(Click a link and buy something! Feeding a writer is that easy.)

Photo credit Courtney Cantrell.

10 Responses to “What I Learned about Writing this Week…from Graphic Novels”

  1. I have folders on my computer that contain photos of people who ‘could be’ my main characters. The pictures are a result of online searching for actor/model/celebrity photos. Sometimes, I find one individual who is perfect, but other times it’s more difficult and I end up with 5 different people who each have a few features similar to my character. But either way, I end up with a better idea of what he or she looks like, even if it remains in my head.

    And I have one confession to make. I did once have a friend inconspicuously take pictures during a meeting of a consultant we worked with because he looked JUST like one of my characters. He never found out, so no harm done, right? 😉

  2. Courtney Cantrell says:

    Becca, one of my great regrets in life is not taking the picture of the boy behind the bar in a pub on the coast of Ireland in 2002. For one thing, he was take-your-breath gorgeous…but was also possessed of a pixie face and slanted blue eyes that stared right into the heart of me.

    I swear he was an elf. Why didn’t I take his picture?!? Still kicking myself. If I ever go back to Ireland, I’m going to look for *him*. Hats off to you for photographic initiative!

  3. Carlos Velez says:

    @Rebecca Campbell: that is quite spectacular Becca. I applaud your craftiness.

  4. Carlos Velez says:

    I am not very visually inclined when I read a novel. Each character has a vague physical presence, like seeing them through slightly frosted glass. Nevertheless, when the book becomes a movie I invariably approve or disapprove with no lack of certainty on the physical representation of those beloved characters. Sometimes I make no sense.

  5. Aaron Pogue says:

    Becca’s photos are really pretty good, even if she did end up stalking a client to get them.

    They work really well for her characters, though. I can absolutely see why they would help her write. It’s a perfect example of what Courtney was talking about.

  6. Carlos Velez says:

    Courtney, you should read this, it might interest you.

  7. I feel you, Courtney! I didn’t have the guts to take a picture of mine the first time I saw him, but fortunately, my coworker was totally in league with me. 🙂

    Carlos, I am a VERY visual person…which is probably why I’ve also used maps and drawn floorplans to help me write my story. None of these will be passed along to readers…aside from those who are helping ‘test’ my story and blessing me with their comments…but they help me greatly.

  8. Courtney Cantrell says:

    @Carlos: What’s funny to me is that when I read a book, I get a pretty definite mental image if the author gives me just a few details. But when I write, I see my characters the way you described: as though through frosted glass. Part of my goal in writing this post was to prod myself into getting to know my characters’ physical appearances better!

  9. Courtney Cantrell says:

    @Becca: Alas, I had no companions at my side when I glimpsed my elf. Maybe if someone had been with me, I’d’ve had the guts to do something about getting that picture!

  10. Courtney Cantrell says:

    Oh, and @Carlos: Read, and commented-upon. 😉