Building characters

The great comics writer Gail Simone emailed me and a number of other writers yesterday asking if we had one pointer about building characters for a workshop she was about run in Norway. Here’s what I sent her:

I try hard, particularly when introducing a character for the first time, to find that one, small, telling action that defines the character for me. Sometimes it’s big and showy, like the Hulk tearing open his own starship in rage at the beginning of “Planet Hulk.” Sometimes it’s small, like Bruce Wayne just sitting there, quietly watching and waiting while Clark Kent yells at some kids who are bullying another kid in a playground at the beginning of “Batman/Superman.” But in some way that initial action encapsulates the big emotional journey the character’s going to be going on during the course of the story. From that very first moment, the character does something that defines him or her and indicates the conflicts and struggles that he or she will face as a result. Once I figure out this moment, I usually have a pretty good grasp on what I’m doing with a character. If I don’t really nail this moment, then I might be in trouble — I might not have done all the work I need to do to really figure out who this character is, what he or she is trying to do, and what he or she is willing to do to get there.

When I reread that this morning, I found myself nodding and committing to work harder to follow my own advice.

This is why your questions about the process of writing are so interesting and helpful to me — they force me to think about what I do and get better at it.

So thanks, Gail — and thanks, everyone who asks these kinds of questions!

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