Sneaky Characters

April 2, 2012

You’re sketching out the skeleton of your graphic novel story and you realize there’s a lot of freaky stuff going on. There’s a fish man, they travel through time, and there’s this incredible blimp made of stone that defies all explanation! What’s wrong with your story? It’s not true. Graphic novel stories can be fantastic, but they still have to be true.
“Fairy tales are more than true; not because they tell us that dragons exist, but because they tell us that dragons can be beaten.” – G.K. Chesterton

When we teach our children about fairy-tales, (we home-school FOUR of em’!) we never transpose words like fairy-tail or myth with words we use to describe lies. For example, if my son didn’t take out the trash I wouldn’t say, “You took out the trash? Tell me another fairy-tale!” Besides sarcasm being bad parenting, it’s wrong to think of fairy tales as lies. Quite the opposite! Fairy-tails are true, they just aren’t fact, and this is an important thing to remember when creating characters and developing plot for the graphic novel.

There have been endless essays and lectures on how to write women. You’d think authors were trying to figure out how someone from another planet spoke. There’s a good reason why Jane Austin could write male dialogue and James L. Brooks can write female dialogue just fine. It’s because every writer observes universal, common truths inherent to everyone then puts their own spin on it. Men and woman don’t really talk the way they do in When Harry Met Sally, but it seems like it’s capturing reality. Nora Ephron knows how to write a good fairy tale.

Stories aren’t about other people, they’re about us. Darth Vader isn’t just Luke’s father, if he was we couldn’t feel anything about their relationship. But we know what Luke is feeling because we all have fathers, so Vader is our father and Luke is us. If you think I’m saying that your father can move objects with his mind, then I’ve lost you. If you’ve ever feared that you might pick up some of the more negative traits of your parents then you get it.

The key to writing your graphic novel is to realize that characters like Darth Vader are no more fairy-tale than When Harry Met Sally. We understand the scene in Star Wars because Vader is a father, not because he wears a black cape. The black cape tells us what kind of person he is, and though it’s iconic, Vader could be a mafia don wanting his son to take over the family business and the lessons would still hold. The true things about Star Wars transcend the skin used to dress them.

“Fantasy can thus be explained as a sudden glimpse of the underlying reality or truth. It is not only a consolation for the sorrow of this world, but an answer to that question, ‘Is it true?’”- J. R. Tolkien

A graphic novel character can be a normal human or a talking wisp floating out of a haunted bog, but it still has to ring true. And the thing that makes it false isn’t the skin, because we’ve all seen some terrible movies that have only human characters in realistic situations but the people were drawn so shallow, so ham-fisted that there wasn’t anything true about them. Then take a look at Return of the Jedi when Han is thawed from the block of carbon and thrown into a prison cell with Chewie. They hug each other… that’s true! We all believe it.

As I consume our most popular books, movies and television shows, a language of universal themes comes out of the material, though each wears a different skin. We love stories about fathers and sons, man and God, the underdog, the proud man who falls then finds redemption. Common, beautiful, true relationships have been around since the beginning of time, and none of the true things will stop being true. It’s a safe bet, because only true things are reliable enough to even write about.

When I write a character I ask myself who or what they are. I pretend like I’m an employer of my graphic novel and these different characters are trying to land a role in my story. They will occupy valuable space after all, so they’d better justify their own existence pretty quickly by being necessary, entertaining and they’d better make me look good. I don’t want to run a shabby story. I’ve got a reputation to protect and I’ll only hire the best creatures to tell the truth in my graphic novels. It’s an important job and I’ll give them a lot of leeway to perform so long as they can keep my attention for more than a few pages.

“But supposing that by casting all these things into an imaginary world, stripping them of their stained-glass and Sunday school associations, one could make them for the first time appear in their real potency? Could one not thus steal past those watchful dragons? I thought one could.” – C.S. Lewis

A magician never reveals the secret to his magic trick and Lewis just gave everything away right there. We cast things into an imaginary world to steal past the watchful dragons of a skeptical, jaded, modernist society. My readers do erect dragons, but I’m going to get past them. How do you get past a dragon? You don’t run in swinging your sword and stabbing it in the face. That’s what we do when we write propaganda, or political screeds that wake the dragon and infuriate him all in one go! A knight would be cooked for sure if he tried such a tact! We need to be sneaky. Now hush! Take off those clanking boots and tip toe with me! We have nothing to worry about. If we fail at making these characters believable we’ll just be fried and eaten by a giant demonic lizard! Do you see what I’m doing to you right now?

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16 Responses to “Sneaky Characters”

  1. heartauthor Says:

    Mr. TenNapel,

    First of all, I am a huge fan of your work, and I’ve followed your blog for a good number of years. I’m really excited to be able to finally contact you.

    I couldn’t agree more with this post. I’m an aspiring author myself, and creating characters is not as easy as it seems! You have to know EVERYTHING about them; little details that probably won’t even come up in the story. Thankfully, I don’t mind this process; I think it’s fun to come up with a background history for each of my characters.

    I also agree with your opinion that stories, no matter how fantastical they are, need to be true. It makes sense to me; in each of the stories I have created, a little piece of my life is in there somewhere. What better way to ensure that there’s a little bit of truth in your story? ;)

  2. BillDoors Says:

    Its a pleasure to see you blogging again. As a grad student who is constantly bombarded with post-modern lit, dull, pedantic, and obscurantist, it is refreshing to read something that pulls from Chesterton, Tolkien, and Lewis. Thanks for the brief reprieve before I dive back into the trenches.


  3. Thank you for this Doug. Thank God Tolkien was able to convince Lewis that not all myths are false…the Myth of Christianity is THE true myth, towards which all other myths point!


  4. […] as veteran comic artist Doug TenNapel clarifies in a wonderful blog post, is the characters—specifically, the truth of the characters. It’s the fact that in FiM, as […]

    • tennapel Says:

      Yes, it even applies to MLPFIM! Thanks for the coverage.

    • tennapel Says:

      …and you’re one of the few with the wisdom to see a tension in Lewis’ work that doesn’t quite put it in the arena of allegory. Tolkien may have hated allegory, but if Tolkien was talking about Narnia, then Tolkien was wrong. You need to read “Planet Narnia” by Michael Ward if you want to really unpack Narnia and have your mind blown as a story observer.


  5. It’s a wonderful thing to get to look into your brain for the path that leads us through your creative process…not to mention helpful for those looking to be in the creative field.

    And even if Tolkien disliked allegorical work, it seems to me that he couldn’t help but share the character of God in his work. Though I suppose that anyone that knows God through His teaching can’t help but reveal Him through his imagination.
    I merely wished to share this to be part of a discourse [smiley face].

  6. kristen Says:

    i bet you never knew im related to you

  7. kristen Says:

    I’m also a tennapel <3

  8. Hamouz Says:

    Wow Earthworm Jim is the best Game ever made i have never get bored of it <3 Doug & Jim


  9. […] final note, this quote from Doug TenNapel cuts to the chase: You’re sketching out the skeleton of your graphic novel story and you realize […]

  10. Piledriver Says:

    So the moral of the story is something like: “let sleeping dragons lie?”

    Actually, I agree with your direction to be subtle or sneaky with the themes; sorta the noble cousin of ‘getting crap past the RADAR,” to avoid making any more respectable literary references. I wonder, though, if most of the young people who want to create comics actually have anything dangerous to say.

    Maybe I should have more faith in kids, but I have been there and done that…

    Heartauthor says: “You have to know EVERYTHING about them; little details that probably won’t even come up in the story.”

    I disagree, and it seems Doug’s point about theme and purpose were missed. I would say, rather, you need to internalize just enough hooks to give the character a consistent voice, and one strong starting trait, plus a good visual design that makes the character easily identifiable and unique in that respect. Then you will find the details, and the complete character everyone recognizes in episode fifty, along the way to episode fifty.

    The freedom to build makes better characters. Like Bob Ross’s “happy accidents.” the defining characteristic may result from a one-off line or plot element.

    Take Doug’s example of Darth Vader: he wasn’t Anakin Skywalker from the beginning — he was just a stock bad guy in the vein of Ming the Merciless, which was good enough to draw out a distinct look and voice. But as the series continued, more angles were needed. By the time three movies had gone by he’d outgrown being a stock villain and become a redeemable human character.


  11. […] that the characters are true; they feel real to us. It sounds simplistic, but there is a profound piece of insight that he relays from Doug TenNapel—that what makes us appreciate a fantasy story with an astounding setting and show-stopping epic […]


  12. […] any of the stuff I mentioned above, or his webcomics like Ratfist or Nnewts, or his blog (of which April 2, 2012; May 3, 2012; and March 16 2014 are three of my faves). I have been aware of Doug TenNapel for […]


  13. […] sont, comme le clarifie l’artiste de bande dessinée Doug TenNapel dans un merveilleux post sur son blog, les personnages – en particulier, la vérité des personnages. C’est le fait que dans FiM, […]


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