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?