Character design is a funny process.
A lot of people seem to think that it’s crucial to design the characters beforehand, write all sorts of character questionnaire forms, and whatnot.
But as a software guy, I don’t really believe in that. Just like software is often best designed in an interative fashion - you make plans, implement something, refine plans, refine implementation, and so on - the characters are pretty much easiest to build that. So the “character sheets”, to me, are just a springboard.
Unlike software design, however, there’s a good side in character design: in software design, it’s important to have definite goals. In character design, however, you don’t even want to know where you end up - the characters can, and should, surprise you. In writing, “definite plans” belong in plot department.
A good example of the character design process is Kara.
Kara’s origins are a bit obscure. Initially, Kara sprang into existence as some member of the Order of Dried Petals. At the time, I was mostly focusing my design efforts on the Order.
The very first mention in my notebook about Kara, dated April 15, 2009, isn’t very detailed:
“We all bleed red. However, we all
makealso make an equally funny soundsplashing sound when we fall in ahead-first in a well. Avoid the well.”
The spelling of the first name apparently mutated to “Karaydhjenna” at some point.
I started writing a story at the time, and I didn’t have really a good idea about the character at first - just that the Order had to commit some pretty odd murders to make people realise things. But not much in the way of the character. Apparently, I had typed some notes later on:
Karaydhjenna (Kara) Bourejenn (b. 3.VI.608 AR–) is an assassin working for the New Order of Dried Petals.
Before joining the order, Kara had worked in many menial low-paying jobs in the Anchorfall docks; her most frequent employer was Villard’s Paint Kitchen. In this period she was married twice, but didn’t have any children; in both occasions, her husbands got killed violently. Kara found the Order soon after it had been re-established in 630 AR. She hadn’t even considered a life as an assassin, and was mostly drawn to the order due to its religious message; she found comfort considering how most of the people around her seemed to die before their time.
She usually comes across as a rational and humorous person who doesn’t take life too seriously - and especially doesn’t take death too seriously. While not averse to taking life when needed, she tries to avoid killing people as much as possible, and avoids all cruelty, but few of her victims have managed to escape without crippling injuries.
I had also made some notes about a few of the people Kara had killed at first, most importantly the circumstances around her first few kills.
And that’s about as far I got when making notes when I started drawing the Kara the Assassin comic. Most of these things were written a few months before the KtA began.
But the weird thing is this: I had no idea about her personality, beyond the vague general idea. “Rational”, “humorous”, “doesn’t take life too seriously”? Yep, vague, general. I had no idea what that really meant, but that was the direction I had decided to take her development.
And curiously enough, I had absolutely no idea how she looked. Looks aren’t that important in short stories, but they’re pretty damn crucial in comics. So when I started drawing Kara the Assassin, I had no idea what she would look like when I drew the first panel. I had to make a decision. She had to look… like something. Something appropriate.
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And with that, a small part of Kara’s attitude and demeanor seemed to form. Oh damn - Kara has to have, like, facial expressions and all. In the subsequent comics, she needed to frown, she needed to smile, she needed to be happy and cranky and kind of normal. And I had to make some decisions that don’t directly apply to a black-and-white comic: by the second comic, I had decided Kara was a redhead.
But the most crucial thing is this, in retrospect: I had absolutely no idea what was going on in Kara’s head in that panel. And to a certain extent, I still don’t. Why is she looking to the viewer? I still don’t know that. In the second panel, she closes her other eye and looks at her victim with a puzzled, really weird look - I have especially not figured out what the hell is she thinking there.
Is it bad that I still don’t know the answers?
Not necessarily. Yeah, if I re-drew the comic, I’d probably change the expressions a bit.
But the crucial thing is this: I didn’t know the answers then, but heck, I definitely know the answers when I draw the new pages now. I’ve started to understand what makes the characters tick.
In comic page 48, we see Kara with a rather familiar-looking expression on her face.
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When I drew that panel, a thought occurred to me: I know what Kara is thinking here. And I knew exactly what the other characters were thinking.
From right to left:
Boris: “I want to apologise. This is absolutely nothing personal.”
Kara: “I know I’m not supposed to be angry. Yet, I’m not apologising for being a bit peeved, no matter what the Order says.”
Tina: “You may be thinking that, unlike my friends here, I’m clearly unarmed. And there’s a damn good reason for that…”
Doesn’t sound much, but the crucial detail to think is this: it’s now far easier to guesstimate what Kara is doing in the tales, which makes the tales both easier to write and easier to draw.
Kara’s details have developed over time. For example, the Order of Dried Petals is supposed to be a serious organisation, so I figured that Kara’s lack of reverence is probably going to cause a bit of headache to the higher-ups. I had written some notes about Kara’s first kills; Filbert Goodmeadow’s tale was eventually covered in “Not a Funny Story”, and I guess that tale inspired a few more details and inspired me to cover more ground in tales further on.
I guess the main thing to learn from this rambling is that, uh, characters can and should take a life of their own. Don’t chuck the character sheets out, but never underestimate the power of just going where the nose points at. Beware of what the folks in the software industry call “analysis paralysis”.