NYCC 2018: The Building Blocks of Quality Characters With Oni Press

by James Ferguson

The panel description promised the use of literal building blocks and that’s what we got as moderator and Oni Press Publisher James Lucas Jones brought a whole bunch of LEGO bricks for the panelists to use. Joining Jones was Yehudi Mercado (Sci-Fu), Robert Wilson IV (Heartthrob), and Sarah Graley (Kim Reaper). The idea is that the panelists will make some characters while talking about how they create their own for comics.

Jones started the discussion by talking about a character’s motivation. He called on audience members to provide them for the creators. Yehudi got the motivation of sanctuary. Sarah got saving New York. Robert got a redemption arc. It’s clear that there were a number of creators in the audience eager to learn more. Jones stressed that compelling characters should have a certain amount of mystery or a secret so you don’t give everything away. He urged the panelists to think of what secret they’d like to have for their characters.

As Jones spoke, the panelists continued to build. He asked them to add contradiction to their characters. Yehudi chose to make his character lazy, while Sarah opted to make hers a party crasher. Robert, after buying some time by passing to Sarah, had his character struggle with the right thing to do on her path to redemption.

It got a little awkward at times as the aspiring creators in the audience who offered up the characters’ motivations tried to further explain the ideas. They have their own views on characters that they’ve created and struggle to convey what that means in broad and vague concepts. At times they even interrupted each other to try to elaborate further.

Jones asked Wilson about the main character in Heartthrob and how he chose to convey her emotion and define the character. He wanted the readers to work a little bit to understand what’s going on instead of just spelling everything out for them. The goal would be for the reader to instinctively feel what she’s going through.

Mercado was asked which character was the most vulnerable in his graphic novel, Sci-Fu. He explained how Wax was struggling to find the balance with his new power that comes from his robot hand. The most egotistical he gets, the more robotic his body becomes.

Jones asked Graley about vulnerabilities among the main characters in Kim Reaper. She explained how they get into arguments and bicker, but didn’t want to reveal much more as there’s some new stuff coming in the latest Kim Reaper comic.

The discussion turned to using real life people as models for characters in comics. Graley said she relies heavily on personal experiences in creating her characters, even though those in Kim Reaper work as a part-time grim reaper.

Wilson was asked how he comes at this as an artist collaborating to make the story. He said he tries not to do that too much, but in some way, everyone he’s ever met goes into creating characters. It’s largely subconscious for him. He’ll add something in and then realize that he pulled a tick or idea from real life.

A fan asked Wilson to elaborate on that. He said that he’s writing something by himself for the first time and realized that everything he’s ever ingested goes into it in some way. People won’t see it as a Star Wars knockoff or a Beyonce knockoff, but the characters wouldn’t exist without Star Wars or Beyonce.

Jones asked some questions specific to each of the creators’ comics and dovetailed into questions about themselves. Mercado shared a story about his most stressful trip that involved getting pulled over with an expired drivers license with his sick cat in the car. It ended with the cop driving him to an ATM to get out cash to pay him off. The audience was more concerned about the cat, who was still in the car when it got towed. I asked what happened to the cat and Mercado said it died later on of an unrelated incident.

The time came to reveal the finished characters the panelists had been building all this time. Mercado was first, explaining how his character had a large backpack to carry everything as he’s on the run. This came from his need to carry all of the groceries in one trip when coming home from the store.

Wilson’s redemption seeker character commandeered some gauntlets to allow her to save some kingdoms. Graley’s was perhaps the most intricate. She explained it was inspired by panic and lack of experience with LEGO. She’s very tall with multiple weapons. The audience member that suggested the motivation spoke at length about his idea.

The panel turned to Q&A with the few minutes remaining. A fan asked what he could do to make sure his characters are compelling for a TV series he’s writing. Mercado suggested to base them on something real or relatable, but to add his own twist to it. He also recommended giving them unique names. Wilson added that he finds it interesting when a character has extreme weaknesses. They make for more interesting aspects than the strengths.

Another fan asked about how to convey exposition without taking away from the story. Mercado said an easy way to do this is to have a newbie character that needs to be explained to, similar to how Harry Potter is set. Wilson pointed out you could have the characters do something while talking, that will make for a more interesting reading experience.

Jones pointed out that favoring character development over world building is always wise. The characters will resonate more than the rules of the world around them. On the subject of exposition, he said that Terminator 2 is the best example of a recap he’s ever seen as it basically retells the entire story of the first movie in about 20 minutes.

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