Master Of The Obvious: Issue #38

Wed, April 19th, 2000 at 12:00am PST

Comic Books
Steven Grant, Columnist

I ran into an artist friend at a convention a few months back. He'd been working with others on a project, but they'd run off to other things and he found himself without a writer. So he asked me for help.

Though we've only worked together once and often discuss working on other things (and may yet, soon), he didn't ask me to write the project. He wanted to try to write it himself. Which is fine, it's his project. It's his vision. Better he should pursue it than try to explain it to me. While I'm of the conceit that I can do a professional job on pretty much anything, I'm never going to have the emotional connection to the project that he has.

He'd realized writing's harder than it looks. He had a plot - which fans and pros alike seem to regularly confuse with story - but he's smart enough to know plot alone isn't enough. He wanted a handle on characterization.

Pretty much since the day I entered this business, I've had people asking me "the secret" of writing. I'm not surprised. When I was younger, I read books and took college courses and sought "the secret" myself. At the first major convention I attended, I spent $75 - a fortune for me at the time - on an all-night seminar taught by Jim Steranko on "How To Write Comics." It was the first and only formal training in writing comics I had, and while it helped bring elements into focus and was entertaining as hell (I may still have the "instruction sheet" in the files somewhere; if I ever find it, maybe I'll ask Jim if I can reprint it here) it ultimately told me nothing I didn't already know. (My main memory of the event is when Steranko asked my name, I croaked it out due to acute laryngitis, and he told me it was a comic book name, that only comics characters had names like "Steven Grant." Which, some years later, Doug Moench proved to be true, naming one of his creation Moon Knight's multiple identities Steven Grant, after a friend of his. No connection to me whatsoever.)

"Pretty much since the day I entered this business, I've had people asking me "the secret" of writing. I'm not surprised."

When this column started, most readers assumed I'd write about writing comics. From the e-mail I get, many seem to be waiting for me to unveil "the secret." I'm on writer panels at conventions, and I keep looking out on a sea of eager would-be comics writers, their eyes wide and hungry, waiting for the magic words that just don't exist. But I don't particularly like talking about writing. Fact is, after 20 years of writing professionally, I still don't know how to write. Anyone who's sure they know how to write is doing something wrong.

I'm among those who believes writing can't be taught. The teachers I've had, the books I've read, they're all people telling how they write. Which is good for perspective, bad for instruction. There's no secret. None. "Books are like maps," the philosopher J.G. Bennett said, "but one must also travel." You learn to write by writing, and by not being satisfied with what you've written.

What most teachers teach about writing is how to write like they'd write if they wrote. And some do write. Many don't. It's not necessary. You don't have to be a writer to recognize good writing, or to deconstruct it into something teachable. You don't have to be a carpenter to know when a table won't stand up.

What teachers teach you is their little tricks. In college, I had one very nice teacher who repeated a quote over and over again: "How do I know what I think until I see what I say?" Always struck me as ass-backwards, and still does, though I understand now: writing, real writing, is diving into the black pit of your own psyche, to play tag with your demons and give them shape with the printed word. Often you don't know they're there till they show up in the work. That's Nietzsche's abyss that stares back. That's why we write, to prick pinholes of light in the darkness and shape them into constellations. Constellations don't exist in nature, only our perception orders them. So you really don't know what you think until you see what you say. But that's not what my teacher meant by it.

"That's why we write, to prick pinholes of light in the darkness and shape them into constellations."

What she meant is it's a disservice to fiction to plan it out, that writing is a process to evolve through, not a goal to attain.

It goes completely against my grain. If you don't know how a story's going to end, you don't know what your story is. The ending determines the meaning of a story, it's the filter through which we interpret all the events of the story. My best advice to would-be writers is to always know your ending first. If you know where it is, you can always find a way to get there. If you don't know where it is, you'll most likely get lost.

Both my teacher and I are wrong.

There's no one way. What made sense to her was gibberish to me. Not because I'm afraid of wandering into the unknown - I think that's pretty much what all writing is, on the physical level of beginning with a vast empty space and filling it with text and on psychological levels as well - but because writing has enough false starts and dead ends built into it without adding ways to lose time doing it. There's an Arthurian myth. All the Knights of the Round Table must quest into the Forest Terrible, where no paths exist and each man must hew his own path. For me, this is a metaphor for the writing process: every new journey is an uncharted road, even if it's on familiar territory.

But I know writers who don't feel this way at all.

In San Diego a couple years ago, a budding comics writer approached me after a panel to talk about the craft. He'd read all the books, took screenwriting courses, etc. Very nice, enthusiastic guy. (In one column, I talked about myth. Got an e-mail praising me for talking myth and never once using the name Joseph Campbell. To that reader, and others like his, this is a warning: Joseph Campbell's name about to come up.) Specifically, he asked me about the current Hollywood "paradigm" of the mythic journey of the hero.

[The Hero With A Thousand Faces]For those who never heard of it, this is sociologist Joseph Campbell's twelve step program for programmatic writing. Blame it on George Lucas, not Joseph Campbell. In THE HERO WITH A THOUSAND FACES, Campbell deconstructed hero myths from a number of myth cycles and boiled them down to a common structure. Read the book if you want to know what it is. George Lucas, in the process of cobbling together STAR WARS from old Flash Gordon serials, Kurosawa films and what have you, supposedly imposed Campbell's "heroic structure" on it. It wasn't long before Hollywood - which became obsessed with 12 step programs in the 80s, about the time every Movie-Of-The-Week started having the theme that people who live to excess are to be pitied for their excesses and then praised for no longer living to excess (you have permission to yawn) - seized on the Campbell structure as the means to impose "resonance" and "subtext" on otherwise shallow and pointless movies. Many screenwriting courses now resolutely pronounce it as something every successful screenplay must have. Producers have questions about "the structure" in their little repertoire of pointless comments on screenplays.

Bollocks.

I have some scant knowledge of Campbell's work. I've read it all. (And would recommend THE FLIGHT OF THE WILD GANDER over THE HERO WITH A THOUSAND FACES, if anyone wants to delve into it.) The first paper I wrote in college paralleled Campbell's 12 steps with the twelve phases of schizophrenia and the twelve phases of the psychedelic experience. Campbell's structure can be twisted to mean whatever you want it to mean, but Campbell also said this, which everyone conveniently forgets: the structure was unconscious. If its repetition indeed suggests it rises from the human psyche, some vast Jungian collective unconscious, the key word remains unconscious. Campbell's point was that living myths spring from the unconscious, and any conscious attempt to impose such structures on material will be forced, brittle and unnatural. And ultimately pointless.

My advice to the budding writer was this: if you want to know what Campbell said, read Campbell. Don't believe what other people tell you he said. (This goes for any writer.) Learn the material, internalize it, and forget it.

Tricks in comics: as I mentioned once before, Jim Shooter was fond of using "Little Miss Muffet" as an outline for a good comics story. It sounds facetious, but makes sense as far as it goes. Little Miss Muffet: who. Sat on a tuffet: set the scene. Eating her curds and whey: doing what. Along came a spider: introduce conflict. That sat down beside her: escalate conflict. And frightened Miss Muffet away: resolve conflict. As a mnemonic it's got a certain charm; as a model it's so abbreviated it's worthless. Paul Levitz used to have this little speech (he may still give it, for all I know) about how all good comics stories are built around one of three "i"s: idea - a central idea the story's built around; image - a really strong central image (many of the old Mort Weisinger books were written around whatever cover they happened to come up with, like Superman shocked by a dinosaur with a TV screen for a head); and I don't remember the third i. If you see Paul at a con, you can ask him. Larry Hama, when he was an editor, used to cite the longstanding rule in the medium of putting a hook in the last panel of every page, a verbal or visual "question" that would compel the reader to go to the next page to answer. (He also focused strongly on how hands were drawn in art samples, since hands are among the hardest things to draw correctly. Something budding artists should keep in mind.)

None of these things are wrong. None are universally right. They're things everyone has to feel out for themselves. If they were rigid and universal, anyone could write by menu. (Something many an editor and producer feel is devoutly to be wished, by the way.)

I began my comics writing career at Marvel, when they were just starting their evolution from a publishing company to a licensing megalith. And I was confused about characterization. See, what passes for characterization in comics is usually bombast: characters hurling threats and snide comments at each other. Even characters with very strong personalities on the page commonly act out of character to push a plot point. (Dr. Doom is the poster boy for this. For quite awhile, he was Marvel's most overused villains, always lost in some impossible deathtrap at the end of a story. When he'd reappear, the explanation was always that he had a "contingency plan" in case his main plan failed, and in that way he escaped his fate. On the one hand, okay, he's the smartest guy in the world, so it almost makes sense he'd have backup schemes. Almost. But he's Dr. Doom. He's also got the biggest ego in the world. He'd never anticipate a plan failing, no matter how often his plans failed. His ego would never allow him to accept a plan might fail. If writers played him to character instead of to plot. "Contingency plans" were a quick way of saying "I'm too lazy to work out something better.")

[Battlestar Galactica]I was writing a BATTLESTAR GALACTICA for Louise Jones at the time. (For those who came in late, she's now Louise Simonson.) An underestimated editor, she knew her stuff and she had a viewpoint that wasn't predicated on comics. Confused on characterization - I mean, I knew what characterization was but I'd lost any notion of what was expected in comics in terms of characterization - I asked her about the story I was working on. She pointed out a particular scene, where two of the characters approach a problem from different perspectives. It wasn't a particularly important scene, nor flashy in any sense. There was nothing in it that would make anyone sit up and shout "Oooh! Characterization!" But Weezie showed me that scene and said, "What you did here is characterization."

And I thought, "That's it?!"

There's nothing mystical about characterization. It's just the logic of how characters interact with themselves, their environment and each other. It's not necessarily the howling dog that usually passes for characterization in comics stories; nuance ultimately serves character better. If you're hung up on plot and putting all other elements of story into bondage to it, characterization can be a real problem, unless you pasteurize it into vanilla compliance.

"There's nothing mystical about characterization. It's just the logic of how characters interact with themselves, their environment and each other."

Every element of behavior is characterization. How does your character light a cigarette? Lighter? Book of matches? Strike anywhere kitchen match? Does he cup his hand over the cigarette to light it? The variations are endless. Some people believe the best way to develop characters is to write out their little life story, just for yourself, and proceed from there. That doesn't work for me. I tend to discover little bits of characters as I go along. Since college I've had this theory that people's lives are logical, and if someone is doing something that seems out of character, there's something you don't know about that, if known, would make it all make sense. That something is what I look for in my characters, but it's not necessarily something I know to begin with.

But here's what I told the artist, my quickie shorthand method of determining character. Three questions:

What does the character want? (Bear in mind that what characters think they want or say they want isn't necessarily the same thing as what they want. It's my observation that people above a certain socioeconomic level generally get what they want, even when they don't recognize it as what they want. What they really want can be determined by the choices they make, because people always choose to protect what's most important to them, whether they acknowledge that importance or not.)

What is the character willing to do to get it?

What is the character afraid of?

If you can figure out those three things, you know enough about your character to write him according to his own logic.

That's all fiction writing is: the exploration of character through conflict. (Even that's something of a lie; there are experimental fictionalists, like Alain Robbe-Grillet, who abandon concepts like character and conflict altogether, and it doesn't invalidate their work.) Character is the logic of personality. Conflict is the clash of desires. Plot is the framework, from genesis to resolution, of action developing out of conflict. Story is the end result.

If comics have a weakness, it's their tendency (and they share this with movies and TV) to pigeonhole these concepts. Not every character, not even every central character, can be a strong, proactive hero. Those characters develop into a certain kind of story, but those aren't the only interesting stories, and anything repeated enough becomes dull. It's the birth of formula. It's no coincidence that the writers and stories people tend to remember best are those who break formula, nuance characters, escape the slavery of plot. We rationalize that these are exceptions made palatable by sheer talent, but since it has been demonstrated that exceptions are what people really want, all writers should be encouraged to become exceptions.

"It's no coincidence that the writers and stories people tend to remember best are those who break formula, nuance characters, escape the slavery of plot."

The exceptions are known as style, and style is how we impose our own personalities on the work. The choices we make create our themes, and theme is just what the individual writer has to say. You can go in with a theme, you can determine what your theme really is by seeing what you end up with (and there's a gap between the two more often than not). But everyone has their own themes, or they have themes inflicted on them.

If you really have something to say, you'll always be able to find a way to say it. If you don't, none of the rest of it matters. There's no point in having a car if there's nowhere you want to go. It might take time and effort, you might not get it right the first time or the first thousand times (odds are you won't, actually) but if you don't have that thing, that idea, that voice screaming to get out of you, you should be doing something else with your life.

Because that's what writing is all about.

Or maybe it's all about sex.

Lots of accessory notes this week:

First, thanks to Denny O'Neil for his lovely appreciation of Gil Kane in this month's DC Comics. Good job, Denny.

Lately I've gotten a flood of e-mail asking for help with dissertations, school papers, research, etc. While I appreciate the opportunity to expound on the various aspects of comics culture, I honestly don't have time to answer. Most questions I get are already answered in the MOTO archives. That's when they're actually questions. Often they're along the lines of "tell me what's the state of the comic book industry today." So here are the rules: if you have a specific question on a specific issue, something that can be answered in two or three sentences, and if it's something that hasn't already been covered in the column, I'll try to answer - but it might be in the column instead of a personal reply. Anything more than that, uh-uh. Sorry, ain't gonna happen. My life's full enough as it is.

Speaking of which, X-MAN #64 from Marvel and LEGENDS OF THE DC UNIVERSE #29 from DC ought to both be out by now. New stories should be up at @VENTURE by now as well, including more Anna Passenger by Adisakdi Tantimedh and more Hodag by Mike Baron. I was preoccupied last week so TEQUILA fans - and thanks to everyone for the nice comments on my @VENTURE novel-in-progress - will unfortunately have to wait. More soon, though. Hopefully, @VENTURE will feature an extra-special story (at least to me, by the writer of possibly my all-time favorite comics series - and featuring characters from that series) in the next couple of weeks. I'm working on nailing it down now.

No word yet on how the hit campaign (if you don't know what I'm talking about, check the April 5 MOTO archives) but I should have some results by next week. I'd also like to plug a new web column, Thwack, written by my pal Jonathan Vankin. Jonathan's a conspiracy expert (not a conspiracy theorist), writer of DC's BIG BOOKS, ace interviewer and all around cool guy. I don't often recommend other people's columns but this is a must-see (esp. since he doesn't really tread the same ground as the columns here on CBR).

Finally, for all those artists who sent me samples a couple months back, I got swamped with other things right around that time and haven't made a decision yet. Hopefully I'll have the time to go over everything this week and make the choice. Sorry for the delay.

Whatever questions you might have about me can probably be answered with a quick trip to Steven Grant's Alleged Fictions. You can also express your own views at the Master Of The Obvious Message Board, or send me mail. Bear in mind that while I read all my mail, time constrains me from replying in most cases. Thanks.

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