On character design and perception through art and plot.
In contrast to written literature, graphic fiction presents an opportunity to the author to present their characters in more detail, and perhaps more depth than they could have been portrayed solely in writing. The world of graphic fiction lends the author a panoply of tools that allow them to paint richly compelling characters by more than just playing around with words. In fact, apart from the undeniable skill for storytelling, the author of a work of graphic fiction should possess an aesthetically perceptive mind to make use of shapes and colours, as well as line-art, shading, and various art styles to convey their story in a way that allows the reader to be fully immersed in it.
As an avid reader of such works myself and as an aspiring comic artist, one aspect that has always fascinated me is character design, and more precisely character growth. Throughout my numerous attempts at creating my own original characters, a few questions kept coming back. How do I depict a character in a way that allows the reader to project themselves on them, to relate to their life experiences and emotions? Is it absolutely necessary to fit the character into a specific trope in order for them to be compelling? How does a specific trope determine the character’s character? How important is the physique and aesthetic of the character in transmitting their ideals, ambitions, desires, etc? How much of their character and personality should show in their appearance? Or, in other words, how to utilize character design to illustrate who they are?
To begin with, it is important to understand that there is a difference between character and personality.
The character of an individual can be depicted through conventional tropes, or from a psychological standpoint. In her article on Mythology and Character Development, Kathryn S. Bennett put forward a definition of “character” given by Lee J. Cronbach; educational psychologist of the University of Illinois. In his words, character is “the way the individual makes choices which affect the welfare of others” and that, consequently, “the ideal character takes intelligent thought for the best interests of all concerned and then acts accordingly”. Moving forward with this definition we can then assume that character is a mosaic comprised of a balance between altruism and and selfishness, a sense of morale, a set of principles that determine the general direction of one’s life, and-which is emphasized in most works of graphic fiction-a clear yet subjective understanding of right and wrong. In order to build a graphic fiction character’s character, the author must then first decide what they want from them, and what role they play in making the plot advance.
A remarkable illustration of character building is the work of author Tsugumi Ohba and artist Takeshi Obata in the manga Death Note. It falls under the category of shonen manga and is aimed at an audience of older teens, which should be kept in mind when analyzing the relatability and relevance of the characters. We see the story from the point of view of its protagonist, Light Yagami, a high school student who finds a notebook dropped by a grim reaper-shinigami and realizes that he can use it to rid the earth of crime. He immediately develops a god complex that never leaves him until the end of the manga.
Going back to Cronbach’s definition of the “ideal character”, it is hard to deny the fact that Light is that ideal character, yet he cannot necessarily be considered a hero. The concept that heroes do not kill is very common in western comics, specifically in the Marvel and DC universes. In fact, a hero must always strive to bring justice without harming anyone, and the very few times they do, they are tormented by it and will often do anything in their power to right their wrongs. A quick example of that is the DC “hero” Arrow. He is considered to be a hero by a minority in the Starling City, yet he himself never refers to himself as such, and denies it when confronted.
In manga however, the sacrifice of one’s “soul” and conscience is a much more popular trope. The hero in manga is not as often pure as they are willing to give up their humanity and dreams to achieve a greater good, which excludes them from the category of antiheroes. Tsugumi Ohba takes this trope one step further, by stripping Light of any feeling of guilt in the very first few pages of the manga. In fact, Light is convinced that he is doing the right thing, and has no problem killing dozens of people in the span of five days after receiving the notebook. This considerably blurs the line between the villain and upright sides of Light, and we start to believe that maybe Light is not the “hero” in the story after all. This feeling is accentuated when the police task force and an anonymous detective named “L” make their appearance and try to solve the deaths Light has caused. Yet Tsugumi flips the balance once again as he never truly makes either Light or L evil or good. The character design for Light does evolve as he becomes more and more involved in the murders, yet he is always depicted as the smart young man with a god complex trying to rid the world of malice and crime. The choice of whom to root for is left to the reader, taking away the moral transparency we are accustomed to in western comics. The manga lets the sense of morality of the reader string the sense of morality of the story, making the characters ambiguous and unpredictable. This lack of definition in their characters’ character allows Tsugumi to write plot twist after plot twist without breaking the characters’ identity, or making them act “out of character”.
Since the characters of Death Note do not fit any of the conventional tropes of storytelling, can they be defined at all? According to Cronbach, they can.
In fact, the psychologist came up with a five level scale to help frame one’s character that ranges from weaker to stronger “maturity of motive and action”; the amoral, the self-centred, the conforming-conventional, the irrational-conscientious and the rational-conscientious.
According to this classification, Light Yagami should be considered a rational-conscientious individual, since he has a rational understanding of the reasons behind his actions and believes that the means justify the end, yet still maintains the strong belief that he acts in the interests of the greater good. Another interesting character from the manga, whom would fall on the conforming-conventional shelf, would be Misa Amane; the possessor of a second death note whom also happens to be infatuated with Light. Misa helps Light remain anonymous throughout the manga and kills for him without an ounce of hesitation, yet contrarily to Light she has no care for the greater good. She follows Light because she worships him blindly and conforms to any of his plans. She is however not unintelligent; she simply does not care, and has a very loose sense of morality.
Personality can be deduced from the physique of the characters; their character design is the main tool to build and show off their personality. Personality or, as William T. Root Jr. prefers to call it in his conference on Character Development, “superficial personality” betrays itself in a person’s physique. Personality shines through one’s demeanour, the way they carry themselves, the way they speak and hold a conversation. It can be deduced from their interaction with their surroundings, or the lack of it.
As readers, we have access to one more facet of a character’s personality that we would not be able to see in real life; their thoughts and inner monologue.
A good example of an instance where this is used to depict a character’s personality in graphic fiction is the work of Rachel Smythe; Lore Olympus. The plot of the webcomic is borrowed from Ancient Greek mythology, and gives us a sneak peak into the lives of the gods and goddesses of Olympus and their courts. The story mainly circles around a reinvented version of Omer’s tale The Rape of Persephone, and makes show of impressive character building and growth.
In the very first chapters, we meet Persephone through the eyes of Hades in Olympus, and this is where the plot deviates drastically from the original story. Instead of being abducted and raped by Aidoneus after being dragged into the Underworld, Persephone moves to Olympus by herself to attend university. In this rendition Aidoneus-more commonly referred to as Hades-is a God with a strong sense of morality and iron clad principles that he stand by firmly. Persephone is still the protagonist of the story and her “initiation” into womanhood is very similar to that of the original myth. In the comic, Persephone is the textbook definition of an open book, yet not so much to the other characters as she is to the reader. In fact, we get insight into her emotions, feelings and thoughts via various stylistic choices as well as narration flow chosen by the author. First, Rachel Smythe uses inner monologue very early on to depict the shy and disoriented side of Persephone through thoughts; “I don’t want to be clingy”, “I feel awful”, “I just feel more lonely than ever”, “I want to go home”. We immediately get a feeling that she is not the kind of person who would easily reach out for help when needed, and this sticks through the comic.
The author also uses the art style to show emotions that would be too redundant in conversation. Since Persephone rarely talks about how she feels, her personality traits show through her appearance.
In his conference on Character Development, William T. Root Jr. talks about three main ways to examine character growth, or in the case of graphic fiction, to build a character’s personality. The eyes are often said to be a “window into one’s soul”, yet they can also be a great tool for deceit. The choice to give Persephone big “Bambi eyes” gives her an air of innocence and youthfulness, which contrasts with the mischief that she wears on her face and that shines through her eyes. The use of the eyes to depict emotion is rather prominent throughout the comic, as the artist often uses effects such as sparks or changes of the pupil’s of the sclera’s colour to illustrate a change in moods or to put forward a strong emotion. Such scenes are usually pivotal in the progress of the plot.
Another way to do that is to use the voices and manners of characters to let their personalities “seep through” the veil of their ideal self that they show to others. Specifically, this tool is used to hint to the true nature of Apollo whom is a beloved individual by all in Olympus. They day they meet introduced by Apollo’s sister Artemis, the god waits until everyone is asleep in the house to slip into Persephone’s room and rape her. He gaslights her as he shamelessly takes advantage of her, and continues to do so throughout the rest of the comic. No one knows about it for a while, so Apollo’s reputation remains intact, yet as the plot thickens, the god of music starts to show physical signs of aggression. The signs are quite subtle and go unnoticed by olympians, yet they are enough to remind the reader of what kind of person he truly is; the shape of his dialogue bubbles change when he feels threatened, his behaviour is bolder and meaner, the colour of his skin is derived from a purple palette that represents power in the comic as Zeus is also purple. Finally, the comic makes genial use of stereotypes by breaking them. Persephone is petite and pink, her figure is drawn in soft curves and lines, the way she effortlessly floats around suggests emotional and situational flexibility. She is the embodiment of maidenhood and the goddess of spring and life, yet she is one of the most powerful gods on Olympus as she is capable of unleashing terrible wrath and is considered to be the bringer of chaos by those who have seen her in action. Aidoneus-or Hades-as well as the entire Underworld are a dark shade of blue. His hair is white and his features sharp, his tone is mostly formal and he carries an air of responsibility and coldness on his broad shoulders. His mansion is impenetrable and he keeps Cerberus the three headed monster as a pet, whom he feeds the souls of murderers and “occasionally egg whites”. Under this façade however, Aidoneus has a warm heart and lots of insecurities, as well as deep trauma from his stay inside of his father Kronos for a what felt like an eternity. Under his tailored black suits and ties, he hides the scars from the darkest period of his immortal life.
Thus it is safe to admit that, even though there are no strict rules as to how to build a character effectively, there are criteria that undeniably make said character more compelling and relatable. Rather than categorizing the characters into the usual comic book tropes, I believe Cronbach’s five levels of character to be much more efficient in making the plot interesting and adding ambiguity to the moral dilemma of whom to side with. It is also important to remember that people can change because of major events that mark them-like Hades after his stay in Kronos, but also by simple providence-like Light finding the notebook a shinigami dropped from the realm of the dead. As for personality, characteristics such as the shape, colour and intensity of the character’s eyes, their general demeanour and speech patterns, the way they dress and carry themselves or simply the way they are perceived by the people surrounding them can do a lot for character growth.
Ohba, Tsugumi, et al. Death Note. Viz Media, 2010.
Bennett, Kathryn S. “MYTHOLOGY AND CHARACTER DEVELOPMENT.” The Classical Outlook, vol. 36, no. 5, 1959, pp. 49–51. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/43929242. Accessed 4 May 2021.
Lincoln, Bruce. “The Rape of Persephone: A Greek Scenario of Women’s Initiation.” The Harvard Theological Review, vol. 72, no. 3/4, 1979, pp. 223–235., www.jstor.org/stable/1509722. Accessed 4 May 2021.
Root, William T. “CHARACTER DEVELOPMENT.” American Annals of the Deaf, vol. 81, no. 4, 1936, pp. 360–379. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/44391444. Accessed 4 May 2021.
Referenced images: (source: “Lore Olympus.” Www.webtoons.com, www.webtoons.com/en/romance/lore-olympus/list?title_no=1320&page=1.)