John Ostrander: Details, details, details…

Attention all writers!

Memorize this. (There will be a quiz. Constantly, as part of everything you write throughout your career.

OStrander Art 130407 John Ostrander: Details, details, details... by John Ostrander

There’s a saying that goes “The devil is in the detailsl, but so is character, whether writing, drawing, or acting. I had the opportunity of teaching at the Joe Kubert School a few times (and the inestimable pleasure of getting to know not only the legendary Joe Kubert but so many others working at the school) and I had the maybe unenviable task of teaching writing to a bunch of art students. Some didn’t take to that right away; after all, they were there to learn how to draw. From talking to some of the graduates over the years, however, I think most found it worthwhile and I enjoyed it.

For me, everything in comics is about character and storytelling. Design to me means nothing unless it is tied to those two points. I’m not interested in a mask or costume whose design is simply “cool” or its what the artist wants to draw.  The character has chosen to make or wear a given mask, costume, or uniform. What does that tell us about him or her? Famously, Batman wants to invoke a bat because criminals are (supposedly) a cowardly and superstitious lot. He wants to invoke fear in them.

One exercise I gave the students was to create their own mask – not for a character but something that would express and freeze some aspect of themself. It would both reveal them and, because it was a mask, it would also conceal them. They were safe behind the mask. It was and was not them.

When the masks were completed, I asked them to wear them. Masks in many societies have power; often, they represent a god and the wearer (supposedly) channels the power of the god. I asked the students to let the mask act upon them; how did they act, how did they feel, how did they move? What – if anything – changed in them?

The purpose was to get them to understand the affects that the masks the characters they wore had upon the characters they were writing and/or drawing. Spider-Man, for example, certainly reacts differently than Peter Parker. Batman, on the other hand, becomes more of who he is when he wears the cowl; his true mask may be Bruce Wayne, as perceived by others.

We do the same thing with what we choose to wear. We say something about ourselves, about who we perceive ourselves to be, of how we want to be perceived by others. Even a careless choice – “whatever is clean” or “whatever I grab” says something. Even if the message being sent out, “I can’t be judged by my clothes; I’m deeper than that.” that is still making a statement. Maybe the message is – I don’t want to be noticed. That is also still a statement. That’s a choice being made and that tells us something about a person – or a character.

What kind of clothes does your character wear? Bruce Wayne may wear Armani; I asked my students if they knew what an Armani suit looked like. Peter Parker is going to shop off the rack. Which rack?

In movies and TV, they have a whole team of people deciding what the rooms look like. Bedrooms, offices, desks, kitchens – depending on the person and what room is most important to them, what are the telling details about them that personalize the space, that say something about the character?

As an actor, I needed to know what my character wore, how he walked, how he used his hands when talking (or did he?). What sort of shoes did he wear? I compared knowing this to an iceberg; the vast majority of the iceberg is under water and only the tip shows. However, for that tip to show, the bulk of the iceberg had to be there. (One of these days I’m probably going to have to explain what an iceberg was.) I have to know far, far more about a character than I’m actually going to use just to be able to pick the facts that I feel are salient to a given moment or story. When Tim Truman and I created GrimJack, we had a whole vast backstory figured out, some of which was revealed only much later; some of it may not have been revealed yet.

Generic backgrounds create generic characters. To be memorable, there have to be details. The more specific they are, the more memorable the character will be. That’s what we want to create; that’s what we want to read.

John Ostrander: Telling Secrets

…Cuz that’s what good writers do.

house of secrets comic cover

by John Ostrander

Everyone has secrets. The thing is, secrets want to be told. The level of intimacy we have with another person is reflected by the number of secrets we share with them.

There are many different levels of secrets. Some would seem mundane – your name, for example. Unless you’re wearing a name tag, a stranger won’t know it. You have to choose to share it and there are occasions when you wouldn’t or would only give your first name or maybe even a name that isn’t your own. In the latest Star Trek film, Uhura doesn’t give James T. Kirk her full name. In the same movie, a young and defiant James Tiberius Kirk gives a police officer (policebot?) his full name. Both are choices that say something of the character.

There are other levels of secrets, some mundane, some deeper. Boy meets girl. Boy wants girl’s phone number (or vice versa). At the moment the question is asked, the answer is a secret. A decision is made to share it or not. I have known many ladies not always eager to share that phone number with me and some with whom I did not want to share mine. Sometimes you can tell crazy pretty quick.

There are deeper levels of secrets. Your address, are you in a relationship, your social security number, your password on different sites. There are secrets you share with your friends but maybe not your family and vice versa. There are secrets you share only with your best friends or with that one special person. There are secrets you share with no one, keeping them to yourself. There are secrets, truths about you, that you keep even from yourself.

In writing, secrets can be powerful tools for creating and understanding a character. There are all kinds of secrets, great and small, that will help you define the character for yourself and your readers.

Secrets can also define the plot. Who does a character choose to tell what secret and when? Most important, was it as good idea? We have all chosen to share something with someone and it turned out to be a bad idea. If that’s true for you, it’s true for your character. Ever hear something that you labeled TMI – Too Much Information? The character being told the secret may have the same reaction. How do you feel when you’ve told a secret and turned out to be TMI for the person hearing it? Awkward? Embarrassed? Or were you oblivious to it?

The reverse can be true as well. Should a secret have been told at a given moment and wasn’t? What effect does that have on the characters and the plot? What opportunities may have been missed? We all know moments like that in our own lives; what is true for us should also be true for our characters.

Why was the secret told or not told? Why was that moment chosen to tell or not tell? What was the character trying to get or achieve by telling it? Why did they not choose to tell a secret at the right moment? Fear? Fear of what? These all define a character.

Was telling the secret to a given person/character a good idea? Again, think of your own life. Did you ever share something with someone and later wished you hadn’t? When reading a story or watching a movie or TV show or a play, did you even hear a character tell a secret to another character and wince, knowing it was a bad idea even if the character didn’t yet know it?

There’s also telling someone else’s secret. Sometimes it’s a betrayal; sometimes it’s necessity. Which is it and, again, why did the character choose to share that secret at that moment and with whom? Why would you?

In writing, in life, secrets tell us a lot about someone. Knowing them is powerful. We never, however, can or should know all the secrets of a person or a character. As writer, I often know more about the character than I share with a reader. There should always be a bit of mystery, a secret not yet shared hiding within us, within the character.

It comes down to trust. You have to trust in order to share. Sometimes that trust is misplaced and sometimes it’s not. All that drives story – our own or in the stories we create.

John Ostrander knows more about writing for just about every medium than anybody we know. We love being able to bring you his thoughts. (Okay, John? That work for you? Uh-oh, he’s going to critique our writing now, isn’t he? Damn.)