What Writers Can Learn From Comic Books

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Some of my readers may still think of comic books as a kid’s media.  Reality is, that started going away in the 60s. The shift rally began to pick up steam during the 1980s. NOW, they deal with all kinds of social issues and topics that would be considered more mature.  They just also do it in a grandiose setting much like ancient myths.  I’ve read them for decades, and I’ve seen the good and bad in the work.  I believe there are multiple good and bad lessons for other writers to take away from them as well.  So, here we go:

    Begin With the End in Mind

    This SHOULD be common sense writing advice, it’s given be nearly every author who has deemed themself worthy of offering writing advice. It’s OK to write “seat of the pants” style, BUT, know the direction you’re heading.  If you have an outline (mental or written) of how just that final chapter is going to go, you will have an easier time getting your characters to that point.  For better or worse, this is one thing the comic companies are good at doing.  We have a 12 issue story arc that will end with X being defeated this way.

    Think About the Long Term Implications of the Story’s Events:

    This is mainly for authors writing sequels.  However, you never know when that one shot story or novel will inspire you to write more however.  You may also have fans push for a sequel.  While the companies may wrap up individual story lines reasonably well, this is where they fall completely flat anymore. Major changes to a character, the introduction of new vastly powerful artifacts or villains… All manner of things along those lines create long term complications for their stories over the long term. It’s why DC and Marvel have to reboot and “fix” their universes so often.

    On a smaller level, character actions have consequences, even in good fiction.  Widespread destruction will cause public insecurity and backlash.  Captured doomsday devices are potentially going to end up in wrong hands again if not destroyed, etc…

    My favorite example here it Geoff Johns unleashing a whole rainbow of different Lantern rings on the DC Universe.  It was pretty clearly, “oh this is cool, let’s take it a step farther” thinking with no thought for the impact on the story universe.  So we went from Sinestro having a yellow ring, to him recruiting an army of yellow ringed psychos terrorizing the universe with the yellow rings.  Then there were Red Rings based on rage, then came Blue rings based on hope, and Violet rings based on passion (not love), Indigo rings based on Compassion, an Orange Ring based on greed, White Rings based on Life, and Black Rings based on Death that reanimated dead characters as zombie black lanterns…  By the time all was said and done, DC had the universe overflowing with various lanterns running amok. 

    They had to go back and destroy most of the rings to restore some semblance of balance to the story universe.  Recently, not having learned, they started doubling down and introduced non-visible light spectrum rings for hidden emotions like shame.

    Learn from this.  It doesn’t matter if it’s a spy story and the bad guy discovers our secret agent’s real name and that they have a family.  There’s long term implications there of the bad guy repeatedly coming after the family, and selling the information to other villains so they can do the same.  It’s OK to do that, just have a plan on how to handle it long term, like the family being relocated with new identities.

    Every Character Should Have A Purpose: 

    The comic companies have become gung-ho the last decade on blindly introducing hordes of new characters. Half of it is a “see what sticks” attitude of trying to appeal to newer readers. The other half is a cynical attempt to trademark as many character concepts as possible to cripple new comic companies. That’s another topic however.  The point for this article is that storytelling suffers if characters are just added in at random with no thought given to their contribution to the overall plot.

    Principle characters should have a decent backstory to define their motivations and goals.  It can be as simple as the heroine works with the hero because they’re childhood friends and she has a secret crush.  It’s a reason for them to be there, then all you need is what skills, observations, connections, etc… do they add to the story, and how those will come into play in the story.

    Even minor or cameo character should have a reason for being there.  The co-worker passed in the hall tells the protagonist about an event, etc…  If they’re just there to show the office has a staff, they’re not needed in the story.

    Note that major characters / the protagonist should have as much depth as possible also.  Stan Lee talked about how what made Spider-Man successful was Peter’s heart and knowledge always win the day, NOT Spider-Man’s powers.  The more clearly the character is defined, the easier it is to avoid that Mary Sue ending where the protagonist is simply better than the antagonist at their game.

    Make Your Heroes Actually be Heroes and Your Villains be Villains

    A major failing of almost all mass media storytelling anymore.  There’s precious little difference between protagonists and antagonists in so many TV stories, movies, etc…

    A villain with depth is great.  Magneto from the X-Men being a classic example.  He has a cause, and a reason why he goes about it the way he does.  At the end of the day though, he’s still a villain.  The irony of the character that’s lost on many modern readers is that he was oppressed by Nazis so he feels justified in using the same logic and ideology as Nazis to protect mutants.

    Nowadays, everything is moral relativism though, and some try to justify that as realism.  It’s about as realistic as saying there’s no difference between a peace loving Muslim and a suicide bomber.  Think about all the best selling books and movies in recent memory also.  Every one of them had a hero that was standing up for what was right.  Everything from Hunger Games to Avengers.  The heroes may be flawed, and should be to some degree, but at their core, they’re still heroes.  Likewise no matter how the villains try to justify themselves, or how tragic a character they might be, they’re still villains.

    Do NOT Get Overly Preachy with Social Messages

    Something the Twitter crowd doesn’t understand.  You LOSE and outright alienate more readers this way than you gain.  Comics have gotten BAD about this the last decade also.  It’s the same kind of mentality that led Jussie Smollett to do what he did, with the same result that less people are going to be willing to listen to similar issues in the future.

    Social issues have had a place in story telling since the dawn of time.  Comics started with them in the 60s.  They did a fine job up until the 90s also.  My favorite old example is a Captain America story line from back in 1986. The government tried to compel him back into government service.  It was a great story about the meaning of patriotism.  Steve ultimately told the government to stuff it, and that while he believed in the country and the American Dream, the government had no right to control a citizen’s life. 

    Where is that level of integrity today???

    It was a good story that acknowledged the good and bad of patriotism and loyalty in general; how there had to be common sense and balance.  Compare that with today how everything is about how horrible and beyond redemption the other side of any argument is.

    Even when part of a story is racism or sexism; things with no upside…  Don’t aggressively beat people to death with it, or portray any group as all bad.  Yes, there are sexist men out there, but labeling every straight male in your story as a rapist is unrealistic and will alienate the average reader.  Strive for a rational portrayal of social issues and you’ll reach more people.

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