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User Submission: Kill Your Baby

Started by Rob, January 25, 2010, 06:42:04 AM

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This post was graciously sent in by Ran Brown of Hollow and Strike the Earth. It was allowed to be reposted from her site, | brainspill |.

You've been working on that story for years–you've rewritten it, you've taken it to places for critique, you've rewritten it again. But something isn't right. Maybe the people you asked for critique didn't like it, or maybe you can't figure out how to fill a particularly large plot-hole. Perhaps you've taken a step back and decided that your concept is all wrong or that your characters are unbelievable or unlikeable, or both, again. You feel like you've been working on this story forever, and yet you're no closer to actually making it into a comic than you were on day one. So what can you do? The answer is simple:

Kill your baby. Or at least send it on a nice vacation.

When you work on a comic for a long time, you start to become attached. You love your characters like you'd love your children, and you become very set on the scenes, ideas and conflicts that you first imagined them in during character creation. The following statement may come as a shock, but, some of those initial ideas and scenes and conflicts will be bad. They will not work, no matter how hard you try and rework them, because as someone who is attached to their 'baby,' you can't bear to cut something that you feel is the lifeblood of your character, or, if necessary, the character him/herself. You will almost always never even know it's necessary, because the more attached you become, the less flaws look like flaws.

Often, when we find ourselves enthralled by a 'baby' project, there are plenty of signs that could but fail to alert us, because they don't seem like signs. Here is a short list of some of the more common signs:

  • A gigantic cast of characters. I cannot count the times I have opened a thread on a comic creators forum that says something along the lines of "Hi! I'm really having trouble starting my comic. I have 45 characters designed, and since they're all so important, I'm having trouble deciding where to start. It's a big project, I know, but everything needs to be perfect! Please help me!"
  • An abundance of Mary-Sue characters. Everyone is awesome, and no one is just normal. The problem here is that everyone is just so special and cool that you have no idea how to start because you're not even sure who the main character is, or who should be narrating, or whose eyes the readers will be seeing through, making actually starting scripting or pages difficult.
  • An important scene that has to happen. Important scenes are not in themselves bad, but can become bad if they're all your character has going for them. If everything you do to develop a character is just working up to a particular scene, your audience is likely to empathize with your character less. If you're really having trouble with a scene and making it 'feel' right, you may want to ask any overly critical friends or forums for an input and brainstorming session.
  • Critiques feel like a personal attack. Sometimes critiques are a personal attack–the person giving them has something against you, or contains personal attacks, for example: "Only a moron would think an idea like this would be worth making into a comic. Don't quit your day job, stupid!" However, if ALL critiques feel like a personal attack, the problem is you, not them.
  • You find yourself uttering the phrase "Don't ask me to change anything." There is not a single story out there, especially among amateurs, that could not benefit from unnecessary scenes or characters being cut or replaced. If you ever say this, its because you think everything is perfect the way it is, and don't really want critique as much as you want a slap on the back and a handshake for making something so awesome.

So what can you do? Well, you can change your scenery. Put that project on the back-burner, and work on something else. Change everything–change the genre, change the setting, new characters, new relationships, new everything. And start small–the last thing you want to do is end up enslaved to yet another baby project. Set deadlines for yourself, and get them done. If you can't meet them, consider enlisting in a particularly motivated and like-minded friend who can keep you in check by working as your partner or editor.

And if you don't? Welcome to Stagnationville, population: you and your baby.


That Mary Sue test that is linked in here.... Awesome. Absolutely love it... and if you are honest about your answers you can really stave off some unfortunate character development.  ;)


I love this article, because it's so true.   I wish I had a quarter for each time I got a pitch like this from one of my classmates.  (Scriptwriting class is torture for just this reason.)  I'm guilty of it too.  There are some stories that just shouldn't live past your highschool years.  Of course, if you're willing to take a critique, or step back from your story and recgonise its flaws, these sort of stories can be salvaged, but only if you're willing to completely rework your idea.  And for someone who's been planning it out since 5th grade, it's usually not that easy.

In that sort of situation, I'd recommend putting in on a backburner and starting fresh.  Maybe you'll get inspiration to polish off that old story and revamp it in the future, but if you find yourself constantly justifying it to other people and nobody really seems interested, chances are it's not ready to be shown to the world.

By the way, do you think it would be a good idea to post a link to the discussion thread in the article? It took me a while to figure out how to comment.


Sigh... here's a confession: every time I read an article like this I cringe and think, oh my gawd they are talking about meeeeeee! I have been writing about the same bunch of characters since forever (proof: this post). I fear critiques (though it's been a while since I read a truly bad one). And I have a pretty epic cast of characters (most have whom have yet to take the stage). Most of the time I think I'm doing OK for a comic creator, but like everyone else I ride the insecurity roller coaster. Am I an exception to the rule? Am I just deluding myself? Who knows?  :-\


This is a great article! If this had come out a year ago my current comic would be a lot farther along. My first attempt at a web comic had the basic problem pointed out here - too many characters and no starting off point.

If you found this article to be true about an idea that you're nursing, you might try reading the "How to Start Your Webcomic" articles from the last couple weeks. I can't vouch for the theme of this article enough, because I got Underling by killing my last baby.

Edit: I just want to boast that although most of my characters are powerful mythological figures, no one registers on the mary sue test at all :D

Please don't feed the ancient deities.


I think we all do this at least once. >>;

Nuke: Haha, my character for my Overlord comic registers as a well-rounded character. I expected him to get a much-higher score. XD;


Quote from: Yamino on January 25, 2010, 07:29:47 AM
By the way, do you think it would be a good idea to post a link to the discussion thread in the article? It took me a while to figure out how to comment.

Yeah I kinda fumbled on that this morning. Sorry. Corrected. Kinda a one man band here the last few days and I'm getting a little frazzled.  :-[


Ugh, I so have this problem in a very specific way.

My characters. I cannot seem to write anything without using the same characters. I keep refitting them to fit new ideas but it just doesn't work. It's partially because I like their character designs so much and using those designs for other characters somehow feels like betraying them.  :-\

They're not Mary Sues though. I did the test any everything.
I'm so optimistic, my blood type is 'B Positive'!


My main character got a 46 and registered as a healthy character. So that means I should be a total success and will be rich and famous and popular and everyone will love my story right?  :D

I think most of what bad points I had came from Remedy being too much like me. But then, I've lived a pretty interesting life.  :-\

I don't think a lot of characters is generally a bad thing. I think a lot of characters early on, like in the first two years of your comic, can be a real problem/challenge because readers need to fall for one or two of your characters before they are willing to go on to that kind of journey. And if you are planning your comic more than two years on down the line then you are probably over planning. Some of the best stuff comes from seeing where the story is going and reacting to it. Sure you need a bible to keep things in hand but strict control is a form of strangulation.

Look at the rabbit in "Looking For Group" for example. The rabbit was supposed to be a one off joke but Lar liked drawing it so he kept it in just to be funny and then "poof" all of the sudden it has become a major character with major story arc implications.

Look at the staggering number of characters in Something*Positive. I'm not rabid about the comic but because I've been a fan so long I can name almost all of them by sight and can probably explain the overall story arc to someone who's never seen it.

On the flip side though, if I was running a comic that had been around for 4-5 years and had a large cast and I felt I had given it a good shot and was still not connecting with readers (getting the traffic, making the money, whatever you consider successful as far as your goals go) I would probably either end it or radically reboot it with some major changes. Since i'm not much of a fan of the reboot I'd probably just end it (and I mean really end it, not just stop doing it... writers can always find a way to end a story given enough time... you may not close every loop hole but you will leave most of what readers you have satisfied).

Tara I hope I'm not overstepping any bounds here when I say I find folks such as yourself enormously frustrating. Your art isn't great it's AMAZING but I think you already know that. Your website design is... well I don't want to be rude but it's pretty bad. I could go on and on about what you are doing right but that's not what we are here for is it? What you are doing wrong isn't in your content, it's in the delivery.

You clearly have no issue blogging and communing with your fans but your blog font is tiny and not stylistically presented. And I know it's a pain but if you haven't considered coloring your comic you're crazy. With a few changes you could probably be doing a whole heaping lot better than averaging $.28 a day on your PW ad. And you should. Your artistic skill commands the reward. The fact that I had never heard of you before you joined this community is criminal.

We are all working to be the best we can here but when I see someone who can draw like you I get extremely annoyed. Probably because I have the tech and the community management and promotion skills and all the contacts and all these stories I want to tell... but I can't draw for crap. And then I see someone like you who is almost the opposite. But that's my hangup so I apologize if you feel like I'm being mean or anything.

For me it's like seeing some amazing baseball player stuck in the minor leagues because he doesn't want to go to batting practice on Saturdays.  :-\


@Rob-- Great! You're hired.  :)

I know my site design sucks rocks but I have no skill to fix it, nor much inclination to learn the skills to get there. Also, I am deathly afraid that if I try to upgrade it I'll break it into a million little red Xs. I've been putting off finding someone to make it all look pretty for me. It's on my to-do list.

I have considered colour. I can do it in a passable way, but I HATE colouring. Most likely I will someday pay someone to do it, but that's a project for the future.

(Also, my apologies-- I didn't mean my earlier post to be an invitation for forum members to pat me on the back or anything. I just needed to vent. Can't very well whine like that in my own blog, so I do it here.  ;))


Hey all, keep in mind that that test I linked in the article isn't the be-all-end-all in terms of knowing whether your character is original. It was also originally intended for fiction writers (as in, books--it isn't tailor-made for comics. It was mostly meant to be food for thought.)

Also, I didn't mean people with large casts, I meant people with large casts before there is even a comic to speak of. It's okay to plan, but it absolutely tends to be better if you let things develop and go with the flow.


OK, one more thing.

I ran my two lead characters through the Mary Sue test and they both passed with flying colours, even the one I thought would be slapped down hard. But as I answered the questions, something occurred to me-- many lead characters from my favourite novels would (probably) fail, fail fail. For instance, in the book I'm reading now, the hero has striking features, learns new skills with frightening ease, lost his parents at the hands of his enemies, is dirt poor, can make folk weep with his masterful lute playing, is younger than the rest of his friends, etc, etc. (The book is The Name of the Wind, by the way, and you only have to look at all the glowing customer reviews to know I'm not the only one who likes it.) Sure seems like a Mary Sue. But you know what? I didn't notice. I cared about the character, and I loved the book.

So I would say, to those of you starting a story, that the Mary Sue criteria are not necessarily a reliable guide to a good character. We want to read about characters that we like, and that we would aspire to be. We expect our heroes to be born from adversity, and we want them to be something special. This is fiction, after all. The Mary Sue test is an interesting look at how some of our unconscious desires come out in our writing and can help point out problems, but if your character fails the test, you don't have to panic.  :)

EDIT:, like Ran said. ;-)


Ugh, tell me about it. For funsies, try running Bella Swan from Twilight through that test and see how she fares. Or Harry Potter.

The point is, even if your character fails that test miserably, it's all in the execution. No need to panic--just be aware.


Quote from: ran on January 25, 2010, 05:15:55 PM
Ugh, tell me about it. For funsies, try running Bella Swan from Twilight through that test and see how she fares. Or Harry Potter.

The point is, even if your character fails that test miserably, it's all in the execution. No need to panic--just be aware.

Well that's really the value of the test isn't it (other than being a hoot)? To make you aware from a different perspective how your characters are seen. It's very objective and handy for that purpose.

And it is all in the execution but a Mary Sue... a true Mary Sue is really hard to write around for skilled writers I wouldn't recommend it for novices and I wouldn't even attempt it myself.

A character that's a little clichéd on the other hand can be fun and perfectly serviceable.

I was playing Fable II the other day and one of the notices from one of the characters went along the lines of "When I was a child my entire family was slaughtered by bandits. I grew up on the streets alone and when I got old enough I swore vengeance and spent all my time seeking revenge. It's a little clichéd I know but hey that's life."

And I just thought that was hilarious. Sure it was a little 4th wall fracture but still pretty great. And that is execution.


Interesting timing for me on this one, because I'm in the midst of wrapping up a storyline where a character I really like has horrible, permanent and irrevokably bad things happen to him. I actually feel bad for what I'm doing to this non-existant person...

My comic is meant for kids, but the ending of this storyline is pretty dark.

My next storyline will be much, much lighter in tone.