While the world of book publishing has been experiencing all sorts of staggering jolts of late-stores closing, staff cuts at major publishing houses, the conversion to eBooks and e-readers-one of the few bright spots has been the emergence of the graphic novel category. Despite what some misinformed parents may believe, graphic novels are not books focused on salacious activities. Graphic novels are basically comics in book form. They can be collections of classic comic strips, or comic book series, all-new comics stories, or even non-fiction in comics form. Until recently, bookstores had just two sections devoted to graphic novels-the clearly labeled Graphic Novels section and the Manga (collections of Japanese comics, usually in thick, black and white paperback editions) section. Since graphic novels are created for readers of all ages, a Children’s Graphic Novel section is the newest space being carved out on the bookshelves.
Writers and artists of comics, especially the formula-driven super-hero variety, looking to find new work in this new category often assume that editors are simply looking for simpler, or dumbed-downed versions of existing comic book titles. Fortunately for us, they’re sadly mistaken. Comics and graphic novels for children are perhaps just as demanding, if not more so than most mainstream superhero titles. That’s because children are looking for imaginative material that appeals to them on many levels-compelling storylines, fun characters, and colorfully fantastic artwork.
In many ways, kids are looking for the same types of characters found in most other books created especially for children. Not surprisingly, boys enjoy boy characters, girls enjoy girl characters, and both boys and girls enjoy stories featuring boys and girls. Of course, there’s far more to it than that, and we hope to offer you several insights on creating characters for children’s graphic novels.
Like anything creative, the first rule is that there are no rules. It’s really subjective. All any article of this type can hope to do is give you an understanding of what already exists and perhaps offer the conventional wisdom of the day. But anything can, and often does happen. The creators of Superman, Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, created the Man of Steel from their personal fantasies, and were passionate about the character, while Batman creator Bob Kane was more focused on creating a successful property that would make him rich. So, while it’s far nobler sounding to encourage you to pursue that character of your dreams, which may embody many of your personal visions and ideas, it’s true that great characters can also be created somewhat cynically, or even by accident. In some cases, characters can even be created as parodies of existing properties or celebrities, which then go on to become hits on their own-such as Miss Piggy being inspired by Miss Peggy Lee or Peter Laird and Kevin Eastman’s Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles being a parody of a run of Daredevil comics by Frank Miller.
One of the most successful graphic novels created for children is Jeff Smith’s Bone. Like most popular properties, the characters in Bone are involved in an epic quest, not unlike the quests in Lord of the Rings or Harry Potter. Yet the latest sensation in Children’s Graphic Novels is Jeff Kinney’s Diary of a Wimpy Kid series, which is far more grounded in the everyday reality of childhood. While at first glance these two series may appear totally different in every way-the larger than life fantasy elements of Bone, the mundane reality of Wimpy Kid; the lush graphics of Bone, the stick-figure-like art style of Wimpy Kid-they’re both still about characters off on metaphorical journeys or real quests that capture the attention of a young audiences.
Does it matter that the Bone characters are neither children nor human? Of course not. What matters is that the characters are recognizable types that children easily recognize, understand, and like. Which brings us to the question of how does one create such characters? Perhaps the real question should be-how does one tell a story that will captivate a young audience? Most of the greatest children’s fiction characters are little more than simple, almost seeming one-dimensional, characters that are there to represent the reader as he goes on a fantastic journey. Whether you’re Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz or Alice in Wonderland, you are experiencing the story through that character. When Nancy Drew solves a mystery, the reader is secretly a sleuth. When Hannah Montana transforms into a pop star, the reader is right onstage beside her.
But how does this relate to the world of graphic novels? Unlike prose fiction, which despite descriptions of lead characters’ physicality, a reader is still free to project themselves into the role of the protagonist, graphic novels actually show exactly what the story’s lead character looks like (although, the stick-figure drawing style of Wimpy Kid and the amorphous blob-like creatures in Bone allows for reader identification in a sly way) and it’s important that readers respond positively to the character’s depiction. Fortunately, cartoon characters are usually quite lovable. Generally, the main character is usually more of an every kid-not too outstanding in any obvious way, unless it’s something that one would ordinarily consider a flaw of some sort. The character may have a special skill or power, but it may not be obvious from simply looking at the character.
While most cartoon characters seem to always wear the same clothes every day of their four-color lives, comic book and graphic novel characters aren’t that different. Characters such as Tintin or Geronimo Stilton may change their clothes to suit their ever-changing environments, but they’ll soon revert back to their traditional garb at the first opportunity.
But clothes alone don’t make memorable children’s graphic novel characters. Quite often there is something unique visually to set the characters apart. It could be a physical feature, or even the distinctive style of the artist drawing the character. Obviously, it helps if the visual distinction is meaningful to the character, such as the lightning bolt scar on Harry Potter’s forehead, but it could just be a distinctive hairstyle, as is the case with characters such as Bart Simpson, Naruto, Charlie Brown, Archie Andrews or Tintin.
Naturally, it helps if the character is designed to fit the types of stories you hope to tell. A character designed to be a competitive swimmer, for example, should feature something that would make him or her stand out against other swimmers, but in a way that’s not unbelievable or too cartoony – unless the series itself is intended to be over-the-top. A compatible art style also makes sense. For a dramatic series, you don’t want the characters to appear unbelievably cartoony, and likewise, you wouldn’t want a humorous character to look too serious.
Theoretically, your character could be anything. If you happen to be an expert on rocks, and think you could do stories about a character who is actually a rock-go for it! No matter who your main character is, you’ll still want the character to be identifiable, and able to get into as many compelling adventures as possible. If you’ve secretly been hoping to do a series of graphic novels about your pet dog, an historic figure as a child, or about a light bulb-there’s no reason you can’t do it; no rulebook that says such ideas are not allowed. Although you may want to do a search online to see if your character’s name isn’t already taken – you don’t want to waste time creating a character that already exists.
The true creative challenge is to put together your graphic novel, either by yourself or working with an artist or a writer, and create a story that excites your chosen audience. An easy way to see if you’re heading in the right direction is to put together a presentation for a group of children you hope will enjoy your graphic novel. You probably won’t need more than a few sample covers and a few completed story pages. If kids respond to the character in a favorable way, and love the stories you’ve created, you’re on the right track. You’ll find no other first readers who will be as candid and as honest as a child. You’ll know instantly whether they’re bored or excited.
Creating characters isn’t easy. And creating your character is just the first step. And it should be noted, that there is no market for characters in and of themselves. Publishers buy books, not ideas-so you need to put the whole graphic novel together before approaching a publisher. And after you’ve written and drawn your children’s graphic novel, the really hard part begins-finding a publisher (unless you intend to publish it yourself). Comics and graphic novel publishers are bombarded by new submissions all the time. Some even refuse to look at new material to avoid potential legal trouble-for example, a publisher may already be working on a project similar to yours, and if they look at yours before theirs is published, you may assume they stole your idea and sue them.
But selling a graphic novel is a whole ‘nother story. Creating a Children’s Graphic Novel character is an exciting challenge. If you succeed and go on to create a Children’s Graphic Novel character (and series) that becomes a classic in the field, the rewards can be greater than you can possibly imagine. The opportunity is real, the competition is great, but if you have that special magical character that generations of children are sure to love, then by all means, get to work, and do it!