Intro to Comic Craft: Step by Step: Brainstorming and Character Development

For most creators, the key to successfully finishing a story really lies in successfully planning your story ahead of time, and as the story progresses.  There are all sorts of resources and guides to help you with your planning and writing, so please check out the Outside Resources section for more information.  Unlike art, writing has always come naturally to me, so while I've taken several classes on fiction writing and writing for comics, I haven't spent time analyzing the act. So again, unlike art, I don't feel entirely comfortable teaching writing, as it's always something I've taken for granted.

If writing comes naturally to you, please don't entirely disregard the resources and tools mentioned here- they are often quite valuable for double checking your work and troubleshooting.  I've found that comparing my synopsis against the three act structure graph, or plotting my synopsis on a beat sheet have been great options for keeping my story on track.

This post was brought to you thanks to the generosity of my Patrons on Patreon.

Patrons requested more comic-creation content, and I am happy to deliver! The Intro to Comic Craft: Step by Step series has been brought to you by Patron request.  Although I have taught workshops on various aspects of comic craft, this is the first time I've introduced an in depth series on writing, crafting, and drawing a comic to this blog.  If you enjoy this post, and would like to help make more Intro to Comic Craft: Step by Step possible in the future, please consider joining my community of Artnerds on Patreon.  Admission is just $2 a month, and backers get access to all sorts of goodies ranging from comics to backer exclusive and early access content.

In this installment of Intro to Comic Craft: Step By Step, I'm going to reference early 7" Kara development, and Volume 1 quite a bit.  My Patrons have free download access to the PDF version of Volume 1, so if you're a Patron, you may want to take a moment to skim through that.  If you aren't a Patron, you can gain access by joining my Patreon, purchasing a PDF copy through Gumroad, or purchasing a physical copy from my online shop.

Types of Stories:

The way you approach a novel differs from how you would approach an epic poem.  Both differ from script writing. 

So many comic versions of novels are flops, because the writing wasn't adapted to suit the comic medium.  The Harlequin manga and the Twilight manga are both excellent examples of novels that translated poorly to comics for a variety of reasons.  Comics are a unique form of literature, more akin to movies or plays than other forms of prose, and in comics, it's often more important to show than to tell.

As a comic artist, I wouldn't consider my work to be genre work, and so I can't give advice on genre writing.  You may enjoy Stephen King's On Writing, or any of the below genre specific books on writing for comics:



SCWBI: The Book (only available to members)
Keep in mind that there are genres and age breakdowns within kidlit that can make a huge difference in your end audience.

Market research and demographic research for 7" Kara coincided neatly with my Masters Thesis, which focused on how page layout effected reading comprehension and page readability.  I spent months researching children's comics, children's literature, how literacy is taught, and all of that was neatly funneled into Kara.  For your own comics, you may not be able to neatly knit your comic into your research, but I recommend writing about topics you enjoy, or topics you are interested in.

For this post, we're going to focus on developing concepts for comics.  This means we need to plan for the visuals to play a huge part in how readers perceive the story.  When I write for comics, the visuals are just as important to me as the writing, and I often develop my characters and world through sketches as much as I do for notes.

Even if you intend to only write your comic, sketches can be hugely helpful in bringing an artist into your world.  The sketches don't need to be good, but clear sketches are very helpful.

Length of Story or Story Restrictions:

Is this for an anthology?  Are you creating a mini comic as a test?  Is this a class assignment?  Planning for your restrictions, and using them to your advantage is an important part of the comic creation process, and is essential for a successful comic.

When planning a short comic/mini comic, keep in mind that simple stories are sometimes best.  You have limited space to convey information, and dense stories tend to become overwhelmed with text.

You should always plan your comic with a specific end in mind.  Even if you end up modifying or changing your end, having an end for your story from the beginning gives you a goal to aim for when writing events. 

Brainstorming Your Story:

My writing process happens in the in between times.  I'm always jotting down ideas- my phone is full of memos with story pitches, my past two phones were the same.    My sketchbooks are a little better- they often contain pitches AND basic brainstorming.  For general story generation, I don't really have a formal process- I generally tailor my pitches to the restrictions of the format, as demonstrated in the tutorial below.

Let's Make a Comic: Concept to Scripting to Thumbnails to Roughs

I highly recommend that beginner comic artists, even those with longform writing experience, or illustration experience, begin with a mini comic before planning their grand epic.  There are several reasons why planning a mini comic as a first project is a good idea:

  • Gives you lower barrier of entry
  • Gives you a good idea of what you're capable of, and in what time frame
  • Gives you a concrete idea of what you're capable of accomplishing on a single page
  • Gives you an easy to accomplish goal- helps build confidence
  • Portfolio fodder
  • Perfect place to try out new ideas

Before starting 7" Kara, I'd completed a number of mini comics as part of my Masters education.  Most were fairly short- around 4 pages, quite a few were silent, but a couple were longer (10-12 pages).  Planning for a variety of story lengths gave me a lot of experience in planning for, writing, and executing comics.

Structuring Your Story:

Act structure explains how a plot of a film story is composed. Just like plays (staged drama) have 'acts', critics and screenwriters tend to divide films into acts; though films don't require to be physically broken down as such in reality

3 Act Structure

  • Set Up/Exposition

  • Confrontation

  • Resolution

Image Source
Check out the Outside Resources section for more on the 3 Act structure.  Given the length of your story, you may be best served handling the story's structure as you would for a one act play.

Story Beats:

Beat Sheets:

Patreon backers will find a copy of my 7" Kara Beat Sheet in the Chapter 7 folder linked on my Patreon.

The beat sheet is a way to sequence your story, more like a bulleted list than a synopsis.  This format may be easier for you to adjust as you make changes, and is a helpful way to check to make sure your story is on track. 

Here's a blank beat sheet, and here's an example beat sheet from the movie Inception.  Here's an explanation on how to use that blank beat sheet.  For more beat sheet references and information, please check out the Outside Resources section.

Suggestions on Keeping Notes:

My writing process happens in the in between times.  I'm always jotting down ideas- my phone is full of memos with story pitches, my past two phones were the same.    I have waterproof notebooks, sketchbooks full of concept, and even class notes for art history covered in 7" Kara concept.

  • Always have something you can take notes in- cellphone these days are great, and you can sync them to your OneDrive.
  • If you prefer the traditional, keep in mind that archiving is important- you'll need a way to assemble your notes.

I utilize a couple systems- I keep memos on my phone, but I also have a file folder that travels with me.  Inside the file folder is a copy of the current overall 7" Kara synopsis, as well as loads of print outs of phone memos, sticky notes, and shower notes, taped and paper clipped to the appropriate spot in the synopsis.  Every few months, I type everything over again, and start fresh.

Developing Characters:

For examples of my early 7" Kara development, please check out 7" Kara Concept Mini (Free).  Patrons have access to a full download of Volume 1 via Gumroad coupon.

Over the years, I've generated A LOT of concept for 7" Kara, especially in the initial planning phases.  I find it's best to develop for a larger world than you plan on utilizing- that way you always have more to draw from.   Be careful, worldbuilding can be addicting!

When putting together Volume 1 of 7" Kara, I selected some of my favorite concept art and worldbuilding art to include in the Concept section.  Below are some of the assembled concept pages to give you an idea of how I develop characters.  If you like what you see here, check out Volume 1 in it's entirety!

Although this seems like the characters were fairly fleshed out when I began 7" Kara, I also left enough room for me to discover my characters through exercises and while working on the pages.  If you need help getting to know your characters, I link character development exercises further in the post to help you get started- these are a great way to get to know secondary characters who may not 'speak' to you.

For writing characters whose backgrounds differ from your own, research is key!  If possible, seek someone from that background for insight and to help you correct mistakes as you go.  Check the Outside Resources section for links to writing diverse characters.

Continuing Development:

I find it helpful to continue to develop my characters as I work on the story.  This allows me to get to know them better in a no-stakes playground- my sketchbook.  This way, I can keep the ideas that work, and discard those that don't. 

Facial Expression and Movement Practice:

As a cool down, I enjoy redrawing Japanese emoji and kaomoji as facial expressions.  I prefer not to know what the emoticon actually represents, as that allows me to interpret it visually.  You can find a link to emoji resources in the Outside Resources section.

Naomi Character Challenge

For the full challenge including the prompts used, check this post out

I decided to complete this challenge in April 2015, as Naomi was about to become a main character in 7" Kara.  Although I'd had her character design for a couple years by that point, I wanted to get to know her better, and I used this challenge as an opportunity to practice drawing Naomi.

Working on this challenge really gave me the opportunity to get to know Naomi.  By the time I'd finished, I knew what she did with her free time during the school year, her favorite books, and her aspirations for the future.

World Building

World building includes everything outside of your main characters- the cultures they're from, the surrounding environment, the objects they use in their homes.  World building before you begin your story can help you develop a believable world, and is well worth your time/

For me, worldbuilding happens most naturally when I'm killing time, as my brain naturally looks for a way to stay busy.  In your worldbuilding phase, I recommend having a pocket notebook handy, so you can jot down ideas and sketches as they come to mind.  Don't worry about discarding ideas at this point- even an idea that didn't quite work may provide handy inspiration.

Developing Environment:

Below are a selection of images from the Concept section of 7" Kara Volume 1.  These images were curated from the large collection of worldbuilding sketches and notes generated while developing 7" Kara. 

Surrounding world:

The Immediate Setting:

Kara's Home:

Creating and Maintaining Photo Morgues

Photo morgues aren't as dark as they sound- it's just where you collect and organize your reference.  I use Pinterest as a tool for this, as you can pin images from the Pinterest site, or pin outside images from the internet, your computer, or your phone.

I can access my Pinterest account across computers and devices, so it's really handy if I want to do some character sketches or art while at conventions or vacations.

For Your Projects

Brainstorming Options

Character Generators
Human and Humanoid Character Generators
Character Generator
Random Young Adult Character Generator
Character Name Generator

Character Development Inspiration
Backstory and Origin Generator

Character Exercises:

30 Essential Expressions Challenge
Convert Japanese emoticons to expressions (I use this site)
List of Emoticons

On writing diverse characters:
Bechdel Test
How To Write Diverse Characters
CBC Panelists Weigh in On Writing Diverse Characters
Writing Diverse Fiction: A Practical Guide
How to Write Diverse Characters (And Why It’s Not About Being ‘PC’

Recommended Reading:
Directing the Story
Temple of the 7 Golden Camels (blog)
Drawing Words and Writing Pictures
Framed Ink
Graphic Storytelling And Visual Narrative
Making Comics
Understanding Comics

Outside Resources:

Wikipedia: Act Structure
Reddit:  Worldbuilding Community
What is the Three Act Structure (includes sample script)
Story by Robert McKee
Camp NaNoWriMo- Writing Resources
Everything We Know About...Scripts! (does not talk about comics)
How to Use a Beat Sheet to Design a Story
WTF is a Beat Sheet?
Weaving Stories Together: The Beat Sheet
Jami Gold: Worksheets for Writers

This post was brought to you thanks to 7" Kara

7" Kara is my ongoing watercolor comic- the first volume is available to purchase in the Natto-shop (physical books) or through Gumroad (digital copies).  If you enjoy this blog, especially the Watercolor Basics or Intro to Comic Craft series, supporting 7" Kara is a great way to ensure I'll continue to work on intensive, long form series here on the blog.

7" Kara follows the adventures of diminutive Kara as she explores the outside world.  Kara meets humans, rides a cat, and makes new friends in this beautiful family friend comic.  Buy 7" Kara for yourself, or for a little one in your life, and help support this blog.


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