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Realm Builds Character

May 7th, 2011 | Comics, Process, Realm, Writing

It’s time for me to say a few words about Realm. Realm has been the longest and most complex project I’ve ever worked on, bar none. Even the Zark comics and games, despite the fact that I worked on them for long periods of time, don’t approach the scope and complexity of this.

Some background: The first things I produced related to Realm were two pages of color vector-graphics comics. I made these the day after I first had the idea to do a humorous fantasy comic. Already then the title was Realm (the one factor which has never varied), but nothing else was remotely similar. As you can imagine, there was no planning whatsoever. I had the idea in the evening and I was vectoring (do you have a better verb?) the comics first thing the next morning. There were no developed characters, plot, setting, or anything that you might expect in any kind of quality production. As such, it only lasted for two pages, which is pretty pathetic when you remember that some of the comics I drew as a young teenager, such as The Terrible Troubles of Unlucky Freddy and Robin Hood 2002, got several times that. And Unlucky Freddy even got to go to space! What a gyp, huh, original Realm characters?

I rushed into the original Realm for a number of reasons: 1) that was how I started all my projects at the time, and 2) I wanted to start a webcomic. Sunrise was still a year away (only a year? jeez) and the idea of a fantasy serial I could plug various storylines into appealed to me. I was also reading a lot of old Bloom County comics at the time and I thought that I might be able to make it topical somehow. In retrospect, that was a terrible idea and I’m lucky that I didn’t try that.

So once the first attempt proved to be a disaster, I decided I had better plan ahead a little bit this time. It was then that I developed the first version of these thrilling characters:

Actual unretouched panel sequence

D and Harding. Zilch too. Harding was described with phrases like “Always looks like an idiot but doesn’t realize it” and “He thinks he is heroic . . . but he is not.” Beyond that his character was not developed. D was described as “evil, scheming,” “only trusts herself,” “takes advantage of everyone.” Beyond that her character was not developed. Zilch was described as follows: “Wants to be knighted more than anything. However, his cowardice, incompetence, and occasional recklessness prevent him from doing anything noteworthy.” Huh. Is that a motivation I see there? It just may be.

So what do you think happened next? Well, you can probably guess. I vectored two pages of Realm starring D and Harding (Zilch was introduced on page 2) and then stopped. Incidentally, they were practically identical to the original pages with the exception of the revised characters, so it should be no surprise that it worked no better the second time around.

For a while I stopped working on Realm completely, partly because I was working on Sunrise. The idea stuck with me, though, and little by little it began to develop. In 2009 I finally started to go about working on it the right way, with lots of rough sketches and story outlines. I didn’t start drawing again until I was confident that I had the whole storyline established. This was in stark contrast to before, when I was just trying to “wing it” with no storyline at all.

You know what happened from there. I drew the first issue, posted it online, and then this year I posted the second issue, the one with D and Harding in it. As you probably recall, I stated then that I wasn’t going to post any more Realm until I had the entire storyline worked out.

Well, writing is really hard, you can guess what’s been happening since then. I’ve been working on developing the storyline, as promised, but it hit two snags named D and Harding. (Did any of you predict this during my long introduction?) These “characters,” carried over from the earlier DOA attempt, were so vaguely defined that I was having a really hard time writing for them. Their introduction in Issue 2/Chapter 1 was dull and uninteresting (the only highlight being the delightfully insane Captain LaRusse) and highlighted the inherent problem of these characters: namely, that they were not characters at all. They had no motivations, personality quirks, flaws, definition… pretty much devoid of anything that qualifies as “character.” This made them almost impossible to write for, especially in a context of humor. Zilch, however, was still working fine, as he was the only one who actually had definition. He, by contrast, is very easy to write for and is usually pretty funny. So, to cut it short, D and Harding are history.

New Realm characters

So yesterday I began approaching these characters the way I should have the first time. I attempted to create characters who were similar enough to D and Harding that they can replace them while minimizing the amount of revision needed. This was challenging, in part because they must also be developed enough that they will, y’know, actually work. I’ve been studying the excellent webcomic Spacetrawler very carefully, because it is doing with science fiction what I am with fantasy. (Both are humorous stories about characters from Earth tasked with solving the problems of other worlds.) Spacetrawler‘s human characters each possess specific traits which define their actions. Pierrot wants to see equal rights extended to every species in the galaxy. Dmitri sees interstellar space as an opportunity to seek out new forms of pleasure. Dustin takes every opportunity to extend his own power and influence. It works quite well, and I’m learning a lot. (I’m also laughing a lot, because, as I’ve established, Spacetrawler works quite well. Full disclosure: I got sidetracked for nearly half an hour reading past pages while writing this essay.) So, in the above image you can see my early attempts at revising these characters. None have names yet (except the one on the far right, Sheila, but she’s actually slightly older, dating back to my embarrassing Bechdel test analysis a while ago).  I won’t go into their personalities right now, but suffice to say I won’t be writing any more until I’m certain that they are ready to handle it.

So, in conclusion, Realm has been an interesting experience. It’s taken a long time to reach the point that it’s at now, and there’s still a lot to be done. While things like this feel like setbacks, since it takes a lot of time to replace a character with another, at the same time they’re actually just an extension of the writing process. Realm has evolved a lot, and it will continue to evolve until I can finally declare it finished.

Will there be more online soon? I can definitively answer no. I shouldn’t have put it online to the extent I already have, and what you’ve already seen will undoubtedly change significantly in my revision process. In the meantime, watch this space. There will be more about Realm as it develops.