Some comic writers write a ton of detail in their panel descriptions… others, not so much.
I live and die by two rules when it comes to details;
1) Make sure there are enough to paint a vivid picture.
2) However much I put in, make sure they’re all relevant.
Thin panels AND superfluous details Kill.
For this article, we’re gonna focus in and talk on a specific set of details–the characteristics of a character (or their costume), when they’re first introduced in the script.
Anytime a character appears in a script for the first time, introduce them in all caps.
“Behind the tree, WARLOCK, sharpens his knife, staring toward the camera with glowing eyes…”
Most of the time you want to rely on a series bible for recurring (main) character/costume details.
There a few reasons to do this, but primarily, you don’t want to bury key character/costume descriptions “somewhere” in a random issue. Key traits/costume elements are something an artist will probably (and should) reference often. Digging through an issue is much less time efficient than simply opening a bible and jumping right to the character where all the info you need is organized and presented for reference.
(Imagine you’re the penciler on a series where all the main character descriptions are embedded in the scripts. Joe’s description is in the beginning of issue 1, Jane’s is somewhere in the middle, Mike’s is in issue 2, Viggo’s near the end of issue 3, oh wait, the recurring housecat character is described near the end of issue 1… no wait, issue 2… Feel me?)
When you do need to include some details on a character’s introduction, avoid a laundry list;
“Behind the tree, WARLOCK–male, 6′, 180lbs, heavy brow, deep set blue eyes, grey hair, thin lips, knife scar across his left cheek, two gold earrings left ear, a small silver cross right ear, hair parted in the middle, shaved on the right side, white tank-top, grey shirt with crescent moons, black bracelet on left arm, leather belt with brass buckle, black jeans-one pocket ripped, front pockets bulging with a wallet and pocket trash, black plastic sunglasses propped up on his head–sharpens his knife, staring toward the camera with glowing eyes…”
While the devil is definitely in the details, this kind of list is overwhelming, dull to read, and again, becomes a hard-to-find reference. This type of breakdown also can become confusing and redundant if a bible or separate character sheet is available to the production crew–the more details you list, the more the crew needs to cross-reference with the actual bible.
Assuming there is some sort of character breakdown somewhere, a better approach than the laundry list; only focus on defining- traits.
“Behind the tree, WARLOCK–knife scar across his left cheek, small silver cross piercing in right ear–sharpens his knife, staring toward the camera with glowing eyes…”
So in this instance, we’ve cut down to two defining traits (assuming the scar and earring are relevant to his character and the narrative). Notice, by using gender pronouns there’s no need to specify the character is male or female.
Also, by reducing to only two details we put much more emphasis on them. The artist immediately knows these two details must be captured.
Not bad, but we’re not done yet.
When you must list the matter-of-fact details, don’t just list them, visualize them.
Use diction that elicits imagery on its own accord. Create descriptive passages that paint a picture. Sure knowing the guy is 6′ is important for scale of certain scenes and spacial relationships, but really, what else does height (or weight) convey? Not much. Instead try;
“Behind the tree, WARLOCK–weightlifter, brawler, a face that’s taken more hits than a prize fighter topped off with a knife scar across his left cheek, small silver cross piercing in right ear–sharpens his knife, staring toward the camera with glowing eyes…”
When you take this approach when introducing a character, remember to write for brevity.
Don’t go off on tangents.
Don’t write just to hear yourself type or see how clever you can be.
Stay on point.
If you notice some of the details I’ve added here, aren’t detailed literally. They’re painting a subjective visual picture. Your interpretation of a long-time prize fighter’s face is sure to be different than mine.
Approach character introductory details as a means to support and emphasize an already familiar character.
Character introduction detail lists are one of the few places it’s ok to get a little generic/abstract as long as you’re hitting key traits and writing visually.
You tell me, if you were the artist on a series, had already read through the reference bible, which type of character introduction would you prefer to read throughout the script… the laundry list above? or;
“Behind the tree, WARLOCK–weightlifter, brawler, a face that’s taken more hits than a prize fighter topped off with a knife scar across his left cheek, trademark right ear holy silver cross helix piercing, a smug grin as if he holds all the aces–sharpens his knife, staring toward the camera with glowing eyes…”
Ok, ok, I know what you’re thinking.
What about a book where there is no series bible or separate character sheet. (A bad situation in my book, but it does happen.) In these cases you have no choice but to add more details in the introduction.
Just keep the points mentioned here in mind and do the best you can. And remember, comics are all about communication, however well or poorly written, books with an active line of communication between the production staff always have a leg up. ▪
About the Author —
Nick Macari is a full-time freelance story consultant, developmental editor and writer, working primarily in the independent gaming and comic markets. His first published comic appeared on shelves via Diamond in the late 90’s. Today you can find his comic work on comixology, amazon and in select stores around the U.S. Visit NickMacari.com for social media contacts and news on his latest releases.