I’ve been kicking around a comic idea for a few months. Over the weekend, I took it off the backburner and spent a few hours brainstorming. Conceptually, it’s in league with Desolation Jones – highly skilled but neurotic operatives going on bizarre and exciting missions. The story-world is taking shape, along with ideas for the first three arcs. I’m still developing the characters – right now, they have more characterisation than character.*
(The hardest part now is knowing when the thinking should stop and the writing start. You can overthink yourself out of writing anything. And there’s a lot of stuff I won’t figure out until I begin writing. So I guess I should quit thinking before it stops me writing).
My main questions at the moment are around character motivation. What motivates my protagonist? The more I think about it, the deeper down the rabbit hole I go.
I watched Elles on the weekend. Juliette Binoche plays a magazine journalist (think Vogue, not Time), who interviews two college students working as prostitutes. It does a shockingly effective job of glamourising the trade – the two girls, both gorgeous and intelligent, and of their own free will, make small fortunes sleeping with refined, attractive (albeit older) men. There’s no mention of the dark side – drugs, slavery, any seediness is whitewashed – these girls don’t have pimps, or ugly clients. It’s even intimated that one is considering leaving her boyfriend for a john who is her age, looks like a male model, and has an apartment eye to eye with the Eiffel Tower restaurant. Probably not representative of most sex workers’ experience then…
… but it made me think about character motivation. Binoche’s journo asked dozens of questions, soliciting plenty of salacious details. Yet for all her questions, she never really asked why they did it. They paid lip-service to the idea Paris is an expensive place to live, but hundreds of thousands of poor people find other ways to support themselves. And that’s what I find the most fascinating – where is that line for people, and how does it become fixed where it is?
It’s a moral question, more than anything else. What won’t we do? A question that gets at what it is to be human. Beyond the hard-wired basics of survival, what motivates us to do anything? To literally do anything at all, let alone anything noble?
The earliest superhero comics dealt with it quickly and firmly – some instigating incident, then a vow – or just an acknowledgement that all that’s necessary for evil to triumph is good men to do nothing. Case closed, never to be mentioned again. Recent comics never stop questioning it – everyone from Superman down is analysing their motivations, having crises of faith and dark nights of the soul.
Increasingly, audiences expect motivations to be more substance than style – James Bond had a good forty years with motivation flimsy as a video game avatar before Casino Royale.
So what makes somebody want to do something dangerous with their life? And more interestingly – what is stopping the rest of us?
Millions of people work jobs they don’t love – security is a strong motivator. And as we age, and have more to lose, our world – our mortgage, our children – makes that security more valuable to us.
For some people, this isn’t enough**. There remains a hole in their life – how they choose to fill that hole is pretty much where any character worth writing begins.
I’ve got some more thinking to do, but just writing this out has helped me tremendously.
* Characterisation is fun, because it’s easy (“should they wear emerald loafers, or midnight blue? Oooh, what about combat boots?!”). Character, what makes someone tick, is considerably harder but far more rewarding.
** For some, it is enough, but it gets taken from them.