This past weekend, I attended a conference in Seattle. No, it wasn’t a writing conference… it was a gaming conference. Yes, I’m that geeky. But wait! Don’t run away yet! The conference was started back in 2004 by a couple of guys who wrote a little webcomic known as Penny Arcade. For whatever reason, they gained a following, wanted to give back to their fans, and started a convention “by gamers, for gamers”. It was to be a conference where the media didn’t take front & center (ie. E3), but the people who actually would buy and play the games.
Here we are at year six of the convention; I’ve attended for the past four years. Year one, attendance was something like 2000 people. This year, we’re talking 80,000+ people over the 3 days. And you know what? They’re still writing the little webcomic.
Penny Arcade is a team of two guys: Mike & Jerry, also known as Gabe & Tycho. Gabe does all the artwork, while Tycho does all the writing. Talk about a good deal! Unlike many other comics where one person tries to do both, this is a team where each person does what he does best, to the best of his ability.
Each year, there are two Q&A sessions with Gabe & Tycho, as well as one ‘Creating a PA Strip’ panel, where there’s even more Q&A… and each year, there’s a pattern of sorts that shows up in the questions. Many individuals are attempting to start their own webcomics and are looking for advice or inspiration. Others simply want to know what kinds of tools are used for the writing and drawing. And others, already in a creative field, want to know… how do you keep coming up with ideas, day after day, week after week?
The response is something we novelists would do well to keep in mind. Sure, we may not be writing comic strips, but does that make a comic strip writer any less of a writer than a novelist? Of course not. We both tell stories. We both write beginnings, middles, and ends. Comic writers just have fewer words to tell their stories in. Thus, we would do well not to dismiss this advice from Tycho: “I don’t set limits on my writing.”
Say what? Excuse me? You’re writing a comic, with continuous characters… aren’t there limits at all?
No, he says. When you set out to write with limitations, you place barriers on your creativity that hedge you in. When he wants to take a character in a certain direction, he’ll do it. If he has a great idea that doesn’t fit with something the character has done in the past, he does it anyway. Now, the difference here is that he’s writing a comic where the team has consciously made a decision to reject continuity in the belief that it limits creativity. For a novelist, we need continuity throughout our stories – or else they won’t really go anywhere – but does that mean we can’t take our characters in completely unexpected directions?
Of course not. The next time you’re writing and get stuck, and have no idea what should happen next, remember Tycho’s words. Stop placing barriers and just write something. Maybe later on you’ll realize that isn’t something that can work with your character and story – you are a novelist, after all, and not working in the comic format – but don’t set out to box your writing in. Don’t box your characters in. Human beings aren’t always predictable, so why should your characters be predictable (unless that’s an attribute you’ve written into a specific character)?
Cut that box up and send it out with the recycling. Your characters deserve a little unexpected excitement.