A Writer’s Notebook: “Casting a Wide Net”

This week, another exercise from Scott McCloud’s Making Comics. In this exercise, McCloud asks us to create a cast of characters that share one trait (from a list of traits–see below) but are different in at least four other ways.

These academics are my four characters (in the order I wrote them).

Sandra:

45, a vocal activist who has two young children (she waited until she got tenure before she started her family); she wants to motivate the administration but does not want to take on administrative duties herself (she doesn’t want to become “The Man”).

André:

37, he is opinionated and aloof, single and isolated (he prefers being single–he doesn’t get along well with others); he has high ambitions in his field but he doesn’t like to work toward those ambitions–he’d rather recognition came to him on its own.

Max:

a shy, 23-year-old phenom, he is single but is the object of much attention from his students; he wants to prove himself without stepping on any toes (he often feels embarrassed by his own youth).

Olivia:

62, an even-tempered, natural leader; she is a grandmother as well as a local figurehead and so has very little time to herself, which part of her prefers–she is therefore torn between remaining in her career and her public obligations and retiring to travel and write (she is keepign an eye open for a next-generation leader to take her place).

Scott McCloud’s full list (from chapter 2, exercise #2; the title of the post is McCloud’s name for the exercise) is as follows:

  • height
  • weight
  • facial profile
  • beauty
  • strength
  • race and ethnicity
  • background
  • desires
  • age
  • intelligence
  • style of outfit
  • temperament
  • obligations
  • allegiance
  • gender

The formula should be familiar for fans of comic books: The Fantastic Four, for example, are of different ages and genders, wildly different temperaments and scientific backgrounds (the former is the source of their frequent intra-group conflicts; the latter is one of their greatest strengths, when used in combination), different degrees of (or ideas about) beauty and physical appearance, different super-power strengths, and different desires and levels of commitment to their fight against evil. Yet they were originally bound together by their adventurous, progressive approach to scientific inquiry and, as a result, are now further bound together by their shared super-power-transformation experience. (They all wear the same uniform, too, of course, but this is more a reflection of their unity than a cause of it–and, of course, a necessary early comic book trope).

But look beyond the world of comics and you can see this dynamic playing out in all sorts of literary groupings: The shared goal–matrimony and, if possible, romance–but vastly different temperaments and different paths toward their goal among the Bennett sisters in Pride and Prejudice, for one classic example. Or, for a more blatant example, behold the Fellowship of the Ring in Tolkien’s work.

I even recognize this device in my own real life of academia, in which the members of colleges, academic departments, even committees and individual classrooms have an array of differences but are (ideally) united in their common pursuit of academia and excellence in education.

So, I started there, and created this cast of characters.

I found it strangely difficult to define how my characters were different without first discovering their one similarity, so I had to start there: I chose intelligence.

For the differences, I listed age, temperament, obligations, desires, and gender, but I could just as easily have included race and ethnicity (André comes from a French or Francophone background, for example; I don’t know enough about the others to speculate too much, but Sandra and/or Olivia could be Latina or Italian-American, if I wanted them to be; and Max may or may not be African-American, German, or any number of other backgrounds). I also could have listed style of outfit (study your colleagues or your teachers and tell me you don’t detect significant differences in fashion statements). I might have listed allegiance (to specific academic disciplines, for example), or height and weight (Max strikes me as small and thin; Olivia seems stout and intimidating; Sandra is probably very tall).

In fact, all the attributes above could become differences. Some could also be unifying similarities: They might all have different academic specialties, for instance, but they might also share a passion for teaching or scholarship.

Will these characters make for a good comic book? I don’t know–it might be worth pursuing. Could they make good literature? Absolutely–go read Kingsley Amis‘s Lucky Jim!


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