Difficult characters (#SFWApro)

When I was younger, I’d read articles by creators — comics particularly — where they’d refer to someone as a “difficult character” to use. At the time it didn’t make sense to me. Characters, after all, are not magic. Having a great character doesn’t guarantee a great story will just write itself. Even Batman and Spider-Man have had crap stories.

Years of added reading have given me a higher appreciation for the concept. A great character can’t save a crappy story, but they can make a mediocre one readable. Put Holmes and Martin Hewitt in exactly the same story, and the Holmes version will be better, because he’s so much more interesting. Batman will typically make a better story than Dr. Midnite or Silver Age Green Arrow. A great character can survive mediocrity.

As a collateral to that, I think maybe it is easier to write about a great character—or conversely, harder to write about a difficult one. Non-difficult characters are easier to write because they have something extra: More range, more character, they can fit into a wider type of stories, they can work even with a second-rate writer. Difficult characters may only work with one narrow approach or only one writer ever really gets them.

spiderwoman01For example, Spider-Woman (cover by Joe Sinott, all rights remain with current holder). Introduced as spider turned into a human, she was meant to protect Marvel’s claim to the name Spider-Woman before Filmation could do a Spider-Woman cartoon (they settled for Web Woman instead). She could have vanished into oblivion, but Marv Wolfman liked her, used her in some guest appearances, then scripted her in her own series. And he did well presenting her as a genuine outcast. Even after she learns she’s human, she has no experience interacting with people and it shows (which is not original to this series, of course, but Wolfman did it well). The book was odd and strange, with villains including Brother Grimm, the Hangman, and Morgan leFay … but by the end of his time with SW, Wolfman was writing it more like a horror anthology where Spider-Woman was secondary (and there’s the minor annoyance that Wolfman completely forgets about the Hangman imprisoning women to “protect” them. so presumably he kept right on doing it)

Then Mark Gruenwald took over and did a fantastic job with more odd adversaries (Gypsy Moth, the Needle, Kali cultists) while helping Spider-Woman make some human connections. After that we got Michael Fleisher turning her into a bounty hunter and making her just very … normal (it didn’t help the stories sucked). Then Chris Claremont started writing her as a kind of deeply thoughtful, sensitive character like Storm in X-Men, but that didn’t fit either. I wouldn’t say there’s only one way to write Spider-Woman, but there’s a lot of ways not to write her.

Likewise the Phantom Stranger. DC’s shadowy mystery man is a favorite of mine, appearing out of nowhere to help out people threatened by occult forces. Len Wein, writing his book, got it perfectly right — the Stranger intervenes and guides, but he’s more about steering people to the right path than just destroying the villain himself. Later writers got it wrong by having the Stranger not do anything. He offers advice, which the protagonist then ignores, and so comes to their doom — it’s more like he’s the narrator of a horror anthology than a hero. So yeah, difficult to get right (though Grant Morrison and Alan Moore have done good jobs with the Stranger in bit parts).

So yeah, difficult characters is a thing. (Cover by Neal Adams, all rights reside with current holder)


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Filed under Comics, Reading, Writing

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