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Is Writing Other People’s Characters Creative?

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OK, who’s a more “prestigious,” creatively-awesome character to write: Batman or Bugs Bunny? The answer to that burning question in a little later in the article.

Right now, however, I want to talk about writing comics featuring other people’s characters and properties.

Part of the work I do is helping clients bring their ideas and properties to life via the comic book format, as a writer and script-adapter.

My mission is: I want to understand what it is the client wants to say, learn who it is they want to say it to, and then make that happen in a professional-looking, fun-to-read comic book.

The question might then be asked: what do I get out of it? (Other than the paycheck, of course!) Isn’t this uncreative work—dealing with other people’s ideas, stories, characters, etc.?

Working as a comic book editor years ago, the “other people’s characters” books—the “licensed” stuff like from toys and movies and cartoons—were sometimes seen as “inferior” to bravura turns writing the latest hot superhero book like a true comic book auteur. Batman was seen, in some circles, as being more important a character to write about than Bugs Bunny. The “children’s comics”—the cartoon stuff—was sort of considered less creative writing work.

Of course…tell that to people like Dan Slott (Amazing Spider-Man) and Mark Millar (Kick-Ass), who both started out writing children’s comics. Slott, who I worked with, did not think of writing Looney Tunes as just “uncreative kid’s stuff.” He took it very seriously. His challenge, which he happily accepted, was to make the comic entertaining to the projected audience and to himself…while at the same time working within the licensor’s parameters (how they, Warner Bros., choose to express the character to the public).

We may then break down into three tasks what the successful writer of other people’s characters must do:

1) Entertain the audience.

2) Entertain oneself; making the book something fun he or she would want to read.

3) Working within the parameters set by the owner of the property. These parameters can include the owner’s personal preferences (maintaining the essence of their story), legal stuff, story bible stuff, etc.

A couple of years ago, I wrote a custom comic for Razorfish called Ella The Engineer, designed to get more girls interested in coding. The questions I asked myself when taking on this assignment were:

1) How do I write something that the desired audience (young teens) would find entertaining?

2) How can I write this so I would find it entertaining?

3) How do I write this in such a way as to communicate the essence of what the creator of the property is trying to say?

One super-important thing to point out here: when you’re hired to write/develop a project like this, #3 on this list trumps your #2. It has to. You have to leave your ego at the door.

I think of one of the very first scripts I adapted for a freelance client who was brand-new to storytelling. On my first pass, I thought I’d add all this “extra cool” stuff that wasn’t there in the original script or treatment. I thought: “I’m going to make this BETTER! I’m going to give my client 150%!”

But what I actually did was: I didn’t listen to the client. I didn’t take the time to fully absorb and appreciate his story. And so when I turned in that first draft, he didn’t even recognize it. As a script adapter—as someone working with essentially a “licensed” property—I screwed up!

And so on the second draft I started fresh by really immersing myself in the client’s story. Not just the details of the plot, but even things like speech patterns in dialogue, larger philosophical issues his story brought up, and so on. And what I produced was, in essence, his story. There might have been little things I added here and there that might be more “me”—but basically, it was all about bringing his narrative to life. Because that was my job.

And so we have the question again: isn’t this uncreative work?

I don’t think it is…or at least, it didn’t feel that way to me.

The crucial point to understand is, a lot of the creativity is in the art of translating that client’s idea into an effective comic book narrative. Much of the creativity is to be found in working within parameters that other people may find restrictive.

As for the Batman vs. Bugs Bunny thing…when you think of it, they’re both licensed comic books. Unless it’s a creator-owned book, it’s all licensed material. And in some cases it might be even harder to satisfactorily write that issue of Batman than Looney Tunes for your editor (and, in turn, for his or her own boss). Even a comic written by a “hot” writer which seems like the biggest ground-breaking thing in the world will probably need to go through a “committee” of editors, especially if it features a Batman or Spider-Man.

That’s why, unless you are completely not interested in ever writing another person’s character (and that is completely OK), you really should study and try your hand at licensed comic books and the like. It may be the stepping-stone to other things…and you might really enjoy it for its own sake!

 

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