When it comes to creating a comic that makes an impact, there’s one thing that every author needs to keep in mind. It isn’t art style or length or even ingenuity: it’s identity. While this might seem either obvious or irrelevant, creating a cast that has a wide range of diversity is absolutely vital, even if your comic doesn’t have anything to do with social justice or feminism or politics.
Why It’s Important
Comics—and really all media—are created for a wide variety of purposes. Sometimes they serve to tell a story, sometimes they are satire, sometimes they illustrate some sort of political or social stance, sometimes they’re something wacky and weird and new altogether. Whatever the case may be, diversity is important.
But Connor, you say, my comic doesn’t have anything to do with any of those things!
If that’s the case, then this tutorial still applies to you. Why? Because media is the main way in which we connect to and understand the world around us. If every TV show we watch has a bunch of cisgender, heterosexual, middle-class white people in it, then anyone who doesn’t fit those strict roles has no connection to that story. If every perfume add is a sexual depiction of a thin, able-bodied woman, then what are people going to start to believe about the ideal woman?
People should be able to see themselves in the media around them. The most marginalized person on the planet should have at least one character or person or even advertisement that they can relate to. It promotes visibility for marginalizes groups and helps empower people that might not see themselves in media very often.
Even if a comic has absolutely nothing to do with creating characters or telling a story, diversity is super important. Some examples of comics that don’t tell stories but are spot-on diversity-wise include Christine Deneweth’s comics, Robot Hugs, and Ronnie Ritchie’s works.
So, now that we’ve talked about why diversity is important, let’s get into the down-and-dirty. The following how-to/tutorial is mostly intended for comic writers and artists who are creating a fictional story, but hopefully there will be nuggets of information relevant to anyone!
Backstory is one of those things that, especially in comics, we don’t often see. Occasionally, if it’s something really substantial a flashback or verbal explanation might be used, but those instances are rarely necessary. Unlike writing a book, backstory isn’t something that’s always 100% salient for creators, or even explicitly needed. However, even if the audience is never clued into a character’s backstory, this should be an integral part of creating your character.
Part of what makes us who we are is what we’ve been through and where we came from. The way a character interacts with others and the world around them is highly informed by their past experiences. Knowing how your characters will act and react within your story is, like real life, based heavily on what they’ve been through.
Let’s explore this via example. Let’s say that I have two characters, Suzie and Michael, who both identify as Latinx. Both are of Mexican descent, both are college students in the United States, both are able-bodied and able-minded. If that’s as far as we go then all we have to inform us about their behavior and depiction is that they’re male and female Latinx individuals, so they’ll be fairly similar characters.
It’s when we throw in some other background information that these characters come to life. Let’s say now that Suzie and Suzie’s family all identify as undocumented, but Michael and Michael’s family have all been US citizens for generations. Those are two extremely different experiences. Michael might know what it’s like to be treated as a Latino man, but he has very little concept of the fear and marginalization that undocumented people experience. Growing up, Suzie probably faced fear of deportation regularly whereas that isn’t something Michael experienced.
However, we also know that Michael grew up in an abusive household, with parents who harmed each other and Michael and his siblings. Now we’ve got an undocumented Latinx woman interacting with a poor Latinx man who is a US citizen. Talk about difference in experience! Those characters are going to react to some situations similarly, while in others they’ll be worlds apart. It’s not enough to create a Latinx character, we also have to know what they’ve been through or your character will be a flat stereotype with little personality.
Writing Real Diversity
Just as it’s not enough to create a character with no history, it’s not enough to create a character with a marginalized identity and leave it at that. No identity exists in a vacuum and it’s important to take into account every aspect of identity you can. A character who identifies as an Indigenous, gay woman will go through the world as an Indigenous person, a gay person, a woman, and an Indigenous gay woman. They are all interwoven. Just as Michael and Suzie had vastly different backgrounds, so should your characters have fully fleshed-out identities.
Let’s explore another scenario. Say we have two characters, Helena and Gabriella. Both identify as cisgender women, so throughout their life they will both have the shared experience of misogyny. However, Helena is a white gay woman and Gabriella is a mixed race straight woman who uses a wheelchair. Helena will navigate the world as a white person, a gay person, a woman, and a white gay woman. Gabriella will navigate the world as a person of color, a woman, a disabled person, and a disabled woman of color. Totally different ways of moving through the world (physically and socially).
One of the most important things to remember is to not stereotype. When you create a character, try to thing how your depiction might influence people who share that identity. Do you have a woman who identifies as Latina? Move away from the “spicy Latina” trope. Have a gay man? Well, there’s no reason for him to be white and middle-class is there? It’s all about creating someone who is a 3-dimensional person.
It’s also important to never speak for an identity you don’t hold. If you’re a white person, get to know and ask about the experiences of people of color. If you’re straight, don’t just watch Ellen to think you know the whole experience. Ask actual people of the community you’re representing how they feel and how they are. If something seems off or iffy, ask someone if they would find that depiction offensive.
And, of course, always be respectful of other cultures.
Dialogue and Scripting
This is a pretty short section. Mostly what I wanted to say here is that it’s important to play with dialogue and to understand its impact when it comes to race and class. Although it’s important to have characters speak accurately and to portray that in your dialogue, you also must do so in a way that makes sense for that character.
For example, if you have a character speaking Ebonics (a dialect of African-American/black English that is regarded as a language variant of English), you have to ask yourself why you’re doing that. Is it just because your character identifies as black/African-American? If there’s no other reason then that’s pretty problematic and harmful. If it’s because your character grew up in an area where that was the primary dialect and that’s central to their story then it’s an excellent thing to include (especially if you’re going to talk about the intersections of race and class).
Basically, as we’ve discussed this entire time, don’t stereotype. Make your characters speak very intentionally.
Now let’s take a look at the visual parts of the process.
Race, Gender, Ability, and Seeing Yourself
The first thing to think about are the visual identities that people hold. The two most salient ones are race and ability status (age is an important factor too, depending on the age range of your comic characters). If you can place your characters side-by-side and they all look like this:
something is wrong. Do some research and find out what colors human skin can be.
Unless there’s a real reason (making a point about racial inequality or class, perhaps?) there’s no reason for your character color swatch not to look like this:
Also, don’t forget ability status. Do all of your characters move by walking upright with no support? Add crutches, add people who are missing limbs, add people who use wheelchairs.
Also, if your characters look like this:
consider varying gender presentations. There are boys who wear makeup and dresses, girls that are bald and bold, and lots of nonbinary folks that present any number of different ways. Shake it up! Try creating a cast that has some splashes of this in it:
Bodies, Bodies Everywhere!
There are a lot of different aspects to drawing characters with diverse physiques. Think of the context: who are your characters? Navigating Space has a cast of dancers, so they all should have a more or less athletic form, or some kind of body that could do collegiate ballet. Include whoever makes sense, because not everyone looks the same. If you’re having trouble figuring out how to draw different body types, this is a super basic tutorial:
Hair—And I Don’t Mean the Musical
Hair might not seem like a big deal, but it actually is! Hair has a lot to do with what we consider “desirable” and “beautiful” in society. Especially when it comes to people of color (and especially people who have hair that naturally dreads or creates an Afro), there are a lot of different judgments placed on their character. People get really excited to see different hairstyles. Try to shake it up a little!
This obviously isn’t everything ever that has to do with diversity. This is just a tiny taste of how web comic creators can put out something that is more real and diverse. If you’re looking for places to create more fully-fleshed out characters, I highly recommend using these resources:
Charahub (creating full characters)
Everydayfeminism.com (lots of first-hand accounts of diverse experiences)
Robot Hugs (for incredible depictions of diverse identities)
Thank you so much for reading, and good luck creating a wonderful and diverse cast!