Friday, April 5, 2013

Creating a character: AMALI

Meet Amali! She's one of the main characters in my graphic novel, "The Sleepwalkers", which is out THIS WEEK. It's been years of planning and writing, drawing, colouring and putting-together. I thought you might like to see some creative process to get an idea of what was involved.

Excited about plans for a new adventure.

Amali is a sock monkey, magically brought to life. That much I knew from the start.

The making of Amali (the crafty part thereof)

I've run a few workshops making sock monkeys, and caused a few hundred of those odd creatures to be made that way. In the back of the book you can see a photograph of one of them: a child made it in Belgium. There is also an early character sketch.

A detail from the author page (that's the pencil I used, it's from Muji).

My first sketch of Amali and Bonifacius

Amali is one of the characters that were originally invented by my friend and collaborator Alexis Deacon - he came up with the idea of a monkey, a bear and a dog working together to save children from bad dreams. His original characters were of a different disposition though. I remember the monkey being a somber, serious person. I thought that the bear was somber enough already, and that there should be a better gender balance, so I turned her into a girl.

After that I was a bit stuck. All the other characters seemed to come to life naturally in my imagination as I wrote the first draft, but Amali refused to. She didn't appear fully formed in my head like the three sheep in the story had done. So I tried a few of my usual tricks.
The first one is to base a character on a friend. I know that all my characters are to some extent based on myself, so I ask myself what that friend and I have in common, or which of their character traits really impress me in some way or another.
I tried to base Amali on a friend of mine who is very imaginative, bright, poetic and athletic, but also worries a lot at times. That helped, but she still felt like an awkward construct.

Working out the "costume" - early stages
I spent a lot of time designing her "costume", that is, her fur. I considered the pattern of the socks she was made of. I gave her black pants and boots, like a superhero might wear. I gave her cute flicks of hair, thinking of Astro Boy, and more flicks to build an odd collar that seemed to suit her.
I realised that one of her basic character traits was being a born superhero. She was literally made to be a hero; made out of socks, but still. She couldn't take her hero boots off if she tried.

I thought of the sock monkeys that families had made in my workshop. The kind of character that emerged there… those monkeys mostly seemed to be extremely self-satisfied. They reflected the pride of their maker, wearing a big grin stitched on after a whole hour of sewing and stuffing and designing and succeeding in it all. Those monkeys knew they were awesome, even the most wonky ones with exploding limbs, and the ones made from terrible ancient tennis socks.
Not a smidgen of self-doubt. That's what Amali is like, too.

sock beast
One of the sock creatures made in one of my workshops (this one is a cat, but you get the idea).

The book includes a page of instruction for you to make your own monkey, of course.

The next important piece came from another trick. Some years ago, when I was having trouble with my work, I saw an improvised theatre performance. It was a good one, the sort that seems like magic. I went and bought the book they were selling in the interval: Keith Johnstone's "Impro". One of the best things I ever bought, that was.
In there, I found a technique called "Fast Food Stanislavski", which was all about writing a list of basic motivations for the character to consult every time they did anything.
So I wrote a list for Amali of things she wants.
She is curious and wants to explore everything.
She wants to be a hero.
She wants others to be happy.
Then I thought back to the very first scene Alexis and I had written about her. She was going on a deep sea rescue mission enclosed in a bottle. From that I wrote:
She likes to be in small spaces.
That made me think about her character in a new way, because it is something I did myself as a child, and it came with a set of emotions: I used to hide in boxes, cupboards, drawers, because I liked the feeling of being outside the world. I didn't exist for a bit. It was so peaceful!
I realised that if anything should upset Amali, she would always hide in a small space. But what could upset her? What could upset a person like Amali, who seems so incredibly happy?
She doesn't want to be left alone.
She wants to have a plan, and things to go as planned.
She doesn't want anyone to get hurt.
She doesn't ever want things to end badly.
I trusted that set of rules, and consulted it while I was writing, and after a while bad things happened... and Amali started to react to them. She did things I had not expected, like yell at people, and eat a whole jar of jam so she could hide inside it.
Panels from the comic.
Her need for happiness inspired a page between chapters that is a recipe for banana milkshake, as a distressed monkey would feel comforted by it. I think stories and recipes go together brilliantly. - There is a full pasta recipe in "The Godfather". You can eat exactly what these guys are eating right then, and actually you would really enjoy that meal as much as they do. It's like magic, a little piece of the story manifests - and that nails down a corner of that story in the world of the reader.

Milkshake recipe detail.
The last piece didn't fall into place until I started drawing the comic.

The size chart I used. I am terrible at keeping characters at a constant size.
Amali is so much smaller than the bear, who she interacts with a lot, that simply to get her into the same panel she has to climb all over things… and all over him. I realised that she would do that with everyone all the time.
And that way, she somehow made a connection with the other characters as soon as she appeared visually, and finally came to life.

Panels from the comic.

So there, that's my creative process for you, hope you enjoyed it, and maybe you want to meet the other characters… they are all in the book, and it is on sale now! Ask your local bookshop. (It's published by Walker Books London, Walker Books Australia... and yep, there's an American edition by Candlewick Press.)

Oh and you can try to make contact with Amali at @TheSleepwalkers. She's in charge of the Twitter stream when Gregor the sheep is busy doing other things. There are odd temporal and dimensional distortions at work, so you can't use Twitter to call them to fix your nightmares, which is a shame. But they are nice to chat to anyway.


Alexis said...


'was the jam nice?'

'yes, the jam was very nice.'

Good luck in the real world, Sleepwalkers!

Viviane Schwarz said...

Jam is always nice.

Emma Collins Ba (Hons) said...

I can see you in Amali... I think it's the eyes :) can't wait to buy a copy it looks awesome!!!

Viviane Schwarz said...

They all look like me! ^-^

Bo Bigelow said...

Such a great post! People never realize how much work goes into a graphic novel, especially character development. Love the sock monkey instructions!