Regardless of any other content, webcomics need characters. It’s no use sitting down to produce the next classic of the modern age if you don’t have anyone to propel your story forward, and even if you’re doing a brilliant new form of comic where story is a thing of the past, the reader is going to need someone to focus on and associate with when they read your work. That person is a character. They’re probably also the protagonist, although this advice will work just as well for other characters too.
Why are they here?
Before you put pen to paper, let’s get a few things clear about the character being created. They need to have a purpose in the story and this will put huge constraints on what kind of character they are; both physically and in terms of their personality. A comedy set in a nursery school is not going to be the right setting for Captain H. Amadeus Jawbone, an emotionally-damaged veteran of the multidimensional Eldritch Wars. Or is it?
Well the truth is, Captain Jawbone could be right at home in this setting if he is handled correctly. Okay, it’s clear he’s not going to be a schoolkid in this setting, but he could well be a schoolteacher. Perhaps coming home from the wars made him reassess what he wants to do with his life and now he works in a school for little kids. The children’s perception of his war stories could form the basis of the comic; or maybe his flashbacks to the time he single-handedly held Fort Ottersdaffen from the forces of the Jugallo Weirdingbeast keep interjecting while he’s teaching the children to spell.
The trick is to realise that the setting creates a round hole. If your character is a square peg, all you need to do is round off the edges and he’ll fit.
What do they look like?
The appearance of a character will depend partly on the setting and partly on the style of the comic as a whole. Although this is a discussion about creating characters, it is worth noting at this point that the style of a comic will make a first impression on the reader, so getting the right look is important. If the comic looks like Calvin and Hobbes, readers are not going to expect it to be a Lovecraftian horror, and vice-versa. The same goes for characters.
It’s always great to subvert expectations and keep the reader guessing right up to the reveal but when it comes to characters, it’s best to make them fit in with the setting. Taking the Captain Jawbone idea again, his appearance should reflect the setting he’s in.
If it’s a war story, the detail on his uniform will be just as important as whether he has noticeable scars and how well-defined his muscles are. If he’s in a schoolyard comedy, his important features will be the difference in his size compared to the size of the schoolchildren (he’ll probably dwarf them). Scars will be optional for the schoolyard but if they’re there, consider making them less detailed, and perhaps have them as part of his colour scheme rather than as part of the inking; to take the edge off.
The Importance of Personality
How a person speaks and acts should be determined by the role they play in the story. There are many different types of personality (and many have been dissected to an atomic level on sites such as TV Tropes) so making each character unique can (and often does, initially at least) boil down to choosing the right characteristics and then running with them.
To take the school comedy idea again, several strong personalities come to mind right away. There’s the shy, bookish kid who just wants to be left alone. There’s the brash, attention-seeking kid who can’t live without praise. There’s the bully (who may or may not be a troubled soul who just needs to be loved). There’s also Captain Jawbone, the grim disciplinarian haunted by his own past. Give each a name and a basic design and you’re set.
Of course characters develop over time, so it’s important to realise that what your characters begin as will not be their true personality. The characteristics you associate with them at the start are just guidelines that lead you in the direction the story takes them. To pick up on a famous example, let’s look at Tycho from Penny Arcade.
Initially, Tycho is the straight guy to Gabe. There’s admittedly little to differentiate the two characters at first. Now, however, he’s a bitter guy who writes eloquent fantasy stories and broils at the fact that a hack rival gets all the glory while he has only demented fans. Yes, he’s still the straight man to Gabe’s more manic personality, but there are more layers to him as well. These built up over time; time that was well used in fleshing him out. He didn’t turn up fully realised, and he didn’t have to. This last point is key.
You don’t need to know everything about your characters when you begin a webcomic. You don’t need to know the family tree, education history and complete life story of every person you put into an established comic. It’s enough to put together enough components of their look and mannerisms to get a decent feel for them. The rest comes together over time, as the story progresses. Just get them down on paper and see where you go from there.