12. The Making of a Comic: 'Darlin' by Olivia Stephens
Artist and writer Olivia Stephens reveals how she crafts original characters
Howdy Brave Being,
Welcome back, fine folks to The Making of a Comic. This week, I’m joined by graphic novelist and illustrator Olivia Stephens, recent winner of the Tin House residency program for the Fall. Olivia and I met through Twitter I believe, back when I was co-creating KITH + KIN. Though we haven’t gotten to work together yet, I continue to follow and read her work. Let’s hop to it!
Earlier this year, Olivia published DARLIN’ on Gumroad and I was instantly intrigued by the cover. I’m happy to report that the story is just as compelling, a real supernatural treat set in the Old West. Here she is to tell you all about it.
Olivia Stephens: Darlin' is a vignette in the lives of two individuals who are hired as guides for a small wolf-hunting party. But these two guides are not what they seem, and the hunting party ends up...disbanded, we'll say.
BM: How did you approach creating these two guides?
OS: Honestly, I'm still figuring out who these people are. But I was drawn to the inherent friction in being a werewolf during the height of the United States' mass wolf extermination campaigns in the 1800's. In that context, I'm able to play with the werewolf metaphor as a response to the real monsters of colonial expansion, capitalistic greed and commodification, among other things. But as I said, I'm still learning who these two specific guides are as people.
BM: Did you follow a structure for telling this supernatural tale? Such as the three-act structure or the Fichtean Curve or none at all?
OS: I didn't follow any specific structure for this short story, but as I write more about these two characters' lives, I can see their story as episodes similar to the Fichtean Curve. Darlin' feels like a character study, the more I work on it. I don't adhere too formally to structures as I'm writing, but I think it's helpful to consider them after you've thrown everything onto the page and something still isn't working. Then a set structure can feel like a helpful suggestion for trimming the fat and reaching a more satisfying conclusion.
BM: Will we see more of Darlin’ in the future?
OS: Yes! I've been writing and researching for an expansion of the story and I will be working on that during my Tin House residency. So I hope to bring more Darlin' to readers in 2022!
Crafting Original Characters
BM: What's your first step in creating an original character (OC)?
OS: I typically think of the premise first. What life situation or circumstance might yield a lot of drama or intrigue. Often I am drawn to a speculative premise, where an otherwise mundane setting or character is flipped on their head by the introduction of a supernatural element. I really love figuring out how characters react to that sudden intrusion. Once I've figured out my "what if" scenario, I find a character's personality through how they might respond to it, and extrapolate their inner life from that response. Physical appearance is probably the least important element for me. I like creating characters who look like regular people. But I do find myself incorporating facial features that I've found intriguing in real life, especially when it comes to noses. They possess so much character.
BM: How do you ensure the consistency of their voice?
OS: I act out dialogue (in the privacy of my home) constantly. It's an intuition thing. I try to put myself in the same headspace as the character and if it sounds 'wrong' while acting it out, then it's wrong. It's either not something they would say, or not how they would say it. I don't think you need to have fleshed out your character's personality 100% to know their voice, but you should know your goal for the character. You need to know how you want them to come across to the reader, at least.
BM: What do you think makes a great character?
OS: Vulnerability. I always want to see where a character's soft spot is. Everyone has one. And the subtle presence of a character's idiosyncrasies always make them more relatable to me. It shows me that, despite being fictional, they are engaged in the general weirdness of being sentient. And in that sense, they feel "real".
Getting to know Olivia Stephens
BM: What's your favorite thing about making comics?
OS: My favorite thing about making comics is the endless possibility. It feels like I can say anything and everything I want to say with a comic. When I was younger I tried to write prose, but I was often interrupted by my need to explain parts of the story with pictures. A comic's marriage between word, image and design is so beautiful and utterly complete to me. It is a limitless language that invites experimentation.
BM: Who or what influences your art and stories the most?
OS: Music! I have a playlist for every story I work on, along with some character playlists. Depending on the song, I'm influenced by different aspects: mood, emotion, lyrics, the voice. Sometimes you hear a singer whose voice just 'reminds' you of a character that doesn't even exist yet. The way a song is structured inspires me as well, like the use of the chorus. Repetition is a powerful storytelling tool, and a good song harnesses it to enhance the overall story. I try to incorporate that into my own work.
BM: What are you working on lately?
OS: My debut graphic novel Artie and the Wolf Moon just came out from Lerner Books on September 7th. It is also a werewolf story, but a very different one from Darlin'!
Artie and the Wolf Moon is a middle-grade/young adult graphic novel about an eighth grader named Artie Irvin who accidentally discovers that her widowed mother is a werewolf, and that she comes from a whole lineage of werewolves. The story follows Artie as she discovers her own wolf-like abilities, forges new community, and learns the story of her human father who died before she was born. Artie also discovers that wolves are not the scariest things in the woods—vampires are. You can order a copy of Artie through any of the retailers I've compiled here. Or you can request it from your local library!
Other than that, I've been working on some unannounced projects that I can't talk in detail about yet! But you can check out some behind-the-scenes work over on my Patreon: @OliveOilCorp.
BM: Fabulous, Olivia! Thanks a million for telling us about both DARLIN’ and ARTIE AND THE WOLF MOON. Can’t wait to see what you’ve got cooking next!