One Subtle Way To Give Your Characters More Depth

2016 Artwork Subtle characterisation through item choice article sketch

Although I’m still in the middle of a geeky fascination with the history and designs of pens at the time of writing, I thought that I’d see if my fascination could tell me anything about storytelling – in both comics and prose fiction.

However, I should warn you that I’ll probably spend at least the next few paragraphs talking about pens (and “Star Trek: Deep Space Nine”) in a fairly geeky way. There is a point to all of this that I hope becomes obvious later. But, if you’re not interested in reading about any of this, then just skip to the last three or four paragraphs of this article.

Anyway, one of the interesting things about researching pens is the sheer array of different mechanisms and types of pens in existence. I’ll only be talking about three of them here though.

First of all, there are fountain pens. There are fountain pens that use ink cartridges (eg: every fountain pen I’ve ever used), there are fountain pens that are filled with ink using a plunger mechanism, there are fountain pens that use a rubber sac and a lever for filling and there are fountain pens that you actually have to drip the ink into using a small dropper. These are pens that may have been common decades ago, but are now mostly only used by collectors, enthusiasts and reluctant schoolchildren.

Then there are rollerball pens, my favourite type of pen. Although they look similar to ballpoint pens and function in a similar way, they use a slightly different type of ink (which is much less viscous). Rollerball pens have all of the advantages that ballpoint pens have over fountain pens, but they write a lot more smoothly and are also more well-suited to making art too. Albeit with the disadvantages of causing ink blots to form on the page if the pen is pressed against one part of the page for too long, and of using inks that dry slightly more slowly (and are more prone to smudging).

Then there’s the humble ballpoint pen – the most widely-used type of pen in existence. It doesn’t do all of the cool things that fancier pens do and it’s less well-suited to making art and writing long things than rollerball pens are but, for general everyday use, it’s the best choice. You can leave it unused for years and it’ll still work. You can leave it uncapped for months and you can get it to work again fairly quickly. You can use it for years and it probably still won’t run out of ink. Even if the casing gets damaged, the central parts of the pen will probably still work. It’s a ridiculously cheap type of pen that is entirely designed for practicality and reliability.

For some reason, this reminded me of a scene from “Star Trek: Deep Space Nine” when one of the Starfleet characters is describing the phaser weapons used by their enemies (the Cardassians).

In a scene that echoes historical accounts of American troops talking about Soviet-designed rifles during the Vietnam war, this character talks enthusiastically about how the Cardassian phaser weapons are significantly more reliable and resistant to damage, when compared to the fancier weapons that the Starfleet characters use.

This simple difference tells us a lot about both groups of characters. It emphasises the ruthless militarism of the Cardassian government, and it also emphasises the fact that the Starfleet characters are more interested in advanced technology (with weapon design being something of an afterthought, or a secondary byproduct of this interest). This one small design choice sums up the attitudes of both groups of characters perfectly.

So, if you’re making a comic or writing a novel, then you can show a lot about your characters purely from the items that they use, or the items that they create.

For example, if you want a character in your comic to seem practical, focused and ordinary – then just show them writing with an ordinary ballpoint pen. If you want to give your character a bit more prestige, class and/or eccentricity, then show them writing with a fountain pen. This is a tiny thing that most of your audience won’t notice but, when combined with other types of characterisation – it can really bring a character to life.

Likewise, if you show a group of characters building or designing something – then that thing should reflect who these characters are. In a subtle way, it should reflect their priorities and attitudes towards life. Like with the different weapons in “Star Trek: Deep Space Nine”, things that your characters use and/or make should be a subtle reflection of who they are.


Anyway, I hope that this was useful 🙂

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.