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Overview Part Three

This is part three of a series exploring the creation of my graphic novel the road to god knows.... Part one can be found here while part two is over here.

So, the last part was discussing the creation of the characters that made up the story and how I created small biographies for each one. Part of the reason of doing this, of course, is to look for the differences from the real people they are based on. This is fiction, after all, so the characters aren’t necessarily the same as their real life counterparts. They can’t be or I’m back to square one. So for all the characters there are differences. This is most obvious with Marie (I’m not a girl!) but each character is different to one degree or another.

Building on that is another element of this type of writing. Fundamentally, we can only be honest with ourselves (well, hopefully). We know everyone else (those we love, those we hate, everyone else) primarily from our own point of view. We don’t know what someone is thinking at a particular time (unless, of course, they tell us) and what insights we have in another person is very much based on who we are and how we got to this point in time. On top of it, stories like this deal primarily with memory. Who we remember people being and what they meant to us. Call it the prism of memory. Or maybe where memory meets history and experience. If you ever read multiple biographies of the same individual, you’ll often see different interpretations based on the same data. It’s actually quite fascinating and more interesting still if that person then wrote their own memoir or autobiography and touched on those events. You can get wildly differing viewpoints all based on interpretations of the same event!

For this story, I was obviously building “the Mom” on my experiences with my own Mom. Part of the trick, though, is I never actually spoke to my Mom as an adult – as the man I am now. She died when I was 20 years old and she was very unwell for the last year or so. Tough but there it is. So building a fictional version of her was very much based on my own memories and reminisces about the time I was writing about. And I knew that when I designed “the Mom” I could never really get close to who my Mom was. That’s mainly a result of the narrative choices I made. By structuring the story around Marie, it meant that her Mom would only be a supporting character. One that figures prominently in the story, but a character that we wouldn’t really get to know. We’re seeing the world from Marie’s perspective and not her Mom’s. Actually, this gave me a fair amount of freedom in how I approached Marie’s Mom. I didn’t have to worry about being accurate or representational. I could let events play out and let the reader come to their own conclusions about her Mom. It allowed me to not be didactic or other-wise use the story as a soapbox on mental illness. Well, at least I hope that’s how it comes across!

So, what follows is what I initially wrote on Betty, Marie’s Mom:

Personality and Attitude: this is probably the trickiest character to write, ‘cuz, after all, she’s based on my Mom. The thing about Betty is at this point in time, she’s gradually losing sense of herself. She’s not who she wants to be, obviously, but dealing with some of the ghosts of her past that have been coming up lately have made things far worse. That, combined with a fair amount of heavy medication has left her woozy at the best of times. And downright catatonic at others.

She’s not a bad person, by any stretch of the imagination. But she’s not had an easy time dealing with her “stuff” – and that stuff has become overwhelming of late. And it’s so heavy that she doesn’t have anywhere to turn – aside from professional help. She’s been managing to get some, so that’s the positive. But it’s come in the face of nervous breakdowns that have left her hospitalized.

In some ways, she’s too sensitive. Too gentle. And with all the stuff coming up, it makes the outside world a very dangerous, very scary place to be. So she doesn’t often venture outside unless she has to (groceries, that sorta thing). And with money so tight (being unwell while on welfare is an absolute bitch), there’s not many opportunities for fun stuff. Through in trying to raise a 13 year old daughter at the same time and it becomes downright impossible.

She is strong in a strange way, though. The major proof being on two fronts – through all the pain and suffering she’s never raised a hand against her daughter, somehow managing to keep her violent side (we all have ‘em) in check even during the worst times. On top of it, shortly after her separation and while still living in a small Ottawa Valley town, she somehow had the gumption to get a degree in Psychology at the University of Carleton. No easy achievement, that. It did wind up costing too much and led to her eventual declaration of bankruptcy in 1987, but it was still remarkable that she could somehow do this nonetheless.

The demons that she faces are basically there daily. Sleep doesn’t come easy to her and she suffers migraine headaches – as well as general poor health overall that stems from a poor diet and the lack of exercise. It’s a very individual, very solitary war that she’s waging. One with no end in sight and no guarantee of victory. Actually, as it happened with my own Mom, there’s a very real chance of loss. Losing would mean losing herself and quite possibly her life.

With both Marie and her mom pretty much figured out, I next turned to the trickiest character in the story. Kelly, Marie’s best friend, is one of the truly fictional characters in the road to god knows... In some ways, she’s mostly an amalgam of different people I knew during my teen years. But in many ways, she’s uniquely original. I didn’t have any friends that were quite like her!

Part of the reason I wanted to include Kelly in the story actually had a lot to do with a theme I wanted to touch on subtly throughout the story. One of the things I’ve long wondered about is why do certain people turn out the way they do? In other words, based on similar events, why does one person crumble under life’s strain while another seems to get through it? Wounded, perhaps, but stronger for the experiences. I don’t think there’s a simple answer to this – it’s partially based on who we are, what happened, and how life girded us for to better cope with trauma. On top of it, that “trauma” can be a very different thing to very different people. Something so horrible at one stage of our lives might be far easier for someone else to deal with – or even for us to deal with if it just happens a bit later. Or a bit earlier. It’s odd to think of these kind of things and odder still to experience them. But learning to cope with what life throws at us is a critical life skill that’s pretty much unteachable. You just get through things or you don’t.

With that in mind, I felt the story needed more than just the dynamic between Marie and her mom. I didn’t just want Marie to go through all of this with no support – I wanted to be able to use the theme of friendship to give her an anchor that she could rely on. And, ironically, an anchor that her Mom never had. The script doesn’t really touch on this openly. Kelly’s there and as a result of their friendship Marie has someone she can talk to. And vent with. But the story would have had a very different feel if Kelly wasn’t around. Marie would be dealing with things completely alone – and that "aloneness" would have taken the story to a very different place.

Narratively, it also gave me an escape from some of the heaviness of the story, too. Kelly isn’t into wrestling and her life experiences are somewhat different than Marie’s. So she allowed a very different element to permeate the story. She’s clearly a supporting character, but her presence gave the story a lot of possibilities. This was important as I began to build the plot up.

Here are some of my earliest thoughts on Kelly:

“Personality and Attitude: Kelly’s a bit caught between two worlds. On the one hand she’s getting more alternative as she gets older, slowly getting punkier as time goes on. On the other hand, she’s the older sister for Emma and in a bit of position of responsibility as a latchkey kid. She loves Emma a lot, but she’s kinda burdened by the fact that she’s always looking after her. That tension kinda bubbles inside her. Her friendship with Marie has really helped, though, as it gives her a release valve to vent. She’s certainly not Willow to Marie’s Buffy – she should come across as fairly tough and ornery. The good thing for her is that her parents, while poor, do love one another and treat her well.

She’s also a fairly different from her younger sister Emma. Emma is very quiet and introverted, partially because she’s been forced (due to the family’s situation) to be with her sister and other older kids quite a bit. She’s kinda learned to keep her mouth shut for the most part. Kelly isn’t like that. She’s not afraid to state an opinion or say something that others might disagree with. Bright for her age and also opinionated. That gets her in trouble from time to time, but it’s a part of her character that she’s not gonna give up.

Kelly is a little more grammatically correct when she talks. Not that she can’t get excited or anything, but in being the older sister she’s more conscious of saying things “right.” In some ways, Kelly’s dialogue should come across as reserved in comparison to both her sister and Marie.”

This last bit was actually pretty important. By giving Kelly a different cadence to her language, I’d have two characters who speak and communicate in two entirely different ways. Again, it’s a subtle thing but I really wanted the reader to be able to hear the two distinct voices in their heads. If someone was reading the dialogue aloud you should be able to tell who’s talking with no other clue except their words. Since the story was going to be a “talkie” anyway, it felt right to emphasize the differing styles of speech.

I’ve already discussed the main players to some extent. But all stories have “supporting actors” to help fill things out and add other elements that further the plot and/or character exploration. So the next entry or two will touch on these minor characters and explain a little bit about why I chose them.

The main “minor” character I wanted to add was Emma, Kelly’s little sister. Emma is a very quiet little girl. Very bright but certainly not a key player in the road to god knows... So why add her at all, then? To put it pretty simply, I wanted to have another character that could almost represent the reader. Huh? Ok, ok…bear with me! This is a little abstract! When you read any story you have no control over how the creator(s) pace the tale they’re telling. This applies to comics, novels, film, whatever – you aren’t in control of the actual way the story unfolds. Now, the corollary to that is that the reader/viewer is generally in complete control over the speed of which the story unfolds. You can put down the novel or comic and stop reading and “break” the story in an unnatural way. You can pause or stop the DVD player, interrupting the film’s flow. Only live theatre and actually sitting in a movie theatre remove that ability (and of course, you can still get up and leave – you just can’t stop the action when you do so).

Much discussion has been made, especially in comics, on how you make the reader continue the story by turning the page. How do you keep their attention? Some writers believe in having a page end with a question. The “question” can be physical (i.e.: in a superhero comic, the last panel might show a guy winding up to punch someone. But you have to flip the page to find out if he actually hit his target or not), emotional (i.e.: someone proposes on the last panel and the page must be turned to find out if the partner accepts or turns it down), intellectual and on and on. I’m not crazy about this as a writing exercise mainly because it feels kinda gimmicky. I believe that if the idea of the story is sound, people will continue to read. It doesn’t bug me much if the story isn’t a riveting page turner that forces the reader to stay up all night trying to finish it off. I just want them to finish it! Hopefully not labouring too hard in the process. But if I’ve done my job right, the reader will naturally want to find out what happens next – and how the story ends.

That brings us to Emma. With the story unfolding in front of the reader, I wanted a character that could be experiencing a lot of what happens plot-wise along with the reader, really at the same pace of the reader, almost walking hand in hand together. In other words, I felt it might be a good idea to have a character really be almost a stand-in for the reader. In some ways Kelly also fulfills this role. But having the story partially seen through the eyes of a child seemed to make a lot of sense. Since the plot of the story revolves around mental illness, trying to come to grips with that is difficult even if we understand it. Marie and Kelly have a hard enough time figuring that out on their own. With Emma, I wanted to have a character that really couldn’t understand it. She could just watch, absorbing information but not really able to process it.

The other reason to add a kid to the story was much more personal. Being an only child, I never experienced the wonderful (?!) world of siblings that Moggy and others have. I’m not close to any family, either, so my experience with cousins and the like is pretty minimal. But I did have some heartwarming experiences with a cousin of mine when I was around Marie’s age. Being able to honour that memory was fairly important to me. And as long as it didn’t feel forced, I wanted to add a bit of that to this story, too. So you can quite rightly call Emma’s presence half a narrative choice and half a personal one.

Of course, Emma also adds a dynamic to Kelly that Marie, being an only child herself, doesn’t have. That helped differentiate the two friends and allow some story elements that might not have otherwise been there. I certainly didn’t want to have Marie and Kelly being too closely the same.

Bert Levesque, Marie's father, was one of the trickier characters to come up with. His role in the story is small and actually doesn’t get going until around midway through. Marie is also not close to him, so developing that dynamic was tough. The other problem was that I didn’t want to make him too close to my own father. Ah, the double-edged sword of fiction!

See, part of the trick of creating a story that’s somewhat autobiographical is balancing that very “somewhat.” I’ve already touched on some of the tricks with Betty, Marie’s Mom, earlier on. But Bert was a problem in a different way. Since my father and I aren’t exactly close, I wanted to ensure that Bert Levesque wasn’t just a stand in for my own dad. Life can imitate art and all that – I just didn’t want art imitating life.

With that in mind, I needed to keep a few differences. Thinking back to the wrestling connection, I looked hard at some of the ol’ magazines I have kicking around and searched for influences. A little was also drawn from shows like Degrassi Junior High (and damn it, I’m not the only one influenced. Look at Kevin Smith of Jay and Silent Bob fame!) and other 80s design. The popularity of the ‘stache, plaid and the like were pretty obvious – and something that’s really faded out in popularity. Aside from Jack Layton, I can’t think of another male public figure that keeps a moustache. Go figure.

Personality-wise, I felt I needed to keep Bert fairly removed from my own Dad. They share a common French Canadian ancestry (and accent) and that’s about it. I also felt that by reducing the role that Bert plays in Marie’s life I might be able to strike a bit of a balance between reality and the requirements of the script. Like I said – it’s a tricky thing. I didn’t want to slavishly (or illegally!) copy my own father but I wanted to have a paternal presence in Marie’s life. How well I’ve accomplished this is anyone’s guess. It seemed to work on my end, at least.

And that's it for the characters. The final part examines how I actually wrote the story's script!

About "the road to god knows..."

The road to god knows... is an original graphic novel by Canadian cartoonist Von Allan. It features the story of Marie, a teenage girl coming to grips with her Mom's schizophrenia. As a result, she's struggling to grow up fast; wrestling with poverty, loneliness, and her Mom's illness every step of the way. With her Mom absorbed in her own problems, Marie is essentially alone while she learns to deal with the chaos in her young life.

148 pages, SRP $13.95 US, ISBN: 978-0-9781237-0-3

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