Here's what Allen told us:
How do you come up with characters?
I usually start with the overall story concept, and try to create a protagonist that best expresses the tone, world, and themes I want to explore. Once I feel good about the protagonist, I'll create the antagonist to be the complete opposite, ideally to the point that everything he/she does makes the protagonist's life more difficult, and goals more unattainable. After they're in place, I'll fill it out with supporting characters who complement or conflict with the protagonist in interesting ways. The way I think about it is that every character should react differently to a given situation, and the protagonist should react (at least by the end of the story) in a way that best reflects your theme. For example, if the characters in your story find a bag full of money, maybe one wants to turn it in to the police, one wants to take it home and stuff it under a mattress, one is afraid to even touch it, one wants to blow it at the strip club, etc. You explore the theme of your story by following your protagonist's choices to see the impact on his/her life and environment, and the final outcome is the expression of your theme. If any two characters have the same reaction, you either cut one, or collapse them into a single character. It keeps the story tighter, fresher, and more fun to write.
For a lot of comic work I've done, the artist had already come up with the main characters, at least visually, so it's about respecting their vision while fleshing out the characters to best serve the story. When I've worked with established characters in comics or on something like the game project I'm working on now, I try to dig into their personalities and abilities to try and find something new, and hopefully surprising, that hasn't been explored before.
No matter what, you have to write characters who are interesting to you, or at least find the one aspect of them that's interesting to you, because if they aren't interesting to you, your story won't be interesting to anyone else.
How important is plot?
In traditional mediums, plot is everything. It's the hardest thing to get right because you're constantly facing choices that affect everything that happens moving forward. Once I have the concept, I try to flesh out the protagonist, then come up with an exciting opening, then a powerful ending, then fill out everything in between. When I first started, I sometimes ignored traditional structure out of ignorance, and stubbornness, and laziness, and figured I could just lean on my dialogue and some fun ideas, but I've definitely learned that tight outlines and composed structure are a writer's best friend, and make the dialogue and ideas better. Crafting a plot can be time-consuming, and frustrating, and you can get the feeling that you aren't making any progress, but the reality is that taking the time to craft a detailed plot makes everything after that easier.
For most video games, I think plot is a little less important because of non-linear narrative, but the same rules still apply to even a short conversation between characters: you want to feel like things are different at the end than they were at the beginning, and you want to be surprised by how things changed.
What is your philosophy of writing comics?
I try to remember that it's a visual medium, meaning that I try to keep text to a minimum. "Show don't tell" is always good writing advice, but I feel like it especially applies to comics.
I also try to cater to the artist's strengths. I always talk to the artist beforehand about what they'd like to see happen, and what they generally like, and don't like, to draw because I want it to be as collaborative as possible. To me, being able to create a fully realized story relatively quickly with a very small number of people is the greatest and most unique thing about working in comics.
I also always keep in mind that there's no special effects budget in comics. In animation and movies and games, you're constantly thinking about time and budget, and pulling things back to make sure it can realistically get made. In comics, it costs the same to draw a bunch of bankers in suits sitting around a conference table in a warehouse as it does to draw a bunch of zombie-wizards doing battle with a lava monster on the moon. I try to take advantage of that, and push the ideas and craziness, and give the artist the biggest opportunity to have fun and show off.
What elements does every issue of a comic book need to deliver in order to satisfy the reader?
I think it's the same with every form of storytelling. Try to give the audience something new, and something meaningful, and constantly surprise them along the way. Cliffhangers are also crucial to monthly comics, so I'm always interested in the different ways that writers and artists flip that last page to keep readers hungry for more.
What do you find most exciting about writing comics?
That personal, collaborative relationship between the writer and artist. Watching awesome artists take your ideas and turn them into something amazing. From the brainstorming, to pencils, to inks, to colors, to letters, to published comic. It's so much fun, and it happens so much faster than any other medium.
That and being such a big fan of comics ever since I was a little kid, and being a able to hold a comic in my hand that has my words, and ideas, and my name on the front. That never gets old, and always feels surreal and incredible.
What can writers do to give their characters emotional complexity without making them too whiny or weak?
Some of my favorite characters are whiny or weak. Steve Buscemi in "Reservoir Dogs." Bill Paxton in "Aliens." And there are a lot of stories where a character starts out whiny and/or weak, and either finds a way to get stronger, or just trudges through it and survives when "stronger" characters can't. I wouldn't want to read or watch something where every single character is whiny or weak, but I love those characters because they're relatable. Everybody feels like that sometimes. We love a badass action hero who never complains and isn't afraid of anything, but we all know what it feels like to be faced with a seemingly insurmountable, terrifying situation, and either want to complain about it or run the other way. There are few better feelings as a reader or audience member than watching a weak character finally step up, and find their strength, and beat something they were afraid to even look at when the story started. An emotionally complex character can be weak or strong, they just can't be one-dimensional. Every person loves something, hates something, is afraid of something. You create a well-rounded character, and try to put them in different situations that reveal different aspects of their personality, hopefully in a way that surprises the audience.
How do you write interesting character relationships?
I just try to make them dramatically different so that they constantly challenge each other, and bounce off of each other in interesting ways. Then I try to find places for them to surprise me. If they hate each other, I want to find that weird thing they didn't know they had in common. If they seem like the perfect couple, I'll test them as much as possible to find that thing that might make them break. Basically, create deep characters, and put them in challenging situations. They'll take care of the rest.
How long does it take you to write a regular 22-page issue? Please walk us through the process.
If it's an original series, I start by writing a series bible that includes a paragraph to page summary of each of the main characters, a page or so on the world and its backstory, and a bunch of pages laying out the entire run in prose. After bouncing that off of the artist and editors, I break it down by issue, writing a paragraph or so about what will happen in each issue, making sure to note what the opening and cliffhanger of each issue will be. After that, I take that summary, and make a list numbered 1-20 for each issue, writing a sentence or two about what will happen on each page. After that, I start writing the first issue script. I write dialogue and panel descriptions, mostly because it helps me get a sense for the pacing if I know what's happening in each panel. I try to limit the descriptions to only the most critical information to the story because I want to give the artist as much freedom as possible. After the script is finished, I do my own couple rounds of revisions, and then send it to the artist and editors to get their feedback. After that, I'll usually make one more pass, unless the editors ask for more. All in all, it usually takes about four days to write the script, and another day for revisions.
What should newer writers do to strengthen their comic book writing skills?
Write a lot and read a lot. Sorry if that's generic, but that's the truth. I read books on writing, books specifically on writing for comics, interviews with writers, and as many comics as I could to try and break down how other writers do things, why those things work, and why they sometimes don't. And not just comics. Plays and screenplays share a lot with comic scripts, and novels force you to exercise your visual imagination. Read comic scripts online or in the back of some TPBs, and then read the finished book to see what's similar and different. Every time you learn one tiny piece of information, you're getting better and smarter, and that inevitably makes you more confident and creative.
For every writer in every medium, you have to write, and you have to show people what you wrote. Talking about writing, or reading about writing, isn't writing. A lot of people think they can write, but not very many people actually write anything, and not all of those people ever show anyone what they wrote. You have to write. You have to finish what you started writing. You have to show it to people. You have to let them criticize your writing. And then you have to start all over. It's hard, but if you're serious about being a professional writer, there's no other way.
If you want one pure writing tip applicable to comc writing, edit your dialogue down as much as possible. Keep cutting away word after word until you have the absolute minimum amount of words to get the point across. Then take that amount of words, and punch it up. You will end up cutting great jokes, and heartfelt speeches, and it will make you sad, and make you feel like you wasted time and energy writing them in the first place, but it will make your script better. And that applies to all writing from movies to games.
What is the most challenging thing for you to write when writing a comic book and how do you overcome the challenge?
I think the hardest thing is balancing the art and the story. It's taking all of your ideas and your story, and widdling it down as much as possible, so that the art has as much room to shine as possible. I love seeing what artists do with a splash page, and I try to put at least one splash page in every issue I write, but it's hard to fit very much story in a splash page without a lot of exposition, and I hate a lot of exposition more than I love a splash page.
What inspires you to write?
I love reading and writing, and movies and games. I love stories, and they have, and continue to have, such an impact on my life, that I want to see if I can provide that for someone else. And as you, and every other writer knows, it's ridiculously gratifying and exciting to take a crumb of an idea and turn it into a fully realized story. It's addicting, and you start to realize that a good idea doesn't count for anything until you make it into a story. I basically feel like I have no choice but to write stories, and I want those stories to be good, so I never stop trying to get better at writing stories, and the only way to do that is to write.
Please take us through a normal day for you.
I work at a video game studio, and I'm involved in everything from the marketing trailers to character concepts for an upcoming game, so that means a lot of meetings in addition to actually writing all of the stories and dialogue. Outside of that, I spend as much time as I can with friends and family, while writing some personal projects that are far removed from what I'm writing on a daily basis to try and stretch my writing muscles.
When I was working freelance, I would get up, get some exercise, and sit down to write for the day. I tried to put in eight hours of writing, and I'd set myself goals so that each day I could keep myself motivated and feel like I accomplished something, while working toward bigger goals. Some days I'd have the house to myself, and be on a roll, and I'd write for fourteen or fifteen hours. Some days I just wasn't feeling it, but I'd force myself to bang my head against the wall for at least five hours. Even on those days when I felt like I couldn't come up with anything, I'd try to be productive. I might just go through an old script, and write revisions, so that even if I didn't make anything new, I at least made something better, and I could close my laptop feeling like I did something productive.
How do you make characters stand out?
Dig into them before you ever start writing them. What are their hobbies? What is their least favorite food? What was high school like for them? Who would they call first if something horrible happened? If they had one wish, what would it be? The more you know about your characters, the more real they feel, and the more they'll surprise you and the audience when they do things that you wouldn't expect at first, but completely make sense in retrospect. Having their true selves in your pocket lets you reveal something surprising at opportune times, and keeps them constantly interesting. Most people don't show their true selves to the world at large, and your characters shouldn't either. You're the only one who knows what's really inside them, so you have the opportunity to continually play with the audience's expectations by teasing one way, and then revealing a truth that seems crazy at first, but ultimately feels right because you've done your research, and you know your characters inside out.
What are the themes of your work?
I don't usually think about it that way, but a lot of stories I write are about the differences between what people show the world, and their true selves, and the beautiful and terrible things that happen when people drop their disguises, and reveal themselves for the first time. Another thing is that nothing in this world has to be taken that seriously. Even the darkest, dirtiest, most horrific stories I've written have a sense of humor.
Who are some of your favorite writers?
In comics, Alan Moore, Neil Gaiman, Warren Ellis, Garth Ennis, Gail Simone, Frank Miller, Brian Azzarello, Rick Remender, Stan Lee, Ed Brubaker, Mark Waid, Ryan North, Grant Morrison, Jeff Smith, Greg Rucka, Matt Fraction, Jonathan Hickman, Brian K. Vaughan, Jason Aaron, and a bunch of other people.
Outside of comics, Haruki Murakami, Laird Barron, Charlie Kaufman, Joyce Carol Oates, Stephen King, Thomas Ligotti, David Mamet, Sam Shepard, David Mitchell, J. G. Ballard, Donald Ray Pollock, Patrick Rothfuss, Ethan and Joel Coen, Tom Stoppard, Jeff VanderMeer, David Wong, and another bunch of other people.
Why do you like them?
Because they combine amazing imaginations with great technical expertise, and I love writers who can make me laugh while writing about weird and/or disgusting things.
What are a few specific back issue #s that readers should seek out to get a good taste of your writing?
In comics, I'll always have a soft spot for "Ninja Boy," which was originally published by Wildstorm, and now DC Comics. It features awesome art by Ale' Garza and Dan Norton, and is the embodiment of the comic that I wished had existed when I was twelve. It was my first published work, and got my foot in the door in both comics and animation, so I have some practical fondness for it, but it was also just tons of fun. I also really like a story I did with Carlos D'Anda in the "Wildstorm Winter Special" featuring Deathblow. The art is incredible, and I think it has great atmosphere, and tells a punchy little story.
What mistakes do you notice most often in comic book writing? How can writers avoid these mistakes?
I don't know if they're necessarily mistakes, but I really don't like to see a lot of words on a comic book page. I get it every once in while, but when the word balloons take more space than the art, I pretty much don't want to read it. I also don't enjoy page after page of serious conversations between serious men. Again, I get it every once in a while, but I don't want to read ten or more pages of somber guys in business suits talking about anything. I don't go to the comic shop for that. At least give one of them a yellow top hat or a forked tongue or a koala skin scarf. Something I don't usually see when I go to the bank. Another thing that bugs me are superhero books where everyone is depressed because they have superpowers. For one character, that's great, but when every single character for consecutive issues is whining because no one likes them because they can turn into a monster or shoot lasers from their face, I start to not like those characters, and stop reading that book. I'm not saying every story has to be fun. I actually really appreciate dark and depressing stories, but if the characters are never enjoying themselves, and are never making an honest attempt to enjoy themselves, then I don't enjoy them either.
What comics do you have coming up?
I've been working a lot more in games than comics lately, but the most recent comic work I did was two unannounced projects for DC Comics and BOOM! Studios. The game I'm writing features a fun, fresh take on a bunch of iconic comic characters, and we're putting them in a unique setting featuring some awesome art and animation. I wish I could share more, but the announcement is coming soon!
Scott Amundson writes LET ME GO, beginning November 2 in Aces Weekly, Volume 19.