I am so excited to share this interview! Diana and I have been friends since we were eleven, and even back then she was an amazing artist. She was always dabbling with different art mediums, like prismacolor pencils, concentrated watercolors, and polymer clay (you can’t imagine how many little Sculpey/Fimo characters we shaped and baked together in middle school). Now she creates a weekly webcomic — Sweet and Sour Grapes — about a jungle guide, Lae, and her ghost friend, Silas, a scientist from an extinct culture.
My questions are mostly about the writing side of her art, mainly because she already has an awesome behind-the-scenes page on her website showing her drawing stages. Be sure to check that out, as well as the comic itself, which she updates with a new panel every Friday. (To start from the first page, click here.)
Nikki: First of all, what do you call yourself? An author? An artist? A webcomic writer? What’s the term?
Diana: I think of myself as a creator. I have to be many things in order for Sweet and Sour Grapes to become widely read: a writer, an artist, a designer, a blogger, a marketer, and probably many other things that I haven’t reached yet. Creator is the word that sums up this career to me best but it’s probably a little vague. Cartoonist would be my second choice.
N: Your comic is amazing! I’ve been so impressed with both the story and the art. I know that you’ve always been an artist, so my curiosity as a writer is how you learned the story end of the trade.
D: I think I’ve always been concocting stories. A lot of my dreams have plot and in elementary school I wanted to make picture books. Looking back, it’s really disappointing that I never pursued creative writing in school. I did poorly at expository and persuasive writing and came to the conclusion that I was a bad writer.
In my own taste in comics, I value a good story over all else. So I put story first in all of my decisions about Sweet and Sour Grapes. I studied the hero’s journey before the first draft. Then I got lots of feedback from my husband and aunt before revising. The podcast Writing Excuses gave me excellent tips as well. My finished script is an adventure that I would enjoy finding at the bookstore and reading.
N: I have to say that I love your characters. I love that they have such individual personalities and that I feel I understand each of them. What’s the process of creating characters like for you?
D: Creating characters was a lot of fun work! Some of them had been stewing around in my head for a long time so that when it came time to write out their qualities, it felt like I was writing about old friends.
My main characters, like Silas, have their own problems and challenges to overcome. I determined their background first and decided on the personality likely to result from that. After that, the character suggests their arc and I fit it into the big plot. Once I thought I knew my characters well enough, I took the Myers-Briggs personality test for each of them as an extra challenge.
For secondary characters, like Nulu, I have a role for a character to fill and I adjust their background and personality in order to result in the best fit. I tried to be economical with the number of characters running around but unfortunately, epic stories seem to result in epic casts. At least I managed to stagger their introductions.
My character’s visual designs are strongly influenced by video game characters. Each character has a unique silhouette and color palette. Clothing is informed by the various cultural norms I set up. These characters are my story’s ambassadors so I did my best to make them appealing and iconic. Like Mickey Mouse or Dr. Manhattan, my goal is to make characters easy to recognize even outside of my comic.
N: I also really want to know more about the year-long revision process you told me you went through with your comic. What made you recognize that the way you originally had the story wasn’t working? How did you go about fixing it? What goal did you have in mind?
D: Sweet and Sour Grapes was first started with only a vague outline. I was deciding scenes and dialogue as I made each page. It’s not surprising that the story jerked around in fits. After one chapter, the comic got put on hiatus while I taught in Japan and planned my next move. In order to prevent more hasty, on-the-fly decisions, I wrote out the rest of the story in detail. The old chapter 1 was redone as well to better integrate character arcs and set up the rest of the story.
As for how, I approached the story as a weaving of character arcs, a series of world events, and a specific set of rules about ghosts. Then I read my story over and over again looking for inconsistencies and plot holes. Once I couldn’t find more I turned it over to my aunt, another writer, and she gave me much more to think about. My highest aspiration is to invoke a sense of wonder in my readers.
N: What’s your favorite part about working on a webcomic now that you’ve got the story outlined and your main focus is creating the weekly panel?
D: Reading my story is my favorite part. The completed scenes are very satisfying to reread later. Especially since I know how things will end. There are regrets of course, “I should have adjusted this page’s camera angles more.” But I also get to pat myself on the back, “I am so clever to foreshadow that here.”
Even more fun is reading ahead to prepare for drawing future scenes. This story is on the epic-side of webcomics so I actually forget some of what’s ahead. The potential awesome of future scenes has even helped me get through challenging scenes in order to be closer to the fun ones.
N: If you could give advice to aspiring artists — whether visual artists or novelists or comic authors, etc — what would it be? What do you feel like you’ve learned that you’d want to share?
D: The most important thing is to make something that you will love even if no one else will. No other motive will get you though the tough times ahead. Don’t chase trends or expect money and fame because nothing is guaranteed. This is the most ambitious and difficult project I’ve ever started. If I didn’t love the story and characters enough, it would have ended a long time ago.
I’d offer more advice but I’m still pretty new at this too…
N: Thanks the interview, friend! I hope everyone enjoyed it as much as I did.