Walkingnorth (Ari) is a bespectacled artist living in England. She like books, chocolate, and pretty dresses (especially when other people are wearing them). Stories with diverse characters and world-building are very important to her, something that is evident in her popular webcomic Always Human. — [X]
1. As the writer and artist behind the popular Always Human, how do you find yourself planning the story? Does it happen in both mediums at once? And does the plot come to you in chronological order, or in random snippets that you have to stitch together?
I always plan things out in words. I have aphantasia – I’m one of those people who can’t visualize things – and I never know what anything in the comic will look like until I sit down and draw it, so planning things visually simply hasn’t worked for me. I need to start with words as a scaffold. Each episode of the comic starts as a sentence, then I write out the narration and dialogue, and then I draw thumbnails.
As for plotting – I wish I worked chronologically, I feel like that would be much easier, especially for a webcomic where you can’t go back and edit things! Unfortunately my mind doesn’t work that way. I started with a clear idea about the beginning and end of the story, but everything else is random snippets that I have to stitch together.
2. When world-building—something that is incredibly visual in both, your words and your illustrations—how do you decide how much detail is enough? How do you decide which details to deliver through dialogue and narration, and which details to deliver via images?
Working to a weekly deadline makes this sort of decision very easy to for me. Since I’ve got a limited amount of time and I need to prioritize scenes that move the plot forward or develop the characters, I generally only include worldbuilding details when they will also serve the purpose of developing character or plot.
Most of my favourite manga and comics are sparse on dialogue, so I try to treat dialogue and narration as a limited resource. My aim is to deliver worldbuilding details primarily via pictures, using words only when necessary.
3. At which point in your writing process do you start giving attention to the overall structure of your story? Do you plot ahead or do you let your characters guide you where they want to go?
I would say both. I do plot ahead, but since my plot is completely character driven they’re the ones who control how things develop.
I love books where, once you finish reading, you can look back and see really clear character development arcs for the main characters. I think Kristin Cashore is a master of this! I’m trying to do something similar with my own writing, which makes it important for me to work out the overall structure as early in the process as possible. I need to know what’s going to come so I can lay appropriate foundations.
4. Your characters, whether they are protagonists like Austen or secondary characters like Rae, all seem to be pretty complex and fleshed out right from the start. Did they come to you that way? Or did you have an idea of what they would be like before you started working on their personalities?
Why thank you! Characters usually come to me with one or two key personality traits. Then I treat them like dolls and roleplay them through different scenarios, so that I can work out what their strengths and flaws are.
5. Do you have tricks for increasing or slowing down the narrative pace? Is there a way to make the story flow faster or conversely slower?
Since Always Human displays in a mobile-optimized scrolling format, I can use paneling and dialogue to control how fast the reader scrolls and hence how fast the story flows.
If there’s lots of dialogue in a panel, the reader will have to pause to read everything, and the story slows down. If there’s very little – or no – dialogue, then the reader can move through the panels very quickly and the story speeds up.
Similarly, if there’s lots of white space between panels then the reader will have to scroll for longer to reach the next panel, and the story slows down. If the panels are right next to each other then less scrolling will be required, and the story speeds up.
6. What is your one piece of crucial, life-saving advice to up-and-coming webcomic creators?
Honestly? Just do it! This advice is directed at people like me – people who find it really easy to procrastinate by never getting past the planning stages of a story.
I’ve spent years sorting out plots and trying to settle on a style and doing hundreds of different things that weren’t actually drawing a webcomic. Then one day I told myself I needed to learn about drawing comics, which meant sitting down and drawing a practice webcomic. I told myself that even if it ended up being terrible and I wrote myself into a corner and it fizzled out and died, at least I’d be gaining experience.
That practice webcomic was Always Human. I launched into it with only about two week’s planning time and braced myself for the worst.
To my complete surprise and delight everything’s worked out nicely (so far!) The characters have pulled the story forward and for the most part I’ve been able to sort out the little details as I go. Would the story be more cohesive and the art more consistent if I’d spent more time planning and preparing? Yes. Definitely. But if I’d gotten bogged down in planning I might have spent too much time second-guessing myself and not enough time actually drawing panels and then I might not have ended up with a webcomic at all. So no regrets.
7. How do you silence your inner critic, or even, your inner censor?
Nothing silences an inner critic quite like weekly deadlines! 90% of the comic is me shrugging my shoulders and deciding that this will have to do because I don’t have time to make things better. When my inner critic gets particularly grumpy I tell myself that by this time next year Always Human will be over (probably) and I’ll be working on a new project (hopefully) and nobody will even care about the tiny detail I’m currently stressing over.
My inner censor is much harder to silence because I think my inner censor has some really valid points. I want Always Human to be family friendly. I want to draw a LGBT+ webcomic that’s appropriate for all ages. But, on the other hand, Always Human is about adults learning to be adults (and occasionally freaking out about being adults) and sometimes they’re going to do things that aren’t appropriate for children.
The first argument I had with my inner censor was about Austen swearing. Austen is definitely the type of person who will swear when she’s upset and when she’s around people she’s comfortable with. Censoring this would feel dishonest to her character. But swearing isn’t family friendly. I got around this by having Austen only swear in Spanish (which makes the comic no longer family friendly for Spanish speakers ¡lo siento!)
The next argument I’ll have with my inner censor will probably be about sex. I’m not yet sure how I’ll resolve that.
Thanks for doing this interview with us, Ari! We really appreciate it! For anyone who’s curious, you can start your obsession with Always Human here!