Chris Roberson on how he develops ideas, and the role of world building

Writer Chris Roberson joined the Comics Experience Creators Workshop Book Club recently, to talk about Memorial, his fantasy comic with artist Rich Ellis, and about Monkeybrain Comics, the digital comics imprint he runs with Allison Baker, his business partner and spouse.

Memorial, published by IDW, is the story of Em, a young woman who arrives at a hospital with no memory of her past. A year later, she has rebuilt her life, only to find her existence is thrown into turmoil after she inherits a magical shop and is drawn into a supernatural conflict.

During the session, Roberson talked about the origin of Memorial, and about how he develops ideas in general. Roberson said he first came up with the idea for Memorial about seven years ago. His original idea was to write a story about a magical shop tethered to other worlds, and about a young, female protagonist with a middle-aged companion.

“I spent about six or seven years figuring out who that girl was,” Roberson said. “What is this story, and what are they doing? I tried a bunch of different things, crammed a bunch of different stories in there, and every time I would throw everything away.”

Roberson said this is a normal evolution for his larger projects. He outlined the steps, saying, “You have a central idea that you’re obsessed with; you spend a lot of time building a conceptual framework around it; you decide that you hate that framework and throw it all away; you let it sit fallow for a couple of months; and then you go back to it, pick over the bones of what you did before, and figure out what pieces worked.”

Then, you do it again and again. Roberson said he repeated this process about seven or eight times over the course of several years.

“What Memorial turned into was this survival of the fittest model of all of the earlier bits of what had come before,” Roberson said.

Roberson also talked about the impact that role-playing games have had on his process, and his world-building in particular.

“I spent a large amount of time in my younger days playing role-playing games, and even after I stopped playing role-playing games religiously, I would continue to buy manuals and read them,” Roberson said. “I like looking at the way other people have built worlds. I like maps and charts and schemes and timelines and things like that.”

As a result, before starting any project, Roberson spends a lot of time establishing the “rules” of the world, and the personalities of the characters.

“And then, in much the same way you would do in a role-playing session, you set everything in motion and see what happens,” Roberson said. “You have your rules, you know what can and can’t be done, you have your characters and then you bounce them off each other and see what kind of interesting things happen.”

Other topics discussed during the live, online session included:

  • How Roberson got started in comics
  • Roberson’s thoughts on the Mythic Fiction genre
  • How different types of narration can affect comics storytelling
  • Striking a balance between preserving the mystery of a story while also preserving reader interest
  • The challenge of writing a talking cat
  • Panel count in Memorial, and using more panels for the action scenes
  • The pitch process for Memorial
  • The difference between writing for print versus digital
  • And many more.

Creators Workshop Book Club sessions are held throughout the year, featuring guest writers and artists discussing the craft and art of comics, as well as the business side of things. Additional live Workshop sessions take place every month, giving members real-world knowledge that will help them succeed in their comics career.

There’s still plenty of time to sign up before the next session. We hope to see you there.

— Posted by Paul Allor

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