In our previous blog post, we describe the process of working with community groups to develop the main characters for our online, animated graphic novel. Using that feedback, team artist Mike Lurry created draft sketches of each character, and new focus groups were scheduled to discuss the way the characters look as well as the stories we had planned for them. Our next blog post will provide information on the evolution of those story arcs, and here we’ll summarize some findings from our community review of the characters’ appearances.
We have multiple goals when holding feedback sessions like this with community groups. In general, we want to know, “How do they look?!” But it’s also important for us to “sweat the details” particularly with communities who aren’t always appropriately or adequately represented in popular culture or mass media. We can’t incorporate every bit of feedback into our revisions, but are interested in trying to at least reach general levels of agreement around key details such as skin tones, hair textures, and body types.
During the groups, participants first listened to the story scripts and then were shown sketches of the characters one at a time and asked to freely provide feedback on anything that crossed their minds. Often, a surprising finding in groups like these is the degree to which participants will develop deep opinions about the character based on that single illustration. For example, when shown Mateo, aside from most respondents not liking his hair, they also assigned him personality traits that weren’t present in the story: “[People who look like that] think they are better or more important than anyone else.”; “75% of men who see themselves that way … seem to be so arrogant and think of themselves as very important. Or they value themselves more than women or anyone who isn’t where they are according to them.”; “[He looks like] someone who is disrespectful and doesn’t have respect for themselves.”
It can also be challenging for participants to evaluate just the single image, as demonstrated by several comments about whether Angela, who may be in an abusive relationship, should look more scared and submissive. On the one hand, it’s important to make sure participants bear in mind that this is a single snapshot of the character and doesn’t reflect how she’ll always look in her scenes. But on the other hand, this example opened an interesting dialogue about she should look scared in the scenes, or did that perpetuate stereotypes that only scared, meek women can end up in abusive relationships.
In other feedback, the participants mostly felt that the females looked too old and the mother was wearing too much makeup, and also that some of the characters hairstyles needed to be changed. The character of Gabriel was seen as being slightly too feminine, and several focus group participants referenced others in the room to note a better skin tone for the characters (described by one as, “delicious cinnamon”). However, it should be noted that a challenge is making sure the color printer used for the samples matches the correct tones of the image as much as possible, as it appears that the printed version had a slightly more olive/less tan tone than the original illustration.
An additional limitation to the feedback session is that the community groups first heard the drafts of scripted dialogue, and then were shown the sketches of the characters. It’s possible that in listening to the story, they created a visual image of how they imagined each character should look, which they then had to compare to our artist’s representation of the character. In future groups we will ensure that the character is shown first, in an effort to help mentally place the visual of the character within the story as it’s told, rather than vice versa.
Following the groups, the creative team met to discuss and prioritize the feedback given. These suggestions were then incorporated into updated drafts of the characters, changes that can be seen in the rough sketches in the side-by-side comparisons of each main character.