Over the past few months, I’ve been slowly making my way through the extensive historical archives of the Peanuts comic strip, starting all the way back at its inception in 1950. I don’t usually get a lot out of comics, graphic novels, and other, similar forms – my patience and interpretive abilities for these visual media are only somewhat higher than my abilities to create in such media – but Peanuts was enough a part of my childhood that I am enjoying reading through them all from beginning to end. This rather esoteric project began from a random curiosity about how the strip originated, and while I continued with it in part because I was enjoying them, and out of curiosity, it also became something of a writing exercise.
Specifically, I found myself interested in tracing how the characters that populate the strip evolved over the course of its long runtime, and how the strip managed continuity. On the last, the answer is rather simple – it really didn’t. Although there are miniature story arcs across upwards of a couple of weeks, and reappearing topics, there isn’t a lot of consistency about things that I tend to think of as important to world-building, like character growth and change. The characters are iconic characters, and there are rarely, if ever, references even to experiences that they had in the past. Even relative ages aren’t stable, with characters who begin in different school grades or are born at different times ending up in classes together or even switching places.
In the early days of the strip, however, characters did change and evolve, not so much in response to their experiences and character arcs, but based on what Shultz wanted to do with them. Aside from the obvious evolution of the drawing over the decades (Charlie Brown and the other early characters are somewhat difficult even to recognize in the earliest strips), character personalities evolved based on the needs of the strip. In earlier years, Charlie Brown dished out insults as well as receiving them, and it took years for Snoopy to have his own thoughts, much less walk on two legs or become a World War I flying ace.
Many of these lessons are things that would only serve me if I wanted to create a very long run series on site, which is not necessarily something in which I am particularly interested. While I enjoy reading and/or viewing long-running series like Peanuts, Star Trek, and other extensive franchises, I prefer to write in a variety of worlds and to do different things. Blood Magic, for instance, is set up to be just three seasons, and I doubt if I’ll return to the world after I finish that three season arc (at least not as another series of short stories – I would consider stand alone novellas or novels set in the world, perhaps with different characters or in different places or in different points of the in-world history). Which is sad to think about, but also exciting, since I’ll be able to explore new characters and a new world.
Where the comics have been very enlightening is on character exposition through showing instead of telling. I’d like to think that I’ve improved my exposition generally, doing a better job of fitting it into dialogue or in-character narration, instead of dropping enormous lumps of text to explain the world, but I think my character development could use work. I’m too inclined to say what a character is thinking or feeling, where I could perhaps be better served by implying it through their actions and expressions. This is something I’ve been working to improve throughout Blood Magic‘s writing process, but it’s a slow process. Peanuts has helped give me more ideas for ways to communicate character traits and emotions.
This isn’t really a review of the Peanuts comic strips, but I will say that if you haven’t before it is an interesting exercise to go back and see how the characters and drawing evolved over especially the first couple of years and decades of the strip’s running (by the seventies the main cast and drawing style was fairly settled). Whether you do this just for fun, for nostalgia’s sake, or as a writing exercise, I think you’ll find it worthwhile.