The Making of THE REAL RILEY MAYES: Inventing a Character

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Hello! This is the first of four blog posts about the making of THE REAL RILEY MAYES, a graphic novel for kids. This post focuses on inventing a character.

In the opening pages of THE REAL RILEY MAYES, Riley doodles her favorite comedian on her homework, suggests off-the-wall football plays at recess, and stabs herself with a marker in protest during class. To the reader, her character emerges quickly. But it actually took months and years to create Riley.

I keep a sketchbook, and I try to draw every day. I’m not someone who thinks that a person must draw every day to be a “good artist.” I’m just a person who will go bat-crap crazy if you put me in quarantine with no drawing supplies. I must draw to be happy.

Around 2015, a first grade girl started appearing in my sketchbook. She played with dump trucks and ninja toys; she imagined herself as a cowboy with 5-o’clock shadow, and she did her own hair in a dude-ish cut. As I drew her more and more, she started to talk in speech balloons and think in thought clouds.

Soon, I was drawing multi-paneled scenes from her life, such as the series below: a red-marker death scene at the front of the classroom. I slid these into my portfolio, hoping I’d score a picture book illustration gig. Art directors were confused. “Picture book readers wouldn’t get this,” they’d say, “toddlers don’t really know what death is.”

In 2016, I aged this same character up for a middle grade audience, named her ROBIN, and tried drafting a graphic novel. To be honest, I wasn’t sure what I was doing. There were a few examples to look at, such as SMILE and EL DEAFO. Mostly, I just freewheeled page after page of this character’s shenanigans on graph paper from the grocery store. I didn’t know- maybe I didn’t care? – about plot.

When I queried the book, rejections included words like “hyperactive” and “overstimulating” and possibly even “fever dream.” I don’t know exactly, because I deleted them from my email.

The result? A very vivid character, and a very messy draft. When I queried the book, rejections included words like “hyperactive” and “overstimulating” and maybe even “fever dream.” I don’t know, because I deleted them from my email. At one point in the story, ROBIN dreams she’s flying in jetpacks with her favorite tv comedian, meeting up with a friend and her robot crush, before being dragged away by a boyband member on a date. This main character had a very vivid imagination, and it was getting out of control. Fortunately, agent Susan Hawk saw some potential, accepted my query, and helped me rein things in.

Part of this reined-in revision involved writing and drawing “artifacts” from ROBIN’s backpack: homework, principal’s notes, fantasy maps, notes to a potential friend, and of course, a letter to her favorite TV comedian. When I drew these “artifacts”, I used my non-dominant hand. Scroll through the slideshow below to see them for yourself.

A few of the creations above snuck into THE REAL RILEY MAYES. Most are on the “cutting room floor”, and that’s okay. Through them, I was able to contain RILEY’s imagination within certain spaces, without squashing or holding back her true character. Just like a great photo might crop off part of a beautiful person, the story in a book does not show everything… and it shouldn’t. So, if you’ve got a vivid character in mind, don’t be afraid to let them go overboard… you can always crop and edit their “performance” to the best parts later on.

THE REAL RILEY MAYES is a graphic novel for readers 8-12. Funny and full of heart, it’s a story about friendship, identity, and embracing all the parts of yourself that make you special. Click here to order from your local indie bookstore 🙂

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