PRAISE FYORA! It’s an actual TFR post.
Folks had requested (eons ago) that I give character tidbits and development info in addition to showing the concept art itself, so okie dokie. Here’s me trying my best to do the equivalent of TFR characters DVD commentary, Creative Director-flavoured.
So… Character Development?
This is one of my favourite parts of the process. (I say that about every part, I know.) Figuring out who these people are and what they’re like is incredibly fun. We’re not so much inventing them as discovering them. It’s an adventure.
But I used to find the idea of figuring out what the characters looked like to be daunting, likely because I’m not an artist. It’s still a blast; don’t get me wrong! Seeing concepts come in is always super exciting—I’m in awe of artists like 100% of the time—but I often worried about making the binary “correct” choice because programmer brain.
For Neopets plots, we would try to start concepting as early as possible so that we had time to fine tune details, but also because the concepts themselves would inevitably help immensely with character development in the story. Who would have thought?! The artists used established character information to start their concepts and then those concepts helped drive the character even further as development progressed.
In other words, we went back and forth and worked together to make the characters come to life. (And I really never had anything to worry about.)
Erm, and then there was TFR. While that back-and-forth process still happened and helped a ton, it was shortened quite a bit. We already had a good chunk of the overarching story nailed down so the character development was quite a ways along by the time we started art concepts. Luckily for us, the artists were in the discussions and contributing from the beginning regardless—for every plot!—and they were amazing at nailing the established personalities from the get-go while still managing to add a lot of their own invaluable contributions. Unluckily for you, I guess, that means that there weren’t as many early rough concepts as we’d normally have done (and I have fewer still saved to my Magic HardriveTM).
Hopefully the added random factoids make up for it?
When discussing our villain early on in story development, it was important to us that it be someone who could be taken seriously. A real threat that provided clear danger to the entire planet. As much as I love Dr. Sloth personally as a Neopets player, I know that’s not something he could do anymore when looking at him from a creative standpoint. He’d become a parody of himself and he’d failed so many times that you just rolled your eyes every time he came up with a new plan. Any other existing villain at the time would have also run into similar problems—everyone knew their history and just how bad they really were (or weren’t)—and set certain expectations up front.
That, plus the fact that it’s always super fun to come up with a new character, meant we went with someone new. (Which then offered up the opportunity to have them be hidden in plain sight.)
We also knew we didn’t want this person to be evil. I mean true pure evil in that manic “I’m going to destroy the planet just because I can” kind of way. That can be fun, sure, but it’s also usually unrealistic and removes some of the tension by default. Since this was our first plot back in a while, we wanted to make it truly epic. We wanted very high stakes and real purpose behind whatever was going to happen to get you invested and maybe even a bit conflicted. We wanted you to side with the hero, of course, but we also wanted you to wonder if the villain was right despite whatever crazy plan was being carried out. And maybe even feel a bit of pity.
Also, we wanted a bad-ass girl villain because duh.
So, Xandra was born.
Given all that, we decided that she’d originally had good intentions but she’d somehow become a bit warped in her thinking. She believed that what she was doing was for the greater good. (“The greater good.”) That belief can be a dangerous thing. From there we worked backwards to develop her motivations and history that were revealed in the plot.
With the production timeline being so tight, her design was tackled by our brilliant Art Director, V-Man, and he pretty much nailed it on the first try. There was technically one pass before this but with only one change… she was originally blue! I didn’t think that was unique enough, especially for a villain, and V-Man suggested we make her Speckled. I chuckled, literally, and then realised he was serious. I asked him to try a few other colours while he was at it since most of us were fully expecting Speckled to be a hard fail. He only did Speckled, knowing full well that’s all he needed to do, and she looks absolutely amazing. That’s why I said he’s brilliant. I wasn’t being sarcastic.
He also accidentally left her glasses off when doing her “bad” version. Completely unintentionally. Of course it’s hilarious so we incorporated it into the story. The comics actually show her glasses being knocked off when the artefact explodes, thus officially transitioning her from Hero Xandra to Villain Xandra.
As for her moniker, Xandra was just a working name until it eventually became final. This very rarely happens—although it did so twice in this plot!—but it had just grown on us too much to change it.
She had been named (we thought temporarily) after someone close to the team called Alexandria as a mini-tribute during development. We’d shortened that and lead with the X because that’s how you name bad guys, of course!
Once we realised we wanted to use it for her final name, a slight bit of panic set in. We had several discussion about that fateful X. Would it make her too obvious as a bad guy? Would that be so obvious that it actually wouldn’t be obvious at all? We’d been working really, really hard to try her hide her true identity/motives and we didn’t want to ruin all that with just her name. In the end we took a chance and kept it. Thankfully, it worked out.
Bonus Villain: Wraiths
While these guys weren’t the main villain, they did bring something to the table.
Interestingly enough, these were concepted rather early in development. As they got to colour tests, the artist chose a dark, shadowy, foreboding kind of purple for them, which then contributed to the overall colour-feel of the comics. You might have noticed a lot of shading was done in purple and as things progressed and everything went to hell, that purple got darker and more prominent. This wasn’t just because faeries like purple! Art Director V-Man likes to give each plot its own signature and this is what he came up with for TFR. It showed the progression from Happy Neopia to Shit-Hit-the-Fan Neopia really well and helped the tension build, even if you didn’t notice the colouring directly.
This also helped show how the wraiths were getting stronger as faerie magic got weaker. (Or vice versa? Oooohhhh?!?!? They were news to everyone, including Xandra, and there was definitely a deeper connection that needed investigating in the future.)
Oh! It’s also why Xandra as a lot of purple in her outfit. You know, besides green and purple just being a dope colour scheme. She had no physical connection to the wraiths but she was a bad guy in the same story so they’re tied together visually (BUT NO ONE KNEW BWAA HAA HAA).
We knew we needed a group of heroes to take on something as epic as the fall of Faerieland. The problem with this is that good ensembles are hard, especially in plot form where there’s a lot going on already. We didn’t have the magic ensemble powers of, say, Joss Whedon (RIP) to help us. So we made sure to have a character in the group that stood out as the true hero. For one, the single (major) arc is a more focused story and easier to work with when adding interactive elements. For another, when the story doesn’t directly include the millions of Neopians as involved characters—like in LDP, for example—we very much like having the analog character for the player to drop into and “roleplay” for those interactive bits of solving the puzzles and fighting battles and whatnot.
So, a single character, and we made them the good ol’ anti-hero because heck yes. It became apparent early on, though, that someone had to have a little faith in this character. None of the others would have put up with (i.e. trust) an obvious anti-hero on their own. We decided, then, that a second, co-protagonist was in order for some good character interaction and conflict. Originally, this was actually going to be Xandra herself! That would have made her less likely to be guessed as the bad guy and her betrayal would have been much more personal for Hanso. But in the end, we felt it was TOO melodramatic and a bit unrealistic for them to have had such a history without Hanso realising or suspecting anything. We decided instead to make them two different characters.
Which turned into a couple with the added bonus of romantic tension AND we could keep them together at the end. (We’d had been really, really hoping to add some romance in but didn’t want to force it. I’m thankful it worked out.) Massage this dynamic a bit more and it turned into a carefree, smarmy thief and a no-nonsense, hardworking guard—the unlikely couple who were from two different worlds but LOVE KNOWS NO BOUNDS! ??
Quick note on their genders: the main protagonist became male only after we decided that the villain was female, just for some balance. Later on, after we decided to split Xandra, we did discuss whether to swap Hanso to female and make the new character male. By that point, though, it was too late. Hanso was already Hanso.
Oh, Hanso. You smarmy devil, you.
Okay, yes, “Hanso” is indeed a Han Solo reference—anti-hero extraordinaire—but it was never mean to be final. It was just a name we came up with in one of the story sessions when we were tired of calling him “Thief Dude”. Someone suggested we call him Han Solo for now and we shortened it to Hanso for quick reference. Once it came time to name him for real, nothing sounded right! We went through many, many names but again, too late. His name was Hanso and there was nothing we could do about it. (Twice in one plot! I swear it was super rare before this.)
We’d also started tossing species out once we knew he was a fella and we had his character fleshed out quite a bit. This sometimes happens before the concepts are done. A specific species just ends up being a perfect match to certain personality traits and we want to stick to it to help define the character. In Hanso’s case, we’d mentioned Ixi, Gelert, and Krawk as fitting options. We weren’t sold on anything though, so we told the artist to pick one (or more) of those plus whatever they had in mind.
So there were two early Hanso concepts. You should definitely recognize the Ixi on the left! That really is a quick concept we got back, I swear. It’s yet another great example of our super talented artists hitting the nail on the head from the jump.
In this instance, the choice was extremely easy. Not because the second one was bad or anything of the sort. In fact, the Ogrin (right) is pretty nifty. His eyes especially really give him a lot of the personality we were looking for and his hair is sufficiently smarmy. No, it’s just that the one on the left hits all the right notes: a thief who’s sneaky, adventurous, and has just a tad bit of smarm. He looks determined but also as though he could be enjoying his current misdeed just a little too much. His clothes are slightly mismatched and even a little big. Did he buy them or steal them? It also helps that he seems to have quite a few places to hide loot without being too obvious about it during an inevitable getaway.
It doesn’t have to be a super dynamic, “cool” pose. Most of the concepts here aren’t! Just put the character in some context and let us catch them in a moment that shows off some of their personality. It does wonders to help sell your concept to someone outside of art.
Okay, I’m way digressing here, but I learned a lot from our artists about how and why we (non-artist, decision-making designers and storytellers) react to art and how certain things affect and define our perceptions and I want you to know so your art can flourishhhhhh! Anyway, I’ll stop babbling now and get back to it.
Right. So not much changed from that concept to final. He got some tails for his coat and a strap on his leg because, well, straps! We also asked if the collar could be turned up when he goes into “sneak” mode—even though we didn’t know yet whether he’d actually get that sneaky in the story, but of course he would duh—just to give him an extra bit of badassery. Then we did some colour tests and we had our Hanso.
LARA, her working name, was in reference to Lara Croft. We weren’t using the tomb raider herself for inspiration really but we were going for a tough woman who knew how to handle herself so that was her name for a while. When it came time to really name her we wanted a sort of stoic, hard-working name and came up with Brynn.
Then we decided it should actually be short for a full name that only Hanso knew, and used only when (he thought) necessary. Comics are short! We wanted to hint at a deeper relationship between them and get across that there was both history and a bit of trust there without getting super expository. Brynn is her professional, no-nonsense name and, since that’s how she presents her self most often by far, it’s how everyone knows her. Having Hanso know her “real” name, respect that, and hold it back until they were alone (among other subtle ways they treated each other) was a simple but effective way to do that.
There are two early concepts we went back and forth on for a while. Brynn was tough, honourable, loyal, professional, and a bit feminine.
We’d often take concepts around the office for feedback, asking folks to tell us what they liked and didn’t like among the choices. For this pair, the majority would point to that Xweetok (left) and explain how much they liked her because she was so cute.
So we actually started leaning very heavily toward the Kougra (right) instead. ?
We weren’t just doing it to spite our co-workers! I swear! Of all the words we’d used to describe Brynn up to that point, “cute” was not one of them. Kougra-Brynn’s face was older and more experienced. She was a bit battle-hardened. She looked loyal. Check. Honourable. Check. That was Brynn and it’s always more important to us to match a character’s personality—to make her believable—than to have a character that’s visually appealing simply for the sake of it. And besides: Kougra-Brynn might not be cute at first glance, but she cleans up pretty well!
But you can never be too sure, so even though we were 99% positive we’d go with the Kougra, we asked to try a helmet on the Xweetok just to make it a fair comparison. That simple change might have helped to give her some of Brynn’s previously-mentioned qualities and changed things a bit. It turned out to be moot, though. While that was going on, the perfect concept for Xandra came in and we’d already gotten a Xweetok.
Okay, so, about Kougra-Brynn’s plate shorts… yeah. Despite her having an outfit that looked more like, say, a mercenary piecing her armour together rather than a believable official guard uniform, we still favoured her heavily. That’s because, for us at least, the outfit was much easier to tweak and get right. Losing the cloak, shorts, and midriff tunic were a few of the small changes we made. In fact, a lot of the armour cues for her final uniform were taken from the Xweetok concept! Thanks, Xwee!
In the flashback, where Brynn is telling Xandra about her past with Hanso, the artists originally concepted them going all the way back to when they were toddlers.
We’d actually already written them meeting much later, when Brynn was brand new to the guard and Hanso was an up-and-coming thief in the Guild. This kind of thing happens all the time, where artists come back with a different idea. Sometimes, as previously shown, we much prefer it and we run with it! In this case, we preferred the original approach. We thought this was just too young overall, feeling more like the set-up for a brother-sister type of relationship rather than the (enemies-to-friends) romantic one we were going for. Still, I love the designs. They were hanging in my office until I packed it up!
Baby Hanso steals the weirdest things though.
And that’s it for characters. I hope it was fun or interesting or both?
See anything that surprised you? Would you have chosen differently? I’m always curious to know what people think!
Comics are short. Have you ever knocked around solutions for “long form storytelling?”
Hello, first of all, than kyou for doing these articles! I always love creator talking about their creative process.
Second.. Any chances you’ll could talk a bit about the implied relationship between wraiths and fairies you mentioned a bit in the article?
Lara’s design is my favorite! Awesome art!
I only recently returned to neopets and just came across this and omg, as someone who LOVES seeing concept art and learning development info and who used to look forward to every single plot–TFR being one of my top 2 favorites–this is amazing. I especially love the art of kid Hanso and Brynn, they’re so cute ;-; It would make me so happy if you ever wanted to share this kind of info for other plots you worked on.