I was sitting in traffic the other day when a very dirty and disheveled man walked past on the side of the road. This is not an uncommon occurrence in any city, but the writer in me couldn't let it go.
Who was that person? What paths led him here? Was it by choice or circumstance?
And then the scenarios began running through my head. He could have been a former executive who through a bad choice ended up losing everything. He could've been a foreign agent, disguised as part of the "invisible crowd" so as to scope out his target. He could've been someone who was just having a very bad day -- Murphy's law run amuck.
These are the sort of things you should ask yourself when you create characters. Characters in your webcomics should be more than just the two dimensional figure on the screen. They should live and breathe in your head. You should know their background, their likes and dislikes, their loves and their fears.
Back when Darin Brown and I did a filler comic for John Lotshaw's Accidental Centaurs, we had a scene where one of the main characters went into a bar. As such, we wanted to do a riff on Cheers. So, instead of "Woody", we got "Wood-eye". The popular barfly was "Nahrm". A Naga in the background was "Kalif". With the exception of Nahrm (who, as the town blacksmith, was instrumental to the story), they were all what I call "throwaway characters". They were there... then they were gone.
Except... they weren't.
Take the character of the bartender Wood-eye. Why "Wood-eye"? Well... obviously he had to have a wooden eye, which means he lost an eye somehow. How did he lose it? So, the bartender became a former soldier and he lost it in battle. If he was a soldier, what did he do?
And from there, a throwaway character -- just for my own sake -- began to take on a life of its own.
I never expected to do anything with these characters again. They were for a short run of comics made to expand out the background of one of Accidental Centaurs' main characters, to give him a little more character (no pun intended) within the comic himself by giving him armor and a sword. But people began asking about Woodeye and Nahrm. People *liked* them. People wanted to see more of them.
I credit that to the strength of the characters. That, in the short time they were around, had something that made people wonder about them. They had questions about these characters and wanted to know more. And that's when Darin and I started up our own comic of Crossworlds. Where the throwaway and joke character of Woodeye became much more than just that. We got to see more about him and the other characters. And where their lives and situations became more than just a couple of strips.
Now, I'm not saying you have to have an encyclopedia-sized history for each and every figure that appears in your comic. In fact, an overly detailed background can actually be hazardous to story telling. There need to be gaps in to which your characters history can grow.
But don't hesitate to ask yourself the questions of who they are. Sometimes you'll surprise yourself.
And they may surprise you, too.