Writing Lessons from Calvin & Hobbes

I love Calvin & Hobbes. I was introduced to it at, I believe, the age of 11. Up until that point I’d read strips like Garfield and, to a lesser extent, Peanuts. Calvin & Hobbes was a revelation. Funny and thoughtful and with a beauty that never faded over time, it stands as one of my favourite pieces of both writing and art. Where else can you be thinking about the nature of existence one moment and Tyrannosaurs in F-16s the next? Bill Watterson was a master of the page and there are so many lessons to be gleaned from the strip it’s tough to fit them all in.

Stick to Your Vision

Calvin & Hobbes has a purity I haven’t seen anywhere else. It’s got one true, singular voice that never seems to deviate. That isn’t to say that it hits only one note, tells only one joke or explores only one idea. But it never deviates from its heart. There are a hundred different pressures to make changes to our art, be it pressures of marketability, pressures from fans or even pressures from ourselves. But sticking to our singular vision will produce a purer, better piece of art than trying to make something that is everything.

Dictate Your Medium

When Watterson felt constricted by his medium, he changed it. Papers could cut panels out of his Sunday strips if they so chose, forcing him to waste them on throwaway jokes. So he made changes. Papers could no longer cut up his strip. They were free to stop running his strip (and some did), but he wasn’t willing to let his art suffer because of artificial limitations.

The advent of ereaders, tablets and print-on-demand means writers have greater control over their medium than ever before. Whether the writer wants to create a very traditional work or wants something that incorporates video, audio, even toy with the nature of the page itself (perhaps in the vein of House of Leaves), we can manipulate the medium to fit the art, rather than the other way around.

Create Your Own Rules

The nature of Hobbes reality was a constant question for many readers; is he a stuffed toy that comes to life when no-one but Calvin is looking or is it all in Calvin’s head? Watterson refused to provide a solid answer. He decided the world he created had room for both a stuffed Hobbes and a “real” Hobbes.

As with any industry there are certain rules that writers have to follow. But there are plenty of “rules” that we can ignore. Many felt that the ambiguous nature of Hobbes could confuse and potentially alienate readers; as a rule, one should avoid confusing the reader. But the strip’s popularity goes to show that Watterson was right to ignore that rule.

Leave Them Wanting More

Calvin & Hobbes ran from 1985 to 1995 and when Bill Watterson finished the last strip some people thought he was mad. Calvin & Hobbes was still riding a wave of popularity and there were no signs of that wave crashing against a shore any time soon. But Watterson decided it was time. He knew that running the strip too long would leave it tired and that fans would lose interest eventually. Better to finish on a high. Better to leave the audience wanting more.

It’s always tempting to revisit characters and settings, both for our own pleasure and to satisfy reader demand. There’s a fine line to tread between exploring more creative opportunities in a creative property and milking it dry.

Contrast Your Characters

Perhaps the most important reason that Calvin & Hobbes worked was the central relationship between the two main characters. Calvin and Hobbes are different in many fundamental ways, which offers great opportunity for discussion, disagreement and dynamism. Conflict is the heart of any story, which can’t exist if all the characters think the same.

That said, Calvin and Hobbes had a solid foundation of love and trust despite their differences. Conflict creates a story, but their friendship allowed people to bring the characters into their hearts and made the strip beloved to millions of people.

And, to end, here’s my favourite Calvin & Hobbes strip. I laughed so hard I nearly passed out.

The funniest Calvin & Hobbes strip. Ever.

What’s your favourite strip?

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