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June 4, 2012
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Here it is, as promised.  Keep in mind that even though I do not have formal training as a writer, these are the things I keep in mind when writing my characters.  I have had varying levels of success here at dA and you are free to use my ideas or not.  I'm not claiming to know it all, the below is not gospel and it's not guaranteed.  But you never know.  

Comments are appreciated, haters are welcome.  

How to Create Compelling Characters

I can't speak for everyone but I read for compelling characters.  If the characters really move me, the plot can be as thin as it wants; though it's not always easy to have characters carry the whole thing if nothing is happening.  

Where do we find compelling characters?  In books, of course, but they're obviously not confined to books.  Compelling characters in movies are just as important.  Unless you're doing improv, plays and movies require scripts, and that's where we come in.  So let's not split hairs because books and movies are important to what – being entertained and entertaining others.

To illustrate the differences between character-driven plots, action-driven plots and a combination of both, here are three movies from the Coen Brothers:

The Big Lebowski is most definitely character-driven.  The plot is a moldy-oldie:  "a case of mistaken identity".  But it's the quirkiness of the characters that cause me to watch it over and over and over.  Each character is unique.  The Dude, Walter, Donny, Maude, The Big Lebowski, Grant, Bunny, Jackie Treehorn, Larry Sellers, the detective, the landlord, the nihilists... I think they're all fantastic.  Normally books or movies with this many characters can be confusing but this one required them.

No Country For Old Men is more plot-driven.  I think the ACTORS are more compelling than the characters they are portraying (the cowboy, the hunter [incidentally one of the frickin' scariest characters I have ever seen in a movie], the sheriff, the girlfriend, Woody).  But the plot is constantly forward-moving and, up until the end, gripping.  By the throat.  However, I've only seen this movie once with no real desire to see it again.

Raising Arizona is a great mix of characters and plot.  H.I., Ed, Nathan Arizona, the jailbirds, Glen and Dot... the way H.I. and Ed are compelling is that he is willing to do whatever he can for the woman he loves, including going back to his criminal ways, and the fact she, as a cop, is absolutely willing to compromise her morals and break the law to get what she wants is brilliant.  If you haven't seen this movie, see it soon.  You'll learn a lot as well as be entertained.

Good characters will save a tired or thin plot:  

Seinfeld was a show about nothing but in each episode, in addition to the four main characters who were complex in their simplicity, the recurring characters as well as the one-time-only characters would completely own the episode.  I learned the majority of what I know about character development as well as dialogue from watching/studying episodes of Seinfeld.  That's how I do it.  The cat is out of the bag.

The Breakfast Club was about five high school kids who had to serve an all-day detention at school on a Saturday.  Thin plot for sure.  But the portrayal of each character (the brain, the jock, the princess, the basket case and the criminal) was authentic because they weren't one-dimensional.  The kids had pain in their lives they were trying to hide and when it all came out throughout the movie and when it came time for them all to break down, they really delivered.  This is another favorite movie of mine I can watch over and over because of the characters.  

Animal House.  Did that movie even have a plot or was it just a free-for-all with John Belushi?  It doesn't matter.  It's an American Classic because of the characters.  Delta House vs. Omega House, the Deltas vs. the Dean of Students.  Classic conflicts are everywhere.  While no one really changes the kind of person they are at the end of the movie and conflicts are never really resolved, it doesn't matter.  Why?  The characters.

So how to make a compelling character?

:bulletred:  Start with a one-dimensional personality, not a "person".  Because there are a ton of specific personalities in high school, I'm going to go back in time.  What kind of people are in high school?  Students and faculty.  Big deal.  Those aren't personalities.  You've got jocks, cheerleaders, nerds, band geeks, drama kids, the smokers in the boys' room, the narcs, the Goths, the teacher's pets, the perpetually horny, the outcasts, the bullies, the foreign exchange students, the school-spirited and the bored clock-watchers.  I'm going to pick one for my examples here – we'll go with the cheerleader... Sally.  It's easy to stereotype cheerleaders as bimbos, easy, shallow and mean.  Who wants to read about the same old girl who's at the top of the pyramid with no panties on?  We must try harder to make a cheerleader worth reading.

:bulletred: Give them a problem that works in direct conflict with the personality.  Out-of-control vices are great for this.  Maybe Sally has a gambling problem.  Wait, what?  How can a cheerleader have a gambling problem?  Well, maybe she's not in high school but is actually a cheerleader for the Dallas Cowboys and has a penchant for playing the Pick 6 and scratch offs.  Maybe she's a Laker Girl who drives to Vegas every weekend and always comes home broke.  Just because a character is one-dimensional doesn't mean they have to fit the first thing you think of and be a stereotype.  Not all cheerleaders are 16-year-old girls.  But does she need to be a cliché?  No, unless you can make the cliché so extreme that no one has read anything like it before, which I think is acceptable.  But to do that is still not really compelling.  If she's bet her last hundred bucks on red and it lands on black, how does she get home?  

:bulletred: Give them a situation where failure is not an option.  This is where the plot can start to take shape.  We still need conflict, and the best way to give a character a conflict is to kick them out of their comfort zone and see how they handle it.  Maybe Sally was raised Southern Baptist and now she's broke – does she go to amateur night at Scores or the Crazy Horse and win it all?  What if she didn't?  How desperate will she get to save herself?  Does Sally find a rich businessman and prostitute herself for money to get home or does she rob him when she's up in his hotel room?  Does she stay, fight, and survive at any cost or does she give up?  How does she reconcile her upbringing with her addiction?  How does it change her?

:bulletred: Another option to compound a character's complexity – give them a secret that no one can ever find out about.  The more embarrassing, the better.  Find out what lengths they will go to cover it up and save face.

Like I said, the conflicting elements to your character's personality will help you shape the plot.  The more difficult the do-or-die situation is for them, the better.  The plot will be more convoluted and have more ins and outs they need to handle.  The result will be a story that is not only satisfying to write (as well as potentially easier to plan, which means easier to complete) but will be satisfying for your audience to read, especially if the personality you choose for your character is particularly one-dimensional, make the conflict, situation and secret twice as bad so they experience enormous personal growth because they have to... or else.  And the resulting personal growth can be life-scarring or the best thing that ever happened to them.  Either is acceptable.  Even if Sally does have to roll the businessman or work the pole, perhaps her growth comes from taking care of a problem herself instead of having to call her father and explain why she got herself in the situation she did, saving face and keeping her secret.

Dang, I kinda like this Sally girl...


What more do we want?  Someone to root for.  Someone worth it, even if we don't know it at the time.  We want a hero.

Another example about a character with a secret

The awkward, shy art teacher (a cliché, yes, but bear with me a moment) at the local community college is actually a massive death metal fan and has always wanted to be a singer in a band but never felt it was practical.  He feels that he's cultivated an image over the years that if his students knew, he'd be embarrassed (it doesn't fit his persona and feels they'd make fun of him).  He goes to see a show, his favorite Norwegian black metal band.  The singer overdoses onstage.  The band asks if there's someone who knows the songs.  He wakes up and realizes this could be a way to overcome his shyness, fulfill a dream and grow as a person by getting on stage and finishing the set.  Bonus points if there are some of his students in the audience.

This makes him a hero to the band (for not having to cancel the show), the audience (same reason), to the students ("Mr. Smith is cool after all"), to himself ("I did it"), and to the reader (all of the above).  He was able to change in a positive way in the end through action.  He doesn't change the world, just his little corner of it, and for some of us, that's huge.  Isn't it more satisfying that he takes the bull by the horns instead of letting the parade pass him by and keeps living his hum-drum life?  I think so.  It's like, "hell yeah, dude."

A word about unlikeable characters

The more of a jerk-off your character is, the less people might want to root for them and the harder you're going to have to work to win over the audience.  That doesn't mean you should ever take the easy road and not make them a heel.  People like characters they "love to hate" and people like underdogs.  We don't want to read about perfect characters, no one does.  

Your challenge, should you choose to accept it

Come up with at least three characters using the guidelines I have outlined above. I was going to save the link below until next time but we might as well get started now.  Feel free to comment, criticize, brainstorm and anything else.  If anything is confusing and you need more clarification, don't hesitate to comment or send me a note.  Once you have your characters, you can post them here if you'd like.  But hang on to them for your own personal use.  If you want to come up with more than three, go for it.  We can discuss whatever you'd like.

If you're not using this site (tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php…), start.  It will make everything so much easier for you.  The bulk of the work is done for you already.  Now, I'm not saying play mix and match, create three characters that make sense.  Create characters you would want to read about.  And, this is a big hint... create characters you would want to write about.

Look for Part 2 in the next couple of weeks.    It will be an in-depth look at motivations.  So for the moment, take your time with this.  No rush.  Create a nice "waiting room" full of characters in the meantime.  It'll make things easier on you.

Part 2: raspil.deviantart.com/journal/…
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:iconrakshiel-mogaidren:
Rakshiel-MoGaidren Featured By Owner Jul 1, 2013  Hobbyist General Artist
As a pre-emptive TL;DR, Your unvarnished truth and shared experience is incredibly inspiring.

It's funny, I re-directed here from the second part. I haven't been very successful at writing short fiction (I have a tendency to want to give more detail and flesh everything out like a regular novel) and while I haven't had a crack at the prompts yet (It's been so long and I am a procrastinator extraordinaire) I am making a concerted effort to get out of my comfort zone (high fantasy) and try my hand at writing a short story with my brothers' sci-fi universe. He is helping me with the technology (what exists in his world etc) and I have been assisting him with characters and relationships, as well as unique aspects of motivation and ways of using dialogue. We are for the most part, each others sounding board for these things.

Looking back at this post I realise it isn't terribly relevant, so I will say here that I am inspired to work harder when you come out with the balls to say the un-PC, blunt truth. I crave it in fact. I want someone like you who tells the truth without garnish to go through my story as it stands, and rip it to shreds so I know where the weakest points are to work on and strengthen.

I realise you are busy, this is not a request of you in particular, just, someone with your honesty. I don't need to know where it is good, I know where it is good. But I feel too close to it to spot all the weak points, and I have re-read it to death as far as my mind is concerned, I am not taking in anymore the technicalities, it just reads how I think it should be. And I know for a fact that it is not even close to finished, even the parts I have edited the most and posted here on DA. Which action I took to get input from [other] people (I had hoped) that did not know already where the story was going. I have gotten some, not a lot, and I crave more. So I don't know if I am being lazy by not attempting the prompts, most of which sound really interesting, or simply too focused on something that has been germinating and growing slowly from a tiny seed seven years ago, to the first few fragile buds of chapters, characters, and plot-progression.
Reply
:iconraspil:
raspil Featured By Owner Jul 1, 2013   Writer
thank you for your kind words.

i am busy, i've got a job that is currently gone from 50 to about 60 hours a week plus a script to edit this month. but you can send me what you want me to read and i'll hang on to it. no promises and no quickness but i'll do what i can when i can.

the prompts aren't going anywhere so do what you need to do when the time happens. time to do things like this can't be found -- it must be made.
Reply
:iconrakshiel-mogaidren:
Rakshiel-MoGaidren Featured By Owner Jul 1, 2013  Hobbyist General Artist
I may note you the chapter[s] I am least satisfied with, and no, I will not pester you incessantly about it. If you make time for me I will be eternally grateful. And just so you know, I won't start any drama if you tell me it is crap, I am not 14. I find it sad when so many good and experienced people here refuse to tell someone outright that their piece needs work, simply from a fear [that is usually and appallingly warranted] that the recipient of the constructive crit will get butthurt and Baaww all the way to the block-button. I need to get take down a peg or two so I know exactly what I have to improve. Thanks in advance, A True Fan of Honesty in Literature
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:iconraspil:
raspil Featured By Owner Jul 2, 2013   Writer
cheers to you.
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:iconyanessa:
yanessa Featured By Owner Jun 1, 2013  Professional Writer
concise summary!
Reply
:iconzukesangue:
ZukeSangue Featured By Owner Sep 11, 2012  Student Photographer
Heyy thanks for this youve given me some real inspiration for my story Ariagato goziamasu ^.^
Reply
:iconraspil:
raspil Featured By Owner Sep 11, 2012   Writer
good deal. make sure you read the other two parts as well.
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:iconzukesangue:
ZukeSangue Featured By Owner Sep 11, 2012  Student Photographer
yeah will do
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:iconlychalis:
Lychalis Featured By Owner Jul 3, 2012  Student Writer
Hmm, the character I birthed from this... ended up taking her on a urban fantasy/sci fi/not sure which route on a whim, so she now has the ability to heat her body to stupidly high temperatures and survive said temperatures externally (say, a fire) without injury. A little silly, I suppose, but hey.

but essentially she is Caroline the park bench hugger who ran away from home because she's shit scared of killing her guardians/folks and has to figure out how to survive on the streets, or take a risk and go home.

still fine tuning her, but I already like her :D (and yes, I nicked crescendo's method of summing up his awesome characters. what the hell, it worked. forgive me? :P)

Seriously though, this whole thing is unmeasurably awesome - this is going to be a lot of help when I finally get back into the habit of writing again :D
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:iconraspil:
raspil Featured By Owner Jul 3, 2012   Writer
sounds like a really complex character, perfect for fantasy/sci fi but with a modern element. i hope you get back in the habit soon :-)
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:iconlychalis:
Lychalis Featured By Owner Jul 3, 2012  Student Writer
same. stupid exams ._.
luckily they're over now. ish.
Reply
:icontwistedalyx:
TwistedAlyx Featured By Owner Jul 2, 2012  Hobbyist Writer
I did find this helpful, a nice new perspective to try on. I find I differ a bit on the characters who are heels: I feel like I can handle a book with a jackass for a main character only if it's plot or moral driven more than character drive. Example, Dorian Gray. If Harry Potter had been about someone more like Dorian...I'm not sure if I would have cared about his little adventures. Could just be met though.

Thank you also for the image of a character waiting room. That's actually extremely helpful to me today. :)
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:iconraspil:
raspil Featured By Owner Jul 3, 2012   Writer
I feel like I can handle a book with a jackass for a main character only if it's plot or moral driven more than character drive.
that's very cool! definitely gives me something new to think about for my group down the road.

Thank you also for the image of a character waiting room. That's actually extremely helpful to me today.
I think of my character waiting room like the waiting room for the recently deceased in Beetlejuice :-)
Reply
:icontwistedalyx:
TwistedAlyx Featured By Owner Jul 3, 2012  Hobbyist Writer
Wow, I just realized I crammed a whole lot of "drive" into that sentence of mine. Sorry about that. XD

Haha, I think I hear a new prompt cooking. I'll keep my eyes out for it. ;) I have a list of all of the ScreamPrompts saved on my computer, and I'm attacking them this week. I'm participating (belatedly) in my way. D:
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:iconraspil:
raspil Featured By Owner Jul 3, 2012   Writer
i look forward to your stories :-)
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:icontwistedalyx:
TwistedAlyx Featured By Owner Jul 3, 2012  Hobbyist Writer
Haha, me too. I've been letting myself get away with not doing enough for way too long.

I obviously don't expect the feature (or want it anyway) since I'm extremely late on everything, but do you still want links if I post my responses to your prompts?
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:iconraspil:
raspil Featured By Owner Jul 3, 2012   Writer
yes, send me the links and i will put them in the ScreamPrompts folder at my own page. once i get the stories, i read them and decide which ones go in the gallery. i accept stories at any time, not just when the current prompt is live. if i don't accept the story right away, i might at another time. i'm always tweaking the gallery. i'm a little more focused on Flash Fiction Month at the moment so I probably won't be doing anything with it until August.
Reply
:icontwistedalyx:
TwistedAlyx Featured By Owner Jul 3, 2012  Hobbyist Writer
Wow, that's good to know. Sounds very fair to me. Thanks!

Until next time, please have a lovely day.
Reply
:icondarkcrescendo:
darkcrescendo Featured By Owner Jul 1, 2012  Hobbyist Writer
Hate. I bring the haaaaate! :stab:

I should be in bed, you horrible woman, not creating 'Derek the window cleaner, hounded by a criminal mob for money while hiding his cat burglar past'

Or Everton, brandy-loving gentleman of leisure and compulsive liar who has convinced the wrong (sociopathic) kind of client he is a skilled detective - meanwhile concealing the fact 'he' is an alien emissary who has 'gone native' and is trying to avoid his true responsibilities.

And Valentin, grimfaced butcher and long-time hired killer who wants a change in career, but has to somehow hide the fact he's started to fake people's deaths while carrying out his last contract.

Seriously, I should be in bed. This is all your fault!

*Grumble*

Benedictions!
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:iconraspil:
raspil Featured By Owner Jul 1, 2012   Writer
see, this is how it should be done.
Reply
:iconbitchmedusa:
BitchMedusa Featured By Owner Jun 12, 2012
Hey, I wanted to say thanks for doing this. You make a lot of good points, thanks for taking the time to put it all out there. You've got some good comments so far, I'm with them.
Reply
:iconraspil:
raspil Featured By Owner Jun 12, 2012   Writer
I'm glad you think so -- thanks for checking it out. I hope you stick around for the next couple of parts :-)
Reply
:iconkazali:
Kazali Featured By Owner Jun 9, 2012  Hobbyist Digital Artist
Totally brilliant. Saving for later :heart:
Reply
:iconraspil:
raspil Featured By Owner Jun 9, 2012   Writer
i appreciate that :-)
Reply
:iconterrytatcher:
TerryTatcher Featured By Owner Jun 7, 2012  Professional Filmographer
You saved me! Oh thank you so much for posting this! I've been worldbuilding for almost a year so I've completely forgotten everything about character building. This gave me a lot of points that I never even thought about. Thank you so much!!!!
Reply
:iconraspil:
raspil Featured By Owner Jun 7, 2012   Writer
you're very welcome. Stick around for the second part coming in a week or so -- it's about motivation and conflict and how they shape plots. I'm still working on it.
Reply
:iconterrytatcher:
TerryTatcher Featured By Owner Jun 7, 2012  Professional Filmographer
For sure! :D
Reply
:iconlit-twitter:
Lit-Twitter Featured By Owner Jun 6, 2012
Chirp, it's been twittered. :)
Reply
:iconraspil:
raspil Featured By Owner Jun 6, 2012   Writer
coolio!
Reply
:iconbibleofdoom:
BibleOfDOOM Featured By Owner Jun 5, 2012   Writer
Honestly, I believe in the idea that anyone can write; formal training may be handy but that doesn't make anything you've posted any less valid. All that really matters is your experience and how you use it, I guess.

I can quite honestly say that this is the first time I've heard someone explain the advantages of starting with a one dimensional character and fleshing them out. I'm also surprised why it is the first time I've heard that - it's a damn good approach.

Well, I better get to work - thanks so much for all the work you've been doing for the writing community on dA. Figured someone should say that.
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:iconraspil:
raspil Featured By Owner Jun 6, 2012   Writer
thanks a million.
Reply
:iconsurrealcachinnation:
SurrealCachinnation Featured By Owner Jun 5, 2012   Writer
Rasp, this is amazing. Thank you for taking the time to write this up and work with everyone. :heart:

I have to say, your guidelines and suggestions are really cool. Some of them are things I've tried before or heard of, and others are things I've never really put much conscious thought into. I enjoyed reading this, greatly.

I'll definitely be working on the challenge you set. You can expect another comment from me soon with three characters. I just wanted to tell you how much I appreciate your work on this. :D
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:iconraspil:
raspil Featured By Owner Jun 6, 2012   Writer
i'll be here. and thanks.
Reply
:iconsurrealcachinnation:
SurrealCachinnation Featured By Owner Jun 6, 2012   Writer
Here ya go! [link]

I've come up with two, and will be working on a third one soon.
Reply
:iconcimaebee:
CiMaebee Featured By Owner Jun 5, 2012  Hobbyist Writer
I love working with my characters. I enjoy spending time with them and getting to know them. It may make me sound crazy, but it's worth it. (:
[link]
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:iconfernvii:
Fernvii Featured By Owner Jul 26, 2012
I am the same. I spend time with my characters like I (should) spend time with friends. So, I don't think you're crazy. :XD: Besides a good character is worth all the time you're willing to give him\her.
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:icontheskaboss:
TheSkaBoss Featured By Owner Jun 5, 2012  Hobbyist Writer
This will be an interesting exercise for me. Especially with you making me sit on them for a week or two. That's not how I usually do things at all. :P

What I do is...well, I don't think about my characters at all, until I'm already writing. Then they come to life mainly through my own need for humour - if I see an opportunity to throw in a joke or an anecdote I will do, and those are what build my characters up. I will find myself going 'huh, I didn't know that about my character' as I'm writing these things, and this leads to me sitting there asking myself questions about why my character is this way, which more often than not then helps with the plot as well.

I tried doing it the other way once, fleshing out the characters ahead of time, but the problem with that was that although I knew everything about them I had no sense of their 'voice' so they felt flat when I was writing them...and then I did what I always do while writing; they evolved voices and personalities through humour. Ended up being a good story, but the characters had totally changed from what I'd originally worked out ahead of time.
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:iconraspil:
raspil Featured By Owner Jun 8, 2012   Writer
interesting method you've got there, Toots. i think i hear/feel their voice when i get the first superficial images about them. i made it a point a while ago to try the best i can to make each character different from one to the next, not get too hung up on one type of personality or stuff like that. now that i've been thinking about this workshop for the last few days, it has me analyzing what I do to make my characters. there's tricks i use without thinking that i'm sure are not unique but it's not like i've analyzed my methods -- i do the 'ol "visualize your story as if it is up on a movie screen and write what you see" method. this might sound odd but in doing that, by seeing my story as a movie, i don't totally have to "imagine" the piece from start to finish, i just have to kind of report what i "saw". of course there is definite time to work the imagination when i'm coming up with the story/plot but once i have that down, i can see it on the screen, then i write it down.

it's been fun reading about the way people practice their craft/art. i like seeing how specific people are willing to be or if they guard their secrets so no one can outshine them. i did that for the first time in this workshop -- studying the relationships between characters and the characters themselves in Seinfeld as well as the dialogue taught me more than any book or writing manual/magazine ever has.

/loopsy, loopsy!
//why won't i shut my yapper? i'm having too much fun to stop now, i suppose :-) :hug:
///lol i'm making you read ALL THE WORDS!

:iconxalltheyplz:
Reply
:icontheskaboss:
TheSkaBoss Featured By Owner Jun 9, 2012  Hobbyist Writer
I do that with the movie thing, but only when I'm actually writing it. It doesn't work beforehand. And still no matter how hard I try to get a sense of the characters I won't have their voice down until I've written with them for a while.

Maybe I should try writing exercises with them before I start the real story, just a quick scene to get a feel for them? *ponders*

/I love when you're all loopsy, even if I do have to read ALL THE WORDS :iconallthethingsplz:
Reply
:iconraspil:
raspil Featured By Owner Jun 9, 2012   Writer
Maybe I should try writing exercises with them before I start the real story, just a quick scene to get a feel for them? *ponders*


why not? what's the worst that could happen?

Reply
:icontheskaboss:
TheSkaBoss Featured By Owner Jun 9, 2012  Hobbyist Writer
The why not is purely that it never occurred to me before now. :heart: for making me talk about characters and therefore leading me to this realisation.
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:iconraspil:
raspil Featured By Owner Jun 9, 2012   Writer
:iconideaplz:

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:iconrovanna:
Rovanna Featured By Owner Jun 4, 2012   Digital Artist
(The singer dies and the band plays without him? The bastards! :o )
Those three steps are great. I've always thought of step two as a 'fatal flaw' or lesson the character must learn. I've found the most useful way to think of it is that a character and their motivations and fears pretty much is the plot (in a character based story of course) and not just a floating personality that the plot happens to. :) I have an arseload of characters already in my waiting room, so I'll keep them in mind for part two.
Reply
:iconraspil:
raspil Featured By Owner Jun 4, 2012   Writer
The show must go on.

Part 2 is going to be an in-depth look at motivations.
Reply
:iconneurotype:
neurotype Featured By Owner Jun 4, 2012  Hobbyist General Artist
Listen to kanye west's 'stronger', just for the line about haters.

Huh, I mostly take a personality and think, how can I completely ruin the day for this person? Yours is...less petty. I like it.

Anyway yeah will get on this when I have time again. Arg.
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:iconraspil:
raspil Featured By Owner Jun 4, 2012   Writer
word.
Reply
:iconneurotype:
neurotype Featured By Owner Jun 4, 2012  Hobbyist General Artist
To whose mother?
Reply
:iconraspil:
raspil Featured By Owner Jun 4, 2012   Writer
:iconvanillaiceplz:

this motherfucker.
Reply
:iconneurotype:
neurotype Featured By Owner Jun 4, 2012  Hobbyist General Artist
God if only you knew about the weekend I spent listening to Ice Ice Baby.
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:iconkreepingspawn:
KreepingSpawn Featured By Owner Jun 4, 2012  Professional Digital Artist
Danke sehr! :D
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