You can’t have a comic without characters. Having well-designed characters that can express elements of their personality or temperament is quite helpful to the reader, but there are some tips that can really take your characters to another level. There are so many characters from comics, cartoons, TV shows, movies, and other media that have achieved iconic status. Think of the minions from Despicable Me– so simplistic, yet so recognizable… and so unique. Like many things, coming up with something 100% new is almost impossible… the key is using inspiration and combining qualities you like from other designs to create your own personalized character design that will be easily recognizable and memorable.
The Initial Steps
Much like writing an essay back in school, a good place to start is brainstorming and an outline. You probably have some ideas of personality, possibly some visuals, of your main characters bouncing about your head? Put those on paper! Here’s a good exercise to get to know your characters better without the overwhelming task of just DRAWING them head-to-toe. Take a piece of paper and divide it into 3 columns. Title the first column “Adjectives”, the second “Features”, and the third “Doodles”. Make one sheet per character that you want to “outline”… but first start with your main characters.
- Adjectives Column
Write down any and all adjectives and descriptive words about your character. Don’t think too hard, just jot them down
- Features Column
Now, referring to the adjectives you just noted, try to think up clothing, body shapes, accessories, hairstyles, or any other visual features that a character with that aspect of their personality, would have. For instance, if you listed “athletic”, that character would probably wear sneakers a lot… and maybe other athletic gear? If a female, wears her hair in a ponytail? It’s possible that some adjectives may not have a corresponding visual feature, but sometimes an indirect subtle visual cue will cross your mind.
- Doodles Column
Time to loosely sketch out some ideas! Nothing too intricate, or even a full-body sketch.. just doodle some of the features you jotted down. A hat, a style of shoe, type of jewelry, logo on a T-shirt… you’re putting together the pieces of the puzzle!
This little exercise will reveal to you what your subconscious was drawing up all along… don’t rush it. You may even want to go through a couple sheets per character until you feel satisfied. Changing one character, adding new adjectives, may then make you want to update another character… just take your time and eefer to your trusty thesaurus!
After you finish your character outlines, you may look at the descriptions and think “wow, these guys are predictable and stereotypical”. While it’s good to have characteristics many can relate to easily, it’s better to create a UNIQUE character who can stand on their own and not be an obvious knock-off of another famous character either. If you start to see a correlation between your character and maybe another you took inspiration from, think about how to flip a couple features to give their personality and/or style it’s own life. Break symmetry– give a dog 2 different color ears. Take a strong personality and give them a quite obvious weakness. Irony is a fun addition. Sometimes absurdity or abstractness .. even when it cannot be explained, will create a memorable aspect to a character that readers will (usually without even asking “why”) latch on to. These dimensions are what takes a robotic character and makes them human– cements them in reality and makes them relate-able BECAUSE of their ironic, absurd & asymmetrical “flaws”.
As you map out the full body of your character, with the size of the frame, body language, hairstyle, clothing and whatever gear they’ll be wearing… keep in mind their silhouette. You may be wondering “why does that matter, I’m not going to draw them that way very often“, but it does. Designing a character is like designing a logo.. being instantly recognizable aids the reader during their journey through your story, just as a customer will look for their favorite unique and iconic logo.
Look at these silhouetted characters.. they are SO iconic and famous.. you know exactly who they are even without colors, facial features, clothing, or anything else. That is a true test of good character design. As you draw out different versions of your character, once you start honing in on one you like, try it in a silhouette– see if still looks like them to you. It’s kind of like the “squint test” designers will use– if it holds up, it’s solid, if it turns to mush or you lose aspects of the design, it needs reworking. This is where you really get into the uniqueness of the character design. Exaggerated features, extremely long or short bodies, head shapes that are so much more than a circle, costumes or clothing with distinct recognizable elements… really play around with your options! Also, not only should your character be iconic standing alone, but ALSO in comparison to any other characters. Can you tell them apart easily? Do their silhouettes give an idea about their personalities, comparing and contrasting between them? There’s a reason you tend to see a fat and thin duo, a tall and short couple, a boxy and curvey hero and sidekick.
Rounding it Out
Once you have the basic structure in black and white, adding in colors and textures and all the other details like accessories, jewelry, individual facial marks like dimples, freckles or moles…. well, it can be a ton of fun, or infuriatingly indecisive. The core rules still remain: each decision should be based on the ADJECTIVES of their personality, while sometimes defying STEREOTYPES, keeping in mind the rest of the cast and DIFFERENTIATING between them. When in doubt about a style of earring, a t-shirt color, or striped vs. spotted fur… return to what you have already laid out and the answer will come.
All that said… this is only the beginning. A year from now after drawing your character hundreds of times, you’ll notice how much the character has taken ahold of their own style, evolved into a caricature of what you originally sketched out, and probably developed new characteristics you never even thought of. That’s the price of being a comic artist or cartoonist- you have to let go as much as you have control.
Below are some links to other helpful articles about character design and development. Good luck bringing your characters to life!
Dawn Griffin is a self-described “crazy chick”. She likes steak, Cleveland sports, video games and oh yeah, comics. She spent her high school years either playing street ball, pitching, or drawing comics and submitting them to syndicates. Once she –accidentally– discovered the world of webcomics, the syndication route became a pointless hurdle. After all, “Crazy Chicks” do things their *&%$ selves. Dawn is the mastermind behind Zorphbert and Fred, and the illustrator of the Abby’s Adventures kids book series. She can be easily bribed with ice cream.