Character design has roots in advertising, animation, video games and of course comics. It has been used for development in TV, film, and stage plays. By definition, characterization is a combination of posing, acting, and readability in your drawn action. If you are trying to convey a certain emotion in your story, you need to be able to draw the character expressing that emotion or at least fake it. Character design is probably the hardest thing you’ll ever learn, but it’s also the most fun and rewarding in the end. When designing characters you should have no rules or boundaries in your creativity. This is your world, and you get to make it any way you want. This is important because this series on “How to make your own graphic novel” is about you and your work.
This is a full page illustration out of the artists soon to be published graphic novel "Prisoner of the Mind."
When I worked for a number of animation studios, all of their characters were already created for me, The Simpsons, Family Guy, Men in Black, Godzilla, and more. I didn't get to make any of these cool characters, I had to adapt my drawing style to how their models were made, and then draw them as they were. Below you'll see some of my practice runs at these characters from way back in the day. Teams of people made these characters what they were. They were refined and edited down to their most basic, repeatable designs and lines.
Each drawing of and existing character is a challenge. I have to adapt what I know to suit the director's needs and make the character look like it is meant to. The above and below illustrations are older drawings of getting familiar with each characters nuances.
This ensures that when they go into production, the process will be smooth and with fewer problems. Someone already thought about how the character will look when it does this or that. Everybody wants to create characters from scratch because it’s exciting and fun and today you get to create anything you want. You are doing this on your own, not a team of people behind you, so I try to give you some of the things that I learned and mistakes to avoid that I have made.
Character design is not just creating pretty lines on paper, it’s learning how to create believable emotion and feeling with a pencil. We used to have an exercise in my high school art class, which at the time I thought was ridiculous and funny. It was to look at yourself in a mirror and paint or draw your own expressions. Imagine the entire class looking at themselves, it sounds pretty funny right, well the truth is, it is one of the best ways to study facial expressions and character actions. I have been doing it for years, and still do it to this day. You’re probably not an actor, so how can you expect your characters to act if they have no direction. You are your characters, and you are the actor when doing character design. Go ahead, make those funny expressions in the mirror, and draw them down. Any artist that says they draw everything from memory is stretching the truth.
It is impossible to memorize all aspects of life, so the best way to draw anything, especially characters is from real life. Every day, I see characters walking down the street, and I love to make up stories about them. This is the fun part. The first thing I do, when I hit this stage is draw, draw, draw. Grab your favorite sketchbook and make it your new best friend.
Carry it on the subway; take it to a coffee shop or anywhere that you can steal a moment to draw. Draw people, draw animals, draw everything, everywhere. These exercises will flesh out your ideas and prepare you for the next step, which is storyboarding. When you start drawing the final art in your graphic novel, you want the characters to feel natural. The only way to do this is to draw them a lot and get comfortable with their nuances, features, and their mannerisms. Consistency is essential here.
1.Give yourself a deadline. Why, you ask. Simple, creating a deadline means you have to start drawing, and sometimes staring at a blank sheet of paper seems a bit daunting. Having short-term deadlines gives you a chance to create a milestone in your graphic novel process. Essentially, it’s a great marker along the path and an excellent motivational tool. It is also extremely rewarding when you finish your first character.
2.Research, yes, research. If you want to make an amphibious creature the lives at the edge of a swamp on an overgrown jungle planet, find out what an amphibian looks like, what they eat, what they need to survive. Get it? Don’t just make up random stuff. Use the vast knowledge of what the world knows to help you.
3.Believable characters start with emotion and personality. Think of that one weird dude you know in school that has a strange twitch, a limp or maybe a funny little mustache. Maybe, it was that teacher that talks out of the corner of her mouth with one eye half closed. Use them as a character, write them into your story. I think you are starting to get the picture. Emotion, can be conveyed through the eyes, an expression, a body pose or a hand gesture. Think body language. Can you tell when someone is angry just by looking at them? I’ll bet you can. Their face gets flush, their mouth puckers up, their eyes squint, and a vein pops out on their forehead and most likely, their fists will clench up. You must capture that emotion.
4.Stick to your character sheets. Remember earlier, we used these character sheets to describe the characters of your graphic novel. This is what they are used for. They describe the physical and psychological characteristics of your character.
5.Human, non-human, funny, cute, and stylized characters. It doesn't matter if your character falls into one of these categories, or not, the rules are essentially the same. Rule number one: Learn human anatomy. Rule number two: Learn human anatomy. Trust me, you don't want to end up like this. As you will see below, I tried to start my graphic novel without learning the fundamental skills needed to pull it off back in the 1980's. I had to go back to the drawing board and start over, and I still got some of it wrong. I know, it’s hard, the human body is a complex machine. It takes a lot of time to learn all of the components of the human body and how they fit together. Every day, I wake up and look in the mirror, and I feel as I did when I started drawing. I think to myself, how can I draw this, can I pull this off? But, I go back to the basics, and then build the character like stacking blocks. I am still learning every day and even after 25 years, I am not an anatomist. The real trick here is to draw what you see. Drawing average people on the street will help you learn gesture, movement, and it will force you to draw quickly which, is a beneficial skill to have if you are going to make your own graphic novel. The whole thing here is that you have to understand how a body is put together before you can exaggerate it and make it cute, alien or stylized.
What's wrong with the sketches above in this character head turn?
The illustrations above are mistakes, I made when I created this character many, many years ago, and then the corrections that I should have done from the beginning. Many artists won’t show you their mistakes, but I think it is essential to make mistakes. If I didn't make any mistakes I wouldn't be able to draw. All of this could have been avoided if I studied anatomy well.
6.Break the figure into shapes. Square, Circle, Triangle. These shapes will help you define the characters body structure and proportion. I was told this many times in school, but I always had a problem with seeing someone or something and then breaking it down into a shape just so I could build it back up again. I just wanted to skip to the actual drawing of the person or thing because I was impatient. There is no magic formula it takes patience and practice. One of the pitfalls of designing characters, environments, or props is the appearance of flatness. It is remarkably easy to forget to give your characters weight and volume. I use an animator’s technique to “see through” an object and imagine what’s on the other side. Hold an apple in your hand and then try to visualize the other side of the apple if it looked almost transparent. Look at a lamp or coffee cup and think about how that object looks on the other side. Chances are it will be symmetrical. So imagine the bulge of the lamp base and try to draw through your object as if it is transparent.
Think of a 3D wire frame in computer animation, you can simply rotate the object and see the other side. Your brain is your computer here. You have to train yourself to see things differently. If you practice this technique long enough, at some point, drawing through an object will feel like second nature. Again, look to nature. Go to a mall and watch people, and then sketch them. Some people are pear shaped. Some are round, and some actually look square, get the idea.
If you’re having problems getting started, I suggest using an exercise that I sometimes use that I call “Breaking the Box.” Have you ever looked at floor tile, wallpaper, or clouds and see a face or a character? Most artists tend to look a life around us a little differently. Start doodling in your sketchbook; I mean random scratchiness, shapes, drips, drops, circles actually nothing that comes to mind, let your hand be free.
When you’re done, it should look like a bunch of scribbles. Now, take a step back and see what you see. Maybe a face will emerge, maybe a whole person, an alien or gargoyle. When you see something in your scribbles, elaborate on it, draw in what you see. The point is that this exercise will force you into a creative mindset, and then allow you to move on to your characters. It’s honestly just a warm up. I’m not going to get into full fledge drawing lessons here, that’s not the purpose of this article. There are plenty of quality websites that will teach you how to draw, and I've listed some below in the section “Character design for beginners.”
Here is one of my examples of "Breaking the box." The title comes from the box or edges surrounding the paper in case you were wondering. This helps you work past any hang ups getting started.
7.Limitations of physical anatomy. This should seem obvious, but I will put down here anyway. If you want your character to perform some task in your storyline, make sure they have the appropriate anatomy to do so. Here, is an example. Let’s say you want a T-Rex to play basketball with a bunch of his Dino friends in the early Jurassic period. Sounds intriguing, right? Problem is, T-Rex has tiny little arms and wouldn't make a good basketball player. T-Rex might make a better Soccer player. That’s the idea.
The above image was a doodle on a napkin of my villain character for my graphic novel. The illustration on the right was a reworked version of him "The Newcomer."
8.Costuming, draping, and fashion. Once you have the overall shape and size of your character, think about how they fit your story, your world, and the look and feel of your environment. Costuming is particularly important to selling the idea of your world. You wouldn't want to dress an astronaut in a bathrobe and send him to outer space. Learn how to drape fabric. Think about how things wrinkle, it seems like something you certainly don’t think about, but if it looks wrong, you’ll notice it in a second. I list several books on costuming and draping below.
In the illustration above, I used an every day NYC street scene that I sketched during rush hour and elaborated on the characters, the clothing and the environment to make it more futuristic.
Not all character creation is exciting. Even the simple people have to be created. Be prepared for anything.
9.Build your character. When I say build, I mean imagine a sculptor starting with a large block of clay then slowly cutting away at it, molding it until he has a figure. I use the sculptor metaphor because it has an instant visual. Drawing a character is the same. Rough it out, then refine it, build it bit-by-bit, feature by feature. Try different costumes, hair, characteristics and props before you settle on one thing. Another tip here is to create a variety in your characters. No one wants to see five different characters that are short, round, and angry, unless this is an army of dwarves. Think about comic books that have a variety of different looks for each character. The Fantastic Four is an outstanding example. They are all different. The same thing applies to creating your characters names. It would be extremely confusing to read a story about four short, round dwarves named Jimmy, Jerry, Johnny and Joey. Jimmy wait a minute. Jerry wouldn't do that to Johnny again, would he? What did Joey do about it?
I usually make many versions of a character, including color scheme.
10.Environments, Props, Vehicles, Lighting, and Weather enhance your characters. The truth is, I could write ten pages on each of these categories because I can’t easily break down the process of each one here. So, I will summarize and then elaborate on them later. Environments are your visual world; you are attempting to immerse your audience in a believable imaginary world of your making. Inevitably, some things in the real world will translate into your world. For example, does your character eat something to remain alive? Does your character need to travel? Does he ride a horse, a car, or fly? Where does your character live, in a house, an apartment or a cave?
Both images above are pages for a children's book titled "The Adventures of Supersass and Captain Clawmuffin" that I illustrated recently. The book was released last year on a limited basis by Author Kelly Mac, and the official release is in 2012. The illustration on the left is of a photo taken of my old garage back in California. In the illustration on the right, I used a photo that I took in Coney Island for reference. Without reference material, it is very difficult to achieve a complete sense of realism even with exaggerated characters.
Along with character design, there is the environment your character lives in, try to get a feel for what that's like. Is it dark and smoky like an old black and white film noir? Or is it happy and bright. Is it in the past, present or future?
Another artist I know uses Google Sketch up to create 3D renderings of a room that he knows he’ll have to draw over and over from different angles for different scenes. This is a seriously smart tactic to achieve consistency in your work. I use basic graph paper to draw a floor plan of the space I’m working in.
For example, If I am drawing a crooked guys lair or a seedy bar, I want to know where everything is so I can draw it again in several panels from different angles.
The advanced looking vehicles serve a specific purpose. Just like everyday vehicles, there are maintenance, delivery, and personal transportation. Some aspects of the vehicle advances with new technologies and some stays. For example, wheels have been around for a long time, it would take an astounding leap in technology to do away with wheels completely. The difference is that not everybody switches over to new cars instantly, so you will always have old vehicles mixed with new. Social and economic class play a crucial role too, not everyone can afford a new car every year.
Don’t be afraid to draw from photographs, when I was a kid I would collect my dads National Geographic Magazines, which were a veritable resource for exotic locations and places I had never been. I would draw everything in them. I take pictures of New York City all the time, and then print them out and draw from them as reference. If you want your characters to live in a forest, go take pictures of a forest. Don’t try to tackle everything from memory, it’s just not necessary.
The same thing applies to props, and vehicles. If you want your character to hold a hammer, go to your toolbox, and pull out a hammer then draw it. If you don’t have a hammer, go photograph one.
In this drawing above, I am working on several spaceship designs. Many times I will just block in a shape in solid color or shade it all in. (see red arrows) this helps me decide what looks good and what looks awkward without the distraction of too much detail.
Lighting is equally significant because, it sets the tone, shadow, and the mood of your environment. Weather is something we all deal with, and why, not on other planets too. Study cloud formations, sunsets and my personal favorite, rain.
Don’t get discouraged, and don’t listen to any negative feedback from people. Back in the 80’s when the San Diego Comic-con wasn't a circus, real studios would have portfolio reviews for new artists. I went there with hope that I would get a chance to meet a director or story development person that would take one look at my stuff and say, “You're hired.” However, most of the time, I got an intern and it didn't actually work that way, I waited in line for an hour to have my portfolio reviewed. Naturally, while waiting in line I started talking with the other artists and we compared work. The kid in front of me was sixteen years old, and his portfolio blew me away. Here, I had been drawing my whole life (I think I was born with a pencil in my hand) and some teenager that was a lot younger than me had the most impressive drawings I had ever seen. It was truly depressing. I remember going back to my tiny studio in North Hollywood and thinking that I should go back to school or just stick to fine-art.
Then I remembered what one of my professors told me, “There will always be someone better than you, but they aren't you.” That still makes me smile today. Don’t give up. Ever! You can do it, just keep trying, I did. I ended up doing character design work for the likes of Disney and many others, as well because I didn't give up.
I am assuming that you know the basics of drawing, why else would you attempt to make your own graphic novel? Anyway, if you are genuinely new to drawing and still wish to proceed, you have a steep learning curve but it’s not impossible.
This small section below is for the new artist, if you are an experienced artist skip down to the examples and model sheets. I know there are a lot of animation links here, even though we are talking about drawing sequential art panels. The fact is that a lot of the 2d process in animation is remarkably similar to comic books, and you will find some crossover.
I like to create a model sheet for each of my characters in a front view, back view, side and three-quarter views. The idea is to have your model rotate in front of you so you can see all sides. This helps you with the costuming, expressions, mannerisms, and any quirks or unusual weaponry that they might have. Once you have a model sheet drawn for each character, draw all of your characters on the same sheet together so that you can see how they measure up to each other in a size comparison chart.
The above individual on the subway reading something on his i Phone. It seemed right to me to make him sort of a tech repair character that I could use later in my story.