Character Design
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CREATING YOUR OWN MONSTERS:An Article on Character Design

Welcome to my favorite subject: character design. What could be more exciting than molding a character from beginning to end? I’m a mad scientist, taking bits from here and there to create a living, breathing character. The unbridled power!! The awesome responsibility…

Never fear. Here's a recipe to get you started.

List of Ingredients

Start with a description list. Pore over your text and jot down every reference to your character: appearance, likes, dislikes, history, hobbies, etc. (This step is especially important if you’re illustrating someone else’s story. There’s nothing worse than illustrations that blatantly contradict the words. I’m embarrassed to say I’ve done that myself once or twice.)

I’ll use a well-known story as an example. Here’s a short word list regarding the character:

Spice It Up

You may recognize the Tooth Fairy. This story has been told a zillion times; if I'm going to be successful in standing out from the crowd, I’ll need to approach the character from a fresh angle. Most of the Tooth Fairies I've seen have either been frilly flower sylphs or plump fairy godmother types, so I know I'm going to avoid those characterizations.

Let's take the attribute list and extrapolate additional details. My character is nocturnal, so I'm going to give her pale skin and large eyes. She collects teeth-- wouldn't it be interesting if she were missing one or two of her own? And what does she does she do with all these teeth? Are they building materials? Take the written word and run with it.

Translate your list into visual cues. “Skinny and redheaded” is easy to portray, but how about athletic, melancholy, jealous, brave, or funny?  And don’t settle for the easy answer. If the character is skinny and redheaded, how can you make those attributes stand out from their stereotypes? Make your creation fresh and interesting. Use face and body shapes to convey personality. Sweet, intelligent, selfish, clueless.

Give your antagonists extra attention. So often, these characters are no more developed than cardboard cutouts, both in word and image. How can you make them more interesting? Go over the attribute list-- if it's light, add to it. Villains don't have to wear black and scowl all day. (And remember-- villans should be the heros of their own story.)

You've probably already thought about what visual style you're going to use. The choice depends on the type and mood of your story. Keep this style in mind when working on your characters. While each character will have different aspects, they all must come from the same style and live in the same world.

EXAMPLE> Disney can show us instances of both: good visual continuity among characters in Hercules, poor continuity in Atlantis.

Draw many versions of your character and see what happens. I tend to start out conservatively, then discover interesting features and build on them. Push yourself. My fairy is cute-ish to begin with, but how can I make her more interesting? Chin a bit pointier, ears a bit bigger. How about moth wings and antenna instead of butterfly? Your style choice may change as you explore your character.

TIP> Be careful with distorting main characters too much-- they need to remain "accessible." You probably wouldn’t want to push the design of a prince as far as you would push his side-kick or his enemy. I don't want to abstract our Tooth Fairy so far that she might scare children. If this design were for adult sci-fi/fantasy , that would be a different story.

TIP> If your story/character's energy seems to be flagging -- try switching the gender or change the setting and/or culture.

It’s popular to have a good mix of ethnicities and sexes, especially if your story has a contemporary setting. You can make your characters any sex or background you choose as long as it doesn’t violate your text. Our fairy could just as easily have been a boy, or a ball of light, or an insect creature.

 Clothes Make the Man (and Woman)

If your story is contemporary, try not to be too trendy. You don't want to date your book. If your story is historical, better do your research. We can't have someone in Queen Elizabeth's court wearing a tri-corned hat. If it’s fantasy, draw up “rules” for your fantasy culture and stay within them.

Logically, our fairy would probably not wear anything, but I don't think that would “fly” for a kid's book. Since she lives in the woods she probably has low technology, I'm going to dress her in leaves and spider webs. Make sure the clothing is appropriate for the character's activity. Good job if your princess is out fighting dragons, but is she's wearing a ball gown while she’s vanquishing her foes, there had better be a darned good reason. Attention to these details will add to your story's believability.

How about adding some accessories? Look at those hobbies and interests. What can you come up with? Hats, pins, jewelry, belts, scarves, etc.

TIP> If your story is a fantasy, consider mixing unexpected elements into your character’s ensemble: a wooden spoon in a hat, a pair of scissors in a coif, a suit made out of insect chiton. For more ideas, look at the work of Lester Abrams or Brian Froud.

Hairstyles need just as much attention. It isn't likely that a rough and ready character is going to have perfectly coiffed hair. Our fairy is going to have wild, messy hair. What the heck, we'll stick some ladybugs in there for good measure.

Character Blueprints

Be sure to draw your character from all angles and expressions. This will help with future drawings and will give you further ideas. Plus, you may discover that your design looks great from the front but is impossible to draw from the back -- it’s a good idea to scout out all angles and emotions before committing to a design. This step will also help keep the character consistent. Do all your sketches look like the same person? If not, why?

TIP> Look at animation character sheets. These show all angles of the design for easy reference.

The Physics of Design

Think about logistics. Our fairy has wings-- how do they attach to her back and how do the clothes go on around them? How does she sit without crushing the wings? And how big is she? She has to be strong enough to carry a load of quarters and teeth for the length of her nightly route. I've decided that she'll be 6 inches tall and a little chunkier than the usual slender fairy. (She'd better stay that size in all the drawings.) Her hair will be short, so it won't interfere with her wings. Speaking of wings, since we're using moth instead of butterfly, I need to remember that moth's wings are out flat when at rest. I've also decided that my fairy doesn't sit, she crouches. And she sleeps curled up in a ball. As for lugging around all those quarters-- nowadays the Tooth Fairy is probably doling out dollars instead. So I'm going to try rolls of paper money instead of coins.

You may not use all of your new ideas in the story, but it's good to know how your character behaves "off camera."

What's in a Name?

If I’m lucky, names come to me before I've even started a story, but usually they elude me for weeks. In the latter case, I use a working name. Our tooth fairy's working name is Sylvie-- because she lives in the woods. This name seems a little frilly for our girl, so I'm going to explore other choices.

I look through my list of interesting names that I've gathered over the years, but I don't find anything I can use. Back to my attribute list-- I focus on "tooth" and look it up in the thesaurus (an essential tool). I find a few possibilities-- Nibble, Ivory, Gill, Gob.

None of these are grabbing me, so I visit a baby name website and type in "tooth." I get some interesting names: Appolina, Bashan, Shenazar, Vashni. I like these, but they sound very Indian/Middle Eastern-- I'd need to change my setting and character direction (which would be cool to explore at a later time). I try "fairy." "Breena" is a Gaelic name that means "fairy palace." Now, what if our fairy were using her teeth to build a palace? That just might work! Our fairy has a new name-- Breena-- and our story has a new twist.

A Tale of Two Stories

As a writer/illustrator, you can have fun with your readers. What if text and character design deliberately contradict each other? For instance: "Once upon a time, there was a brave knight." yet the illustration shows a scrawny, shivering Chihuahua with an empty tuna can for a helmet and a pair of old scissors for a lance. This kind of ironic treatment is unique to books by writer/illustrators. Two stories for the price of one.

Your character design can have an impact on your text. Visually developing your characters may give you more ideas – why not tweak your story to match your new character? You can also remove a lot of verbal description and let the pictures tell the visual story. There's no need to mention the character has a red shirt if the images are already showing it. Some writer/illustrators even start with the visual design first, then write to the character.

As writer/illustrators, we can allow both roles to play off each other to create something stronger. I don't think it's a coincidence that over 50% of the Caldecott winning books are by writer/illustrators. We have the advantage -- our characters can be whatever we want them to be, with no constraints.

And these little monsters don't talk back, usually.