An Introduction to Graphic Novels: Character Design 4

by Anise Shaw

Part One | Part Two | Part Three

These lessons are intended for beginners, those just trying their hand at comics for the first time and feeling overwhelmed. Feel free to discuss more advanced concepts in the comments!

Lesson 3: Character Design

Old Woman, character design.

Storytelling is comprised of three main elements: a setting, a plot and some characters. In this lesson we will go over a working methodology for creating compelling and original characters for your own stories or for a collaborative project. Creating characters is a great treat, and often the favourite exercise of writers everywhere. There are many ways to examine, develop and refine characters, but designing them is a completely different subject. Before one goes down the path of character design, we must first understand the foundation of the practice: design.

Design is about developing a working method to suit a function or need, as each instance of your design method will be different. For example, you may be a character designer, but designing a character for a comic or a video game or a novel are three very different instances. The goal is to create one method that can serve all three best. Your method is what makes you an artist, not your skill, perceived talent or even ideas (we’re post modern, remember? All ideas are derivative anyways). What defines one artist to the next is how they work through the method of taking an idea and translating into their visual (or audio, or performance, or whatever) form.

In this lesson, I will provide a simple framework that is commonly used and you can build upon it yourself. This is where the whole “there are no rules in art” comes in. For every suggestion, the opposite, the negation or something slightly different will work as well. Never say to yourself “I have this great idea, but it doesn’t fit the framework I learned in that graphic novels class”. That’s bullocks. Frameworks are supposed to help drive, define and ground ideas, not limit their existence. Be flexible, and allow your method to grow and evolve. Self reflect on your method, write these reflections down and be observant. Like we briefly discussed in the first class, being an artist is not just a profession, it’s a state of mind.

So, without further adieu, the character design framework.

1. Identify and understand your design problem.

  • why are you making this character?
  • what are the restrictions you’re working in? Media, deadline, target age group, function, etc, are all restrictions.
  • Your design problem may be simple or complex, they are as different as snowflakes. Do be honest with yourself, and don’t make something more complicated than it needs to be.

2. Analyze the problem and break it down into simpler elements

Your problem is you need to make a protagonist for a graphic novel (of an undetermined genre), break it down into:

  • The character functions visually, therefore has to be visually appealing
  • The character will be seen and heard (through speech bubbles), and therefore has to display their personality visually and through dialogue.
  • The characters will be in a long form story, and therefore has to have a complex personality that can be slowly examined
  • The character will be in print and therefore must translate well into that medium, both aesthetically and conceptually (this is why I think 3D rendered comics tend to look strange, they don’t fulfill this need).

At this point it’s time to do some idea making, which will be covered later in this lesson. Remember how I said there are all sorts of exercises for examining, developing and refining a character? Now’s the time to use them. The framework assumes that at this point you’ve done some brainstorming and are then ready to:

3. Choose the best idea.

This needs to solve all parts of the original design problem you identified in step 1.

4. Draw the Character.

You should have already been sketching, trying out different things and playing around in step 2. Now it’s time to do a technical drawing of the character – the good copy. Draw your character from many angles, with different costume if necessary, and get a good feel for who they are.

5. Evaluate the results.

Ask others what they think. Get them to try and guess who the character is to see if your were able to accurately depict their personality visually. Talk to people you trust and who are thoughtful, not to people who will want to spare your feelings. This is not the time to get squeamish, you need a really good character.

6. Rework the design if necessary.

A very simple, yet important step. I often have students who skip this step because they are simply “ready to move on”. While that might be an accurate feeling for more completed work (like trying to resist the urge to go back and redraw the first 10 pages of your comic because you’re drawing has improved – that’s a “move on” moment), during the design process a small moment of reflection and reworking is necessary. Grab the red pen and make the changes that need to be made.

Now the process is finished and you should have a pretty good foundation for a character. In the next lesson we move into the hard part: making the actual comic.

Step 2 Expanded

The design problem in our class is simple. We need to come up with a character (or a few characters) that can be the cast of our comics. All of the above expansions that I outlined in step two still apply. While comics have a literary component, they are visual as well. The visual design of our character is going to be as important as their literary content.

When at this step of the design process, ideas are king. We want to have many of them and have the freedom to develop them in different ways. I have some exercise suggestions, but there are many more available online, in books and from other artists. Feel free to add these to your library of idea generating methods.

  • Observation. The goldmine of ideas. Wei and myself come up with great characters by just observing people in public, on transit or in cafes and letting our imaginations run wild.
  • Brainstorm with others. Get into the mode where nothing is unacceptable and no idea is too wild and just run with it. It’s amazing how differently two people think, and putting them together can yield fantastic results.
  • Locate reference materials. Pictures, clippings, movies, television, books, magazines. Everything is reference. It’s not just visual either, characters in other novels can start as the foundation for something new.
  • Use word play and mind mapping. Automatic writing is fantastic. We’re in idea mode, turn off your critical brain and let things flow. You can scrutinize later.
  • Fantasize about your characters. Daydream scenarios, think of how they would speak. You can even turn them into temporary imaginary friends. Anything to get the ideas going.
  • Look for symbolism and myth. Archetypes can make very solid character foundations.

Sketching Your Character

Character sketches

You need to get that pencil moving. Nothing, and I mean NOTHING, stays in your head. That’s a terrible place for ideas. Write and draw on the same pages, don’t pre-organise yourself in the idea stage. Story ideas don’t need to start in a word processor on the computer and characters don’t need to start hand drawn (why not try some collage?). Here are some things to think about with the visuality of your character:

  • Shapes. Play with them, they are powerful tools. Their counterparts are scale and proportions, so play with those as well.
  • Expression exercises. Try the 25 Expression Challenge, a popular meme on Deviant Art. I use it all the time.
  • The five dot exercise: Get someone to draw five random dots on a piece of paper. You then choose two of the dots to be hands, two to be feet and one to be the head of your character. Now you have to draw your character in those constraints (you can get some great, twisted positions).
  • Add and subtract elements from a sketch. Either physically with an eraser, or by redrawing.
  • Shift elements, reshape, skew, squash, stretch, etc.

Character Design Exercise

We’re going to create a character for our graphic novel project that we will start in the next class. You may follow this process or a different process for other characters, but for now we’ll try out a pre-described method to see how the process works.

Our design problem: we need to create a visual, drawn character for a graphic novel that will serve as our protagonist. We need to finish this in roughly a week.

We break it down into the following elements:

  • Our character is visual and needs to be visually appealing
  • Our character will be drawn repeatedly, and can therefore not be too complicated
  • Our character will be the protagonist, so they need strong desires and conflicts and a concise history.

Example Mind Map


Start with a mind map, starting with the character’s role in the middle: protagonist. Begin associating words and writing them down. Think with your senses as well as your imagination, and don’t censor yourself. When you are finished, it’s time to refine the mind map. Circle the words that stand out to you, that describe a character you would be interested in. Don’t worry if other will be interested at this point, if you’re not then there’s no point in choosing it.

Create the physical character, with words and sketches:

  • General physical description
  • Body type
  • Proportions
  • Material make-up (is your character flesh, robotics, alien, or anything else?)
  • Gender
  • Surface texture
  • Colour
  • Facial Structure
  • Movement (how does your character physically carry themselves?)

Create a character history. A character’s life never begins at the beginning of your story, and the most believable characters will act in ways that expose their past experiences. Character histories are important, but don’t need to be complicated. Look for elements that will create desires and conflicts, the essence of any plot. You need to describe the following:

  • Your character’s personality
  • a quick timeline of your character’s past, present and future.

Lastly we’re going to do two things – the 25 Expression Challenge for your character. Don’t be discourages if you don’t finish them all, just try as many as you can. Don’t pick expressions that you think will suit your character, pick them at random.

Then we are going to start thinking about character motivation. I want you to three short paragraphs. Each will a single event from the character’s life told from three different perspectives:

  • Telling the story to a stranger. How does your character want to be perceived? How much information are they going to reveal?
  • Telling the story to a close friend. How will they confide in them?
  • Telling the story to themselves. What would they never tell to anyone else.

After this, you should have a character that’s good to go for a final, good copy drawing! Feel free to post your work, sketches, mind maps, writings and finished drawings. I’d like to see how other people design their characters!

Part One | Part Two | Part Three

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