Characters with Character
Remember that one book with the kid with the hair and the shorts and the solid colored shirt and a smiling face? Yeah, me neither. Think of your favorite children’s picture books. For me, books like “Olivia”, “Stand Tall Molly Lou Melon”, and “Knuffle Bunny” come to mind. Chances are, you can picture your favorite characters from your favorite picture books clearly, and they can’t be mistake with any other character from any other book. They are unique, 3-dimentional people with personalities that are expressed through the text and the images. As illustrators, we have the job of creating characters that are as one-of-a-kind as real people that we might meet in real life. To fully realize a character, it is important to visualize and link the person and the environment.
After reading the manuscript and description, try to envision everything about your character. How tall is he/she? What sort of build? How about facial expressions? How does he/she wear he/her hair? What sorts of clothes would he/she prefer to buy on a shopping trip? Does your character have a hobby, quirk, or particular interest? If the manuscript does not specify, take artistic liberties and fill in the gaps! For example, for one of my recent books “Riley Mae and the Rock Shocker Trek”, I was given a manuscript about a Riley, an athletic girl who becomes the spokesperson for a line of girls’ shoes, and who goes by the name “Riley Mae” so that people will know she is a girl. This told me that while Riley was sporty, she was not defined by the “tomboy” stereotype. (By the way, I HATE the word “tomboy” and all that it implies…..ok moving on.) She is in touch with her femininity, and has an interest in fashion. So, when it came time to design her character, I thought about how Riley would want to look. Her hair would be pulled back in a pony tale, but have you ever seen an active athletic girl with permanently perfect hair? So, I gave her a few front pieces that never quite stay in place. So she holds those stray hairs back with a decorative clip (a different one for each book). She has freckles from being outside in the sun. Also, when she chooses her outfits, I figured that Riley would want to keep thing comfortable, but with a little embellishment, just like her hair. As for the shoes, Riley goes all out. They are sporty, fashionable, fun and girly, and full of details.
I also wanted to make sure that she had a least one quirky facial feature. You know how when babies are born, everyone says “Oh, she has Aunt Kathryn’s nose” or “Oh, those are daddy’s eyes!”? Making sure that your character has deliberately designed, not generic, facial features helps to keep your character reading as an individual, real person. For Riley, I gave her a dimple on just one side of her mouth, a cute rounded nose and a heart shaped face.
You can really tell a lot about a person by walking into their house. How a person decorates, cleans (or not) and keeps their personal space says something about their personality and priorities. For our characters, there are lots of opportunities to visual express who they are as people by remembering that the environment’s design is really a part of the character design. There are lots of places where we might use the setting to add little touches that support and flesh out the character. Bedrooms. Closets. Lockers. Refrigerator doors. School cubbies. Backpacks. Real kids decorate their rooms, scribble on their notebook covers, tape up photographs, draw pictures, display keepsakes and personalize their space. Our characters should do so as well. We can also make our characters more interesting by breaking stereotypes. Not every girl loves pink and princesses. Not every boy loves sports. Why not have a girl’s room decorated with a dinosaur theme? A boy’s backpack with a space ship doodled on it with permanent marker? Maybe your character is interested in trains, or nature, or is obsessed with a particular animal, or has a favorite color. Few kids have only one interest. Having a setting with little details that express your character’s hobbies and passions, even if they are not mentioned in the story, makes your image feel more real and unique, and builds up the world in which your character lives and moves.
Coming up with current outfits, accessories, unique props and fun environments takes time and research, and tight deadlines and project juggling can make it difficult to be creative within a time-crunch. One solution that has worked for me is keeping a digital archive of inspiration on Pinterest. Every week, I make some time to surf the web looking for bedding, curtains, lamps, clothing, and gathering them together in my digital artist reference archive. This way, when I need inspiration for a trendy teen character, or a little boy’s bedroom, I have references at my fingertips. This also allows me to keep my references current, so that my outfits and props don’t look dated. I am sure other artists have other tricks for gathering and keeping track of references as well.
The more unique we make our characters, the more we as readers can relate to them, because they resonate as actual people with quirks, interests and personalities, not as characters just demonstrating an action from the text. Thanks for reading, and have fun looking for interesting props, patterns and people to inspire your next piece!