For the purposes of this blog I’m going to assume that you have a story idea and some sense of who your character is, and are at the stage of figuring out what they look like. No matter what your setting, here are some points to consider as you tackle the process.
What is your style? Artwork in comics can be anything from stick men to the Mona Lisa. Where are you going to be? Is your style abstract, or literal? Are you going to be arty and gothic, or minimal? Are you going western style, or manga, or is the whole thing going to look like cave paintings, or something else? The degree of detail your character designs call for will to a large extent be determined by the look you want for the piece. Do you want your characters to look like individuals, or do you want an ‘everyman’ feel where the faces are more symbolic?
Think about your setting and the kind of story you want to tell. Do you want people to feel warm and fuzzy towards your character? If so, the big eyes and round faces of manga may be for you. Do you want to by mysterious? Alarming? Disturbing? Oddly, people find it easier to accept things that don’t much look like people but are supposed to be, than they do things that are a very near miss. It’s called ‘The uncanny valley’ and is an issue in robot making, but is a consideration for the rest of us as well. Too real, can be unintentionally disturbing. Stories told through posed photographs can be peculiar, while stick men would have been easier to accept. There’s also the issue that more abstract faces can be easier to engage with as symbols for ourselves, while the more effort that goes towards making a character look individual, the more distance you create between them and the reader. Thinking about the kind of story you want to tell does help with figuring out how to handle all of this.
For best effect, characters should be iconic. If your main character(s) have a profile or a silhouette than anyone could recognise at a glance, even out of context, then this is going to help you. Think Micky Mouse, Batman, even Sponge Bob. There needs to be something that makes your characters stand out as unique, and that something needs to work in whatever scenarios you have in mind for them – so, for example, basing it too heavily on clothing can be a disadvantage if you want real life in your tale. Real people change their pants once in a while.
However, balancing the need for iconic images, is the need for drawable images. The intricate tattoos on your hero’s face may indeed make him stand out, but how do you feel about drawing them ten thousand times from every conceivable angle? If that doesn’t sound appealing, scale back. My advice is, if you find there’s a conflict between iconic and drawable in your design, go for drawable. It doesn’t matter how iconic your image is, if it takes unfeasibly long to draw and the whole project crashes as a consequence, it isn’t going to help you any.
Often it’s the simplest designs that work best. Consider The Simpsons – bright yellow folks, challenged in the chin department. There are lots of instantly recognisable characters from that show. Moreover, famous people, depicted Simpsons-style will both fit in, and still look like themselves. Or think about Garfield, who is very easy to draw – (I mention this because I used to draw him a lot as a child). Simple, distinctive, that orange and black fur is recognisable when waterlogged or even half obscured by plant life. Neil Gaman’s Sandman changes his appearance all the time – that’s part of his nature, but he’s got that funny thing going on with his eyes, and his speech is white on black, so we keep recognising him.
It helps if the character idea is original. If you start out by borrowing heavily from something you are into or that you think is going to make you successful, getting that original, iconic design is going to be that bit harder. Ben Ten with his watch was so effective because there hadn’t been a boy quite like him before.
Above all else, make sure you’ve come up with something you like. You and this character are going to be spending a lot of time together, potentially for years. Look them in the eye. If you think you can still love that design when you’ve drawn it every day for months, then you’re onto something. If you have even the faintest suspicion you could grow to hate it, then get back to the drawing board and save yourself a lot of pain later on.
(Nimue and Tom Brown are the team behind Hopeless, Maine. An amazing piece of art and literature, Hopeless is well worth the read and something that we at Crafting Comics are glad to put the word out for. Please show them some love and check out their site.)