Illustrating Characters and the Stories They Tell

Lesson 6/14 - Character Development Q&A


Illustrating Characters and the Stories They Tell


Lesson Info

Character Development Q&A

So, when you're taking a look at all your influences and stuff, like how do you keep it all organized? Do you just surround yourself in it? How do you, kind of, keep your influences in mind? And also, second question, where do you go beyond, like is it all in your brain? Do you remember things as you're creating? So, those are two questions. The first question, I have, in my studio, a big, it's called Homasote board and it's covered by cloth, and I can stick pins in it. So it's, what I call, a mood board and I literally just plaster pictures all over, and if it's not enough space, sometimes I'm taping pictures on the lamp, my computer surface, the files. I just need to literally create a space of the images around me. That might not be the nicest way to organize it, but at first, it's the place to riff because I can just keep scanning and looking, feeding my head and start to sketch. Once I've got the characters, sort of, melded in my mind and the story's unfolding, then I have files...

, physical files, where I put all the character references for each character, the environment, and I separate it that way. And I just keep that close by on my desk because then I can go to the file and be like, oh yeah, mushrooms for that environment space, I think I have a whole thing of mushrooms. Or, that's rouse, I use that for Dragons on Dazzle Island. So that separation, it's really basic but that way of filing it, accessible to usually my left hand, put the brush down and grab the file. And then remember to put the pictures back in the file (students laugh) is probably the thing I'm not so good at, like putting caps on paint. Once I'm in the space, if I have music on, I'm in that zone, I'm not tidy at all. But I try to organize initially and just keep making sure, at the end of the day, put stuff back in the file. Does that answer your question? K, awesome. Do you suggest, kind of, working through this order or can it be... I mean, of course, it's whatever works for you but is there a particular order that helps? Or... That's a good question. I think for me, it's funny, it usually starts with a top two. I usually start, like I can just imagine a little face and then its general shape but it doesn't have to start there. I mean, these things really pop up organically as you're developing it. So I don't want you to be like, okay, we have to start with a silhouette. Actually, you will start with a silhouette, cause it'll be a shadow shape. But the rest of this just, if you're tracking like, what am I doing? Oh, yeah, okay, let me think about this, let me think about that. So don't worry about the order of it, I'm not thinking about that when I'm developing characters. To create this list, I deconstructed, I had to look at it and go, hmm, what do I think about? Oh wait, and pull those things out so that I can teach it and talk about it. But yeah, don't worry about the order at all. Well, we do have some questions from folks at home. And so, one is from Alan Woodsen who says, "Would these be the same principles that would apply in getting a comic strip going?" Interesting, a lot of my students at RISD actually are into comics and so, that's a certain kind of sequential imagemaking where your character is gonna reappear in multiple angles and scenes. So it's really useful and this is what they do, to do exactly what we're doing here because you're able to then extract that character and imagine them from different points of view, from different distances, moving, walking. It's probably most critical for animation and for comics and books because of that sequential nature. So the short answer, yes! Absolutely. Well, and I think that's a very interesting point about in the different forms that they have to be from different angles and all kinds of different things that you have to think about with that character as well. And how much are you thinking about the different types of facial expressions? For example, that they might encounter along the story. Well, that reminds me of an excellent book, there's actually a couple by Scott McCloud, Understanding Comics and Making Comics is another book. I see some nods. He actually goes through this exercise where he puts happy plus concerned equals this face, and he literally shows the faces of all those really, harder to get to expressions, and he walks through all these elements of character development specifically for comic book artists. And particularly for comic book artists, they're not just having one scene, it's multiple scenes on one page. And you have to move through that, and you can't keep it at the same point of view or angle, it'd be a really boring page. So, evermore, you need to be kind of following these things and I will be honest, I didn't invent this. Scott McCloud hits on all these things too in his book, great, great reference book. Scott McCloud. Scott McCloud, Awesome. Understanding Comics and Making Comics. Another question, what are some of the biggest hurdles that you see your beginning students encountering when they are trying to develop characters? What are some of the biggest things that people have issues with? And how should they go about? Yeah, getting on it. Looking at those, yeah. I think the biggest roadblock when you're a beginner or you feel rusty, you haven't done it for awhile, or maybe you've done it periodically but you step in and step out of a space of making art, in general, but particularly with characters. I feel like the first thing to do is to actually take a pencil that doesn't have a sharp point, like a really soft pencil that's not gonna allow you to be too noodley and detailed, and just start riffing. Even just looking at people in the room around you and doing little silhouette studies, or facial expressions of people that you see. And if you jump into it through observation, it's easier because it's like, I can look at you and I can draw your face, if I have to pull it from my imagination, it's harder, it takes more work. So that's why I always say, marry the two things cause it makes it easier and it's also convincing. But if you're really stumped about character, look at your friends, your family, go sit at a coffee shop and just sketch people, and you'd be amazed, you know, we're characters. I mean, you see some really, the airport, that's a great place to sketch because you see all types of people and in international airports, especially. So start from observation, I think is the easiest way for any artist but particularly beginners or people who are stepping in and out of that space. I love that about people watching because what a great, fun activity anyway but then to be purposefully people watching. And also, like you can do slower studies, where you're really paying attention to one person but you can also do just quick gesture studies cause sometimes you capture that essential thing about them in a quick (snaps fingers) fast, little drawing. Sometimes we wanna noodle, we get a little frozen up. So I suggest people say, I'm gonna give myself a minute to draw that person, one minute. And once you do that, it's like exercising. It becomes more intuitive, so, speed and observation. And then when you're ready to noodle, then do that but get yourself loosened up with gesture drawings. That's great, thank you. Welcome. We have someone, Erica Knapp, who is tuning in and is an honor student at EvCC, and her capstone project is illustrating a book. And she's noticing that your pages all seem very rich and fill the page, and there's a lot going on all over. And her question is, do you have any advice for a more minimal look in the story? So I'm wondering if the story itself is more minimal, does that go into how you develop the characters? It does, I mean... When you're talking about narratives and whether it's children's books or a young adult novel or a comic or what have you, your illustration is always in service of the story. The soul of the project is the story, it's that narrative. So, you are but a vessel or vehicle to express that. So my thinking is, if your story feels to you in doodling, is minimal, and using the white of the page and suggesting environment instead of rendering it, then that's what you should do. And sometimes it's interesting, I can get a story and I'll be like, I have to think really differently about how I'm gonna portray this and now I have to stretch my artistic skills to go there, because I love color. I love world-building, but to pull back and minimalize? That's one of my hardest challenges and I'm actually working on a story right now, where I'll use the white of the page and minimize and suggest so the imagination can fill in other parts. And there's some beautiful, wonderful children's books, plenty that do that. So it has to be in service of the story. You don't want to put the wrong kind of clothes on the soul of your character or the story itself. You want it to be absolutely connected as an expression.

Class Description

This class will teach you how to draw characters as a way to develop stories. Instructor Mary Jane Begin is an award-winning illustrator and author of children’s picture books, a Rhode Island School of Design graduate and professor in the Illustration Department. Mary Jane explains the importance of narrative in all creative fields, and how to develop them.

In this class she covers: 
  • The key elements of story creation: working from the inside out, letting intuition flow, working with limitations
  • Seeking out prompts to springboard story
  • The elements of Character development

Mary Jane will give you a prompt to jump start story and demonstrate how to develop it. You’ll learn about the fundamental human response to a particular character style, and how to make decisions that elicit story.


LIse Brown

I didn’t pay enough attention to the description so was surprised by the focus of the class — but in a definitely good way. As a member of SCBWI, I’ve learned a lot about illustrating characters by going to conferences and participating in our active local group. Most of the instruction I’ve received, as I suspect is also the case with most formal instruction, has been from the point of view of being given a character from a story to illustrate. This class covers creating a story based on the characters you draw, placing the drawing first and finding the story as you work. Of course there is overlap in the two approaches — overlap that emphasizes important steps. The creativity process is demonstrated clearly and in depth here in a gently encouraging way. However, while I, like the instructor, believe that everyone can be creative, I also question whether this approach would work for all illustrators: not all have time to write the stories that go with the characters they create, as ours is usually a business driven by clients who already have a story and characters. I’m not saying that this would not be a valuable class for them, just mentioning the different take on the subject. I had expected more of the usual angle of how to create a page of character sketches for your portfolio or how to develop the illustration of a character from a manuscript. Though help with these topics is partially covered in the progress of the class, they are not the main focus. All-in-all, the different approach is to the credit of the class — encouraging and expanding a student’s horizons. Also, plenty of little gems are thrown in during the lecture and demos, from techniques to the psychology of creativity. The instructor is competent, clear, and pleasant. She conveyed a lot of information that I didn’t realize until I was thinking about it later. One note: the titles for the breakdown of the demo are not exactly accurate, The demo is of the instructor creating one character as she draws. I understand that the producers wanted to segment it, but really it’s one continuous process, and some of the titles for those lessons are misleading.

Lynne Perkins

Amazing lecture! Everything an illustrator learns in art school covered! Thank you for sharing. I miss the imput and critiques I experienced during my college years and this class brought to mind so many enjoyable memories. The advice was given in a generous and kind, inspiring way!

Aimee Nicola

Such a great class! MJ is really inspiring and encouraging. I've never known how to approach drawing characters, but now I feel much more capable....hoping to one day write and draw my own children's book!