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Creating Characters

Lesson 3 from: Illustrating Characters and the Stories They Tell

Mary Jane Begin

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Lesson Info

3. Creating Characters

Lesson Info

Creating Characters

So the creation of characters is, you know, as you can see for me, creating characters is my portal for storytelling. It really helps me and I think it's because you know, as people we relate to each other. We have relationships and it's probably the foundation of what our own narrative is about, so I usually start there. I think it's one of the easiest ways for developing stories and when I start my sketches, these are pretty refined. I showed you some of the rougher stuff, simpler stuff, but this is, once I've really worked through the characters, I really like to see them from different angles. From the front, from the side, from the back, because then I can kind of think about them in a way that lets me imagine them dimensionally and I work in a 3D fashion, so that is a really helpful thing. But even if you work really flat 2D, or you do something where it's like more comic like, I really recommend trying to imagine them from different angles. It just helps make them also more beli...

evable for you. Now a go to resource for character creation is of course yourself. Explore facial expressions as a way to express your character's emotions. So when I'm working on a character, I literally put a mirror in front of my face, and I make faces, really exaggerated faces, because sometimes I'm imagining, what does curious look like? And I'll sketch it out but it's not, it's too simplified, it's not quite right. So I look in the mirror, I'm like, "Exaggerate curiosity", and, well that wasn't curious. Exaggerate any kind of emotion and look at your face, and then merge the animal with your face. I do a lot of animal characters. If it's a human, you just merge your character design with your own human face, and it really, really helps. And as soon as I start sketching out the expressions, what's happening here, and I think it will happen for you as well, is you start to get to know your character. Because your character, at first it's just pencil on a surface, it's not really real. You infuse it with it's soul, so understanding it's, the character's expressions, really important. Now this is something that most people don't think about, but a lot of really wonderful character designers focus on this. Pay attention to the silhouette and proportion of the character, just basically the silhouette is the overall shape, 'cause it gives an instant impression of who they are. When you look at these silhouettes, you instantly have a sense of who they could be. You get a general impression about them and maybe some adjectives come to mind for each of these, what I call shadow shapes. Now the reason why I think this works this way for human beings is that maybe back in the cave days when we had to assess friend or foe on the horizon, you could tell by its silhouette. You could tell by its, the shape of it. Is that a critter, is it another person, do they have a weapon? So we do read silhouettes quickly and we get an impression instantly, and I'm dressed kind of like a silhouette today just because I thought it would be appropriate, but this is something I wanna you to think about when you look at the shadow shapes that I'll share with you today. And you can see this is my character, his name's Moley, he's the little version of Mole from The Wind in the Willows. And I sometimes will actually just blacken in the shape to make sure that the silhouette makes sense to me, that it captures the essence of the character. And I wanted Mole to be, he's a little bit vulnerable, he's a little bit timid as a character, so I didn't want him to have a kind of hulking figure, I wanted him to be a little slope shoulder, a little ding toed. There's a little me in all of these characters and I think that's the way it works, but this one was actually based on my brother Craig. Another go to resource for character creation are the people that you know. Basing characters on real people helps with facial expression, body gesture, and costume. So when I was designing Moley, I kept thinking about my brother Craig, and some of his habits. I could imagine him actually wearing shirts that were inside out and backwards, because he could be so distracted that he would do that. He would leave his shoes untied, very bookish, that slight smile, the prominent nose, and the green-gray eyes were all Craig. So in doing that, again, it's making it more real for me and my assumption is, if it's more real for me, then it's more real for the reader who's gonna read the story.

Class Materials

Bonus Materials with Purchase

Shadow Shapes
Exploring Character Development Workbook
Illustrating Characters Keynote

Ratings and Reviews

Tracie Hawks

I loved this class. The exercises are fun and inspiring. I was actually doing research to help me develop my own class when I bought this course and I'm thrilled I did. Bonus for me: I am going to work on developing a character and story I've left on the shelf for about four years thanks to this experience. I highly recommend to anyone of all skill levels.


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.

Michelle F. Alexander

Wow... Thank you so much, MJ! What an absolute superstar! I really appreciate your artistic transparency in all of your examples of work + your thought process. It has made a HUGE difference to my creative mindset. And for that, I am very grateful. I can't wait to see what I can now create with all of these new skills that you given me. Good things! Michelle -x-

Student Work