Developing Personality of the Character


Illustrating Characters and the Stories They Tell


Lesson Info

Developing Personality of the Character

And when you explore character development, you wanna try a variety of iterations, expressions, and points of view. So this was a character I did, which was animated. The whole body was animated, so alls that I had to do was come up with the face that they would then do in CG, or computer graphics. And so, my first iterations, or versions of the character were old, because he was supposed to be Archimedes. He was supposed to be wise and old and, you know, just a kind of, a clever dude who is also friendly and sweet. Well I started out making him old, but then they decided that they wanted the character to be youthful. They said, no, we really want this character to be accessible in a way, like more childlike. So I was like, okay. Made the eyes larger, made the antenna more expressive, and they really liked these versions here, that you see on the right and below. And what I did in this was I tried to use not just the face, but I used the antennae to tell the emotion of the character. L...

ike, you know, sad, and maybe he's a little curious here, or if he's angry, (whoosh) they go straight up. And so they actually animated it based on these sketches, that way, which made it more fun. So I really, you know, I encourage trying not just different expressions, but even points of view for, say the head, because the people doing the computer graphics had to understand it dimensionally. I had to sketch it that way for them as well. But I think it's just a useful thing to do. And it's hard to do. You know, I had to look at dragonflies. I don't imagine all these things from my head. I look at references. And I encourage you today; if you're like, I want my character to have, you know, a fish tale. Pull it up on your phone, and use it as your resource. I do it all the time. So there are five basic character archetypes. You have the hero, the mentor, the innocent, the everyman or woman, and the villain. And those are just basic, what they call archetypes, or you almost call a stereotype of a character, that you might create. And in storytelling, those are sort of common players that we might think about. And here we have, of course, the archetype of the young hero, who helps out the lion who has the thorn in his paw. It's basically Andy and the Lion, or Androcles and the Lion. And, what I wanted to show you here was when developing say, two characters... And today you might riff and create a character, and then go, wait, my character needs a sidekick, or he needs a friend, or has a villain opposite. You try to also think about contrast. This character is really quite small, and very rigid and vertical and solid, and the lion is this gigantic, triangular shape. He's sort of stoic. Andy is really stoic, and the lion is very emotional. So I try to create contrasting, visual contrasting elements, but also personality wise; make them as different as possible. 'Cause it makes it more fun for them to interact, and more interesting visually. Now when I'm creating characters, I really do let myself be under the influence of other artists. I try to feed my head. As I said before with the zebras: I feed my head not just with pictures of things, but with other artists' work. And, you can call it borrowing, or stealing, but you're just letting their way of doing something influence the way you do something. And you kinda know from me, you kinda know from what you feel intuitively, you need to respond to. When I read The Wind in the Willows I kept imagining this particular scene with Mole, who is, he's out in a place called the Wild Wood. He's looking for his friend Badger, and he's lost. And he's a mole, so he's, you know, this big. And all of a sudden he hears like, the hoot, hoot of owls and he's, he's terrified he's gonna get eaten. So that fear I wanted people to see this in the scene. That's why it sorta looks like a skull shape; the trees are sort of a skull shape. And you see the faces in the trees. So that was important to me to capture the scared, psychological state of the mole. But in doing that, I was like, the trees can't just be rigid and regular, they have to be personified. And I was like, who do I go to for that? Arthur Rackham, a turn of the century illustrator. Phenomenal; he's, you know, my hero. And the way that he would make the trees undulate and move, this organic movement, was something that I borrowed to make this picture. I had this stuff on the wall. I was looking closely at the way he did this in order to make my picture. So don't hesitate to stand on the shoulders of giants to look at people, contemporary artists, anybody who can influence you with color, the character design of anything that interests you, I think it's really important. And the same thing here. This is, of course, probably most people know Beatrix Potter. I love the way that she created creatures that looked really representational and real, but they also looked like characters. And sometimes I go to an extreme where the character might be more characterized, and more, I almost wanna say cartoony, and sometimes more realistic. This book, Little Mouse's Painting; the characters had names like Bear, and Little Mouse, so they didn't really have names like Joe, and Dave, and Sue. So I thought, oh, they're probably more real looking. So that was what I was thinking when I designed these characters. I really looked at squirrels and bears. Lots of pictures, and Beatrix Potter's work. And I also, you know, once again I am Little Mouse, 'cause I'm the painter for this story, and the bear is based on my stepdad who dressed this way. So it helps me... And this is one of my brothers. I do it every time because, again, it makes it more real for me.

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!