Illustrating Characters and the Stories They Tell

Lesson 14/14 - Illustrating Characters Q&A


Illustrating Characters and the Stories They Tell


Lesson Info

Illustrating Characters Q&A

Do you use any specific prompt questions or reference help when you're coming up with your characters? Do you let the story provided prompt everything? And I know we talked about some adjectives and things and there's a bonus material, a bonus workbook, that has adjectives and some other prompts that comes along with the class. But what are some other things that you would do? To access a character or a story? Prompt questions, right, for referencing, for coming up with the characters. So, one of the things that I like to do, and this would be something that, if we were spending several more hours doing this, I'd be like, 'Okay, where does your character live? 'What's their favorite food? 'Do they have issues with body odor? (interviewer laughs) 'Do they have smelly feet, that kind of things? 'Are they super tidy? 'What are their obsessions and idiosyncrasies? 'What's their weirdness about them that makes them 'particular and peculiar? 'Who do they love? 'Who's the ultimate villa...

in for them? Who do they despise? 'Where do they get inspiration? The character itself. 'What makes them happy? 'Is it flowers or kittens or cookies?' Those kinds of questions are common for me to ask about my own characters when I'm developing them because it helps me know -- And the answers just pop in your head. 'Oh, of course this character really likes green beans but can't stand liver.' Why? I don't know. Probably because I don't like liver. And I think green beans are great. But I think when you start to ask those questions, you're getting to know your character and it can be a really good prompt for me when I'm developing my own characters. And again, we would go further, we probably take these and have, what are the other sequential images for this story that's coming? And actually, you guys are already doing that. So we would just carry that further. Those are the questions I would definitely ask and want to know the answer to. And they have them. We already know the answers. Final question, and this was from James Sample, who is loving the class, is wondering about going from now working with one character but what happens when you start to build out multiple characters and looking like they fit together in the same style, how do you manage that? How do you start thinking about that? It's a really, really good question. So, one of the things that I do, and I've learned this really from friends of mine who are illustrators who work in the animation industry, and what they do is called a 'lineup.' And what they'll start with is these silhouette shapes of all the characters in this lineup. If there are four characters, three characters, two, doesn't matter, what you're trying to make sure is that the overall shape of the character is different than the other character and different then from another. So, size variation between characters, sharp shapes versus round shapes should tell us about the character but also give us some contrast between one personality and another personality. That really helps. Unless all of the characters are of the same species, like "Pony," they're all basically the same shape and that's when you have to use color and you have to use details on the characters to tell us which one's which, but oftentimes when you have a varied silhouette lineup, then you start to know your cast of characters will be really different. And I would literally say, put a piece of paper down. If you have a story and you're trying to develop it and you're asking these questions about who they are, let the shapes also reflect that. So we have a character over here which is the bird-like character, it's round and it's big. And so your foil character is this little, tiny turtle. Right? And again, so size variation. You have a father figure and then a baby, so again, the size variation. They look similar but they're not the same. And the same thing can be said for yours. They are not the same, hence all the descriptors for your characters were different. They're opposite characters. So if you have two, if you have four or five, it's more complex. But start with a lineup, look at those silhouettes, and then start to build on the descriptors and ask those questions. Stylistically, that's really an issue of keeping the way you handle it, the mark-making, the line use, your use of materials as consistent as possible from character to character and from characters to characters in scenes and environments, and that's like a whole other class. (laughs) Yeah. So, I guess the basic piece of advice that I would give to any of you, because clearly you all enjoy drawing, you started immediately, you jumped in, and I felt an ease and a pleasure so don't be afraid to draw, to make, get the sketchbook out, keep drawing. If you can today, keep noodling out what you have here because it's already wanting to come out so you just need to encourage it further. I would suggest that people look about them to the people that they know for inspiration for characters and for stories. In a sense some of you are already doing that which is cool. Look at your face in the mirror for expressions so that you really can engage in who the characters are emotionally. Use your own body shape and form and others, take pictures, look at the world in terms of references. Like we were struggling over, 'What does a turtle look like? What is a fox? What's the tail?' Look at your references so you can have a guideline. But the most important thing is just draw and emote and connect and let your own story come out because that's really the story that we are always telling. It's always our own.

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!