Skip to main content

Rely on Your Own Story

Lesson 2 from: Illustrating Characters and the Stories They Tell

Mary Jane Begin

buy this class


Sale Ends Soon!

starting under


Unlock this classplus 2200+ more >

Lesson Info

2. Rely on Your Own Story

Next Lesson: Creating Characters

Lesson Info

Rely on Your Own Story

And I started to think about some stories from my youth. I have three older brothers. And that's where the story actually came from. Using your own personal stories is a really effective way to jumpstart storytelling. So what I thought about was a particular incident where one of my older brothers who liked to tease was teasing me and a friend of mine and he got in trouble for his teasing. And he got sent to his room. And apparently he was really unhappy with me about this. And so he took his revenge. I had a doll. A Raggedy Andy doll that I loved. It was my favorite doll. I went to my room that evening after this incident. I couldn't find Raggedy Andy anywhere. A day past. Two days past. I finally figured out that my brother must have taken the doll and hidden it somewhere. So I went into my brothers' room. The three of them had one room. I went into the room and I looked everywhere. And then I reached under a bureau, and I pulled something soft out. And I pulled out my Raggedy Andy w...

hich had been ripped clean in half all the way up to the top of the hairline. And I was horrified. I mean, this was my doll given to me by my grandmother named Mary Jane. So this was really-- I told him all my secrets. I was-- it was like somebody had died. My brother Chuck walks in, he sees the doll, he sees my face. And he's probably 12 or 13. He's looking at me and he's got tears in his eyes. "I'm so sorry. I'll sew it for you." And so it was one of those-- I think it was one of those moments where he realized he crossed the line and something had shifted in our relationship where he knew he had really hurt me. And that stuck with me. And so that became the source of the tale for Willow Buds, The Tale of Toad and Badger. And you can see here, this was my original sketch for the cover, but the publisher said it was a little too mean spirited so we changed it. So he's a little snarky, that toad, who is actually Chucky, and I'm badger. So we changed it to that. But this was the source of the tale. And you can see it. There he is. In this case toad didn't do it quite as on purpose as my brother. But he tossed the doll up into a bureau. Then he reached for it. And as he reached for it, he tugged to try to hide it in a place that would be better. He started to tear, and he actually didn't really do it on purpose. He ripped it in half but now the deed was done. And there's Toady feeling the remorse that my brother's face looked just like this when he saw me. And that is me. That is exactly the emotion that I felt. So pulling from your own emotional source to tell the story, it really helped me. Of course, he pleaded but Badger's not quite sure to trust 'Will you really help me?" So, as we did, we started to sew the doll back together, but my brother Chuck nor I knew how to sew. So we were putting the knot at the eye of the needle, which is not a good idea. It didn't work out too well so we went to my mom, Mrs. B, and she, the nanny for Toady, helped to sew the doll back together. And so the symbolism here is really just the act of when two children or two siblings have hurt each other, you have to come back together. How do you bring them back together? So the doll is very symbolic. Now the next image, Under the Sparkling Sea, this was a really different kind of a challenge for me. Again, I was still finding my sea legs as a writer, trying to pull story from myself to develop the characters and understand the story. This is called Under the Sparkling Sea. I worked with Hasbro and Little Brown to make this book. And again when I signed the contract the art director was a friend of mine from RisD. And he just-- they totally trusted that I could write. And I had only done the Willow Buds and a retelling of The Sorcerer's Apprentice. So they were more confident than they probably had a right to be. They asked me to do this book. And I signed the contract. And they sent me these toys, which are the cast of characters from My Little Pony, and the actual animation for My Little Pony hadn't even come out yet. This is very popular now, as you probably know. There are millions of fans. But when they asked me to do this I had only scripts to go by and toys. And that was it. So, I had to try to figure out, you know, what would my story be about. Well I had a whole season worth of scripts and they had taken those ponies everywhere. So I'm like "Where am I gonna take them?" "What new can I do with them that they haven't already done?" It was really overwhelming. A month past. I'd signed the contract. A month past. That's a long time. And I didn't have a story in my head. I had no idea what I was going to do with these ponies. I didn't really know who these characters were yet. I had to get inside of them to understand them. But I didn't have a story arc. So here I just want to say take the time to rest your mind and let your imagination put together things that don't normally go together. It's one of the key ingredients to creativity, to letting the creativity flow. Now this image is my two kids a number of years ago. My two kids at a pool in Las Vegas. And back behind them is a shark tank. And there's actually a slide that runs right through this that you can slide through. And I did do it. I did it. My kids were like "You should do this Mom." And it was such a fun time I decided to put this on my screensaver. So my 27 inch Mac, this big image every morning, ping, I turn the thing on and I see this picture. I didn't know how important this would be. This was in my head. So, I'm still trying to struggle to find a story. My kids would kill me if they see this picture. This is them sleeping in a tent. We went camping. It was six weeks out. I didn't have a story yet. And Hasbro was waiting for me to come up with something. Well, it was raining this one particular day when we were camping. So we all took a nap. And I'm laying in my tent and I can hear the water because, you know, it's raining. Drip, drip, drip. I can hear the water on the tent. I can hear the water lapping against the rocks. This whole thing about water started to infuse in by brain the picture from the screen. That visual color was in my mind. I took a nap. Literally 20 minutes later I woke up, I had my story. And basically, what I did, was I started to think about, I went oh wait, water plus ponies. They hadn't taken the ponies underwater or anywhere near water. So I was like an underwater adventure! That'll be so cool. I didn't know what the conflict was but I know that I could take them to an imaginary place underwater where they'd meet other characters. So the first thing I started to do was think about the characters they would see. This is actually a narwhal. His name's Narwhally. And I started to sketch out what his personality might be, who he could be. I started to think about the characters they might see. These are seahorses. They are part of this environment. And mermares I invented. Which is just, you know, it's just a mermaid and a mare, a horse, blended those together. This is a manta hawk here. And a sea lion at the end. So I just started to riff, which is what we'll do today. Just not worry too much about getting it right, but just like explore with my pencil "What am I trying to think about?" "What do I have in my head?" And that really made it fun for developing the storyline, which was about basically an adventure for the ponies and Spike to travel to a place called Aquastria where they would watch these amazing Aquastrian races between the seahorses and the mermares. And the conflict happens when one of the seahorses gets hurts and has to be helped. And now one of the ponies has to step in in his place. So this creature right here is called a manta hawk, and that's basically just a hawk plus a manta ray put together. And that the invention. So the water, the dripping, the resting of my mind, all allowed those things to come together to get the story out of my head. And these are some of the creatures that I invented. These are star mice. That is a water weasel. Do not trust the water weasel. She looks really trustworthy and adorable but she's not. The fox fin and the crabbit, which is a crab rabbit. And those are just incidental characters I threw in. They weren't really talked about in the story but I thought it would be fun to peephole this world-- well not really peephole-- with creatures like this. What did you use for coloring those pictures? Was it pastels or? I'll go backward. So what I used-- these are just against white of paper. And I mostly used watercolor for this. And the way I used watercolor is I use opaque and transparent watercolor. Opaque meaning it's really dense, you can't see through it. And transparent watercolor, which is what we usually think about for watercolor. The other picture before that, this whole book I did, and I think I might be able to open it up in here. This is actually that story. Let me find the manta hawk. So these images are actually larger than this. I painted them larger and there's a lot more space around them so that they could do a full bleed. But these are all done with a base of watercolor, and then on top of it is opaque watercolor in the lit areas, transparent in the shadows, and a lot of the open air space is pastel. I had about six, seven months to do this book. So, the pastel moves quickly across the surface. But this is a book that had to be vibrant. It had to be colorful.

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