Character and Design

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I’ve posted about the writing side of inventing characters, with comics of course the visuals are just as important, and by extension, often the world you set around them.

tothbannerIf your comics take place in the now, then you don’t have to think as hard about it, just pick locations around you. Be creative about it, look for good ideas always.

But beyond the realm of realism, there’s a lot of comics! And for the best, there’s a lot of design that goes into character, world and prop building for them too.

Part of this is down to the style you draw in. If we’re doing more realistic, or super hero characters, then we want to think about things like hair style, age, presentation and body language. Finding ways to give them distinctive traits that let us tell people apart. Think Clark Kent’s glasses vs Superman’s spit-curl. As we move towards more cartoony styles, body language gets more exaggerated, and features can become much more distorted and distinctive as well. In ALL styles, the characters silhouette and distinctive traits are what makes us recognize them fast, so it’s good to spend some real time thinking about style and visual language, nail that all down before we have to draw them hundreds of times in our comics!

Great examples are best. To start here, I’ve collected some examples of Alex Toth’s work for animation character design, because he was one of the best! Gave his designs a lot of vitality, personality, and had a knack for strong and distinctive looking characters. He was great, and prolific! And a devout life long student and researcher. A role model to many modern artists including myself.

And notable most of all for his clean distinctive sense of design, form and line. That looks effortless but a lot of planning goes into it!

I’m going to share with you here two big sets of Toth’s work to show you how it was never magic. it’s work. A lot of experimentation and exploration, either for fun or in the name of ideas he was hired to give form.

There is always a process of invention. On one side here, we have many examples of his PROFESSIONAL character and prop work in the form of fairly finished model sheets. And on the other side, samples from his personal sketchbooks. Looser, tentative in places, sketchy, thinking out loud, showing his general exploration of design and study of people. Things, planes here in particular. And compositional ideas. Note the many grids of comics like panelled doodles.

You can find even more of Toth’s mind blowing stuff here on this amazing fan maintained web gallery. I recommend many hours of considered browsing there. Toth is also famous for his no holds barred notes to aspiring artists, look those up too!


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Pretty amazing eh? I think the sketchbook work helps show how much thinking went into what he was doing. Considering and trying things out loose and fast, recording sights he saw for later use, developing the ideas about shapes and patterns we see all over his professional work.


Design is one of my favorite things to do for comics.

It means thinking a lot about imaginary people and places and getting to play with speculating about what they could look like.

For comics and animation, some of the goals are very similar. And a lot of the best advice I find personally coming from people who work in animation. First in animation and comics both, you need to be able to draw it Repeatedly. Whatever it is. So some degree of simplicity is very important. You don’t want to over do it.

We also want all the important characters props and locations to be distinctive. Designed well, and for there to be an OVERALL continuity to things that live in this world you create.

Unless the part calls explicitly for otherwise. Say a real human who appears in cool world? But otherwise, it should all feel like it belongs together.

That often means incorporating some kind of story wibe set of rules for how things will behave, design principles that inform why you are doing what you do, and what that will be. This eventually segways into World Building, but for now lets stick to characters!

Here’s a set of images generated for Wander over Yonder, created by Craig McCracken. They are part of a style guide for the show setting out the rules for it’s animators to follow.

The universal things to think about when starting are:

Personality, or Body Language? How do they stand, walk, carry themselves, express themselves? Are they restrained or exuberant? subtle or nonchalant? Casual or serious and formal?

Shape, often called, Silhouette. One way to simplify the process is to think about their 2D contour, some people even play with just trying to draw rough sketches of the characters as a literal Silhouettes to see if they can still be identified by that shape. Check out this lineup of famous cartoon silhouettes, how many can you name?

And Distinctive Details & Traits! This is everything from the style of their clothing or costume; the line of a jacket or dress. To a big nose and glasses, distinct hairstyles, tattoos and distinguishing marks! Anything and everything that will make your character stand out in a lineup!

Remember, Clark Kent is the disguise! 😉

 It’s a bigger challenge to keep a character on model for an entire comic or animated film than you probably imagine! That’s why Toth was making all those Model Sheets for animators!

There’s always more we could think about too, this is by no means meant to be an ultimate list. I like to say comics are capable of infinite complexity. But to get started these are good places to focus on, along with the who and what your character is?

FYI: ‘On Model’ means looking like themselves! In continuity. Recognizable. Model Sheets are used to maintain continuity and keep your cast ‘On Model’.

Aside!: I highly recommend you spend some time watching Will Terrell’s People Sketching series! It’s a substantial exploration of character design that anyone can learn a lot about the craft from, while also being fun.

A while back I did this fun two-part webcomic
about Tropes
, and had to design four characters for it.

Fairly realistic but slightly cartoony, I needed each to embody who they were at a glance! Here’s my character model sheet. I used it to keep them on model for the story. I think you can see how I used body language, and body shape, In part costume, to make them easy to identify at a glance?

Before that, I tried out a few different looks for the characters in my book Dream Life. The book started out as a satire of Peanuts, so at first i was thinking more cartoony…

But I ended up settling on using real people I knew, often the very same that I was drawing as caricature above. But deciding to draw the book in a more realist style, I opted to just use photos! I got them to model for sets of mugshots, and while i didn’t try to perfectly draw their likenesses in every shot, I drew an often simplified version of them and used the mug shots to help keep them on model. It worked pretty good! I even started making sheets of drawings of characters faces in panels I’d drawn them already, and added that to my model sheet sets for the work. So, you get the idea that you can go a lot of different ways with this? From more to less abstract or, cartoony.

Here’s a set of various character designs I’ve done over the years. I don’t often do full sets of head sheets, but sometimes, it’s a good idea.

brian_ralphHey, you should check out this great webcomic strip about character design by Brian Ralph. He’s got a fun take on it. Gets away from any preciousness you might be feeling.

Lots of cartoonists have shared their wisdom on this subject. Find the time to google it and consider it all!

I have some cool bits from old cartooning handbooks here for more cartoony character designs that illustrate really well characters with a lot of body language and personality, including none other than Popeye!

 Lawrence Lariar self portrait

Lawrence Lariar

They come from ‘Popeyes How to Draw Cartoons’ by Joe Musial from 1939, several are out of ‘The Know-How of Cartooning’ by Ken Hultgren from around 1946. Some are out of Lawrence Lariar’s Cartooning for Everyone. And a few come from the infamous, ‘Famous Artist Cartoon Course’!

Not only is this stuff fun to do, and read as comics, but you can build it up from made up forms and ignore a lot of realistic anatomical norms. That can be liberating for novice cartoonists still developing their life art skills. Almost everyone wants to be able to draw what they see better, but building up from some simple constructive forms and making it up from your head can be really rewarding.