The Artist Post 2: Character Design

With any creative work involving a narrative one of the most important aspects is the character design. This is especially true in comics for two reasons: first, not only is the character’s personality taken into account but also every part of their looks and style must also be created from scratch; second, a long running series may have many plots stretching over hundreds of chapters, so the characters must be flexible enough that they can change with the long running narrative while still remaining true to their core values and ideas. As the artist, I’m mostly going to focus on the physical design of the character, while using the character of the comic (a man by the name of Tetsuya Takeda) as an example.

I’ll first describe some basic ideas behind character design in comics. When designing a character, the main difficulty comes in making the character unique. Everything about the character’s physical characteristics must be taken into account: hair, eyes, nose, jaw line, chin, neck, height, weight, build, and other such small details that really separate  human beings from one another. But character design is more than just that, especially in comics. People carry themselves differently depending on how they see themselves and the world. As a simple example, a shy character may be drawn as a bit hunched over or closed off, to show their insecurities, while a very confident or arrogant character should have good posture and a certain openness. This also extends to facial expressions: when a character is stressed, how do they feel? Do they get angry, frustrated, and are prone to violent fits of rage? Are they calm and cool, able to stay stoic under intense pressure? Or perhaps they relish in the stress and manage to thrive. These different emotions will affect facial characteristics as well as posture and body language.

One last major thing about a character is what they wear. Clothes can tell the reader a lot about the character very quickly. Simple things like how much wealth the character has, their occupation, their view of society and how society views them can all be seen at a glance by the clothes they wear. Subtler ideas can also be inserted into clothing: an accessory that reminds the character of a loved one, a badge denoting rank, and other such details can add background to the character while making them more visually appealing. Clothes can even reveal to the reader the culture and time of the world that the character lives in; togas and olive branch crowns easily bring to mind Roman politicians arguing in city forums (even if it’s a bit of a stereotype).

The two biggest problems that comic artists face (or at least that I faced) are making the characters individually unique while keeping them rather simple. An artist wants the reader to recognize a character and their peculiarities as soon as the reader first encounters them, hence the need for the character to be unique but simple. Simple also certainly helps the artist when it comes time to draw the character; trying to draw a complex 18th century gown over and over again would simply lead to frustration and wasted time.

To illustrate these concepts I’ll use the character in the comic Skyler and I are creating. A lot of input and discussion happened between the two of us, so that I could design the character with his personality and philosophy in mind. The first draft of Tetsuya was created in December 2011. Originally, Tetsuya was supposed be a powerful soldier with a bit of a murderous edge, who enjoyed the blood rush of battle and killing. I tried to make this apparent mostly through eyes and body posture: he was upright and powerful, full of confidence, with a glint of insanity in his eyes. I borrowed a lot from the manga Bakuman in terms of general head shape and facial features, as I think the artist’s style in that manga looks awesome, and then I added a dragon tattoo to his back to symbolize his relationship with a dragon god. This draft had only pants for clothes, and his hair went through several different styles before I stayed with one, but a lot of that first draft made it into the final one: black hair, strong shoulders, a confident posture, and the general shape of his body.

The next draft kept most of it the same, but he was finally given clothes. Skyler and I had decided to go with an almost Victorian era style as the world Tetsuya inhabits, so his clothes had to reflect that. It was also decided that he was some sort of special forces officer in a cold, snowy land, so his clothes had to show that as well. After browsing through several websites with various examples of Victorian age clothing, I decided to give him a simple vest and tie, and also gave him a long trench coat for warmth. His trench coat would not be worn but draped over his shoulders (like a cloak). This idea was heavily inspired by the Studio Ghibli film Howl’s Moving Castle, and was done for a few reasons. One, it gave Tetsuya a more confident look by broadening his shoulders. Two, it changed his posture and body language ever so slightly to make him appear more mysterious and cunning. The final reason was simply because it looked pretty cool (at least in my opinion).

The third and final draft came about a month and a half before the beginning of the project. It saw the most changes because Tetsuya’s character also changed. He was still very confident and very good at what he does (being a soldier), but his personality changed slightly. He became a bit more reserved and a bit more disgusted by the world around him. I used the anime Darker than Black and its character Hei as an example for Tetsuya, as Hei had a similar world view as the new Tetsuya. Tetsuya’s face became a bit softer and longer, he became a bit thinner and taller, and most importantly his eyes looked sadder and much more tired. A few smaller details were also  finalized in this draft: his military coat was given a few patches, his hair was finally finished, and he was given a katana as a weapon.

Hopefully, people who read the comic will be able to see Tetsuya’s character not only through dialogue but also through his posture, facial expressions, and over all aura. If not then I have failed.

Over and out

-Mark

Comments

  1. I’m loving reading about this project – it’s so interesting learning about the process behind these comics and I can’t wait to hear more about how yours develops! I especially found it fascinating that a character’s posture and facial expressions can give so much information about their personality and outlook on the world and hearing about how you changed the appearance of Tetsuya as his personality changed. You mentioned that your goal is to present characters with complex emotions and themes in these comics – if you’re presenting a character whose personality or attitudes change or develop over the course of a comic, how would you show that through facial expressions, posture, or other features while still ensuring that people can easily recognize the character? Would that be difficult to do?

  2. mazuschlag says:

    It can be difficult definitely, and a character’s design should change as the character develops. But it should be a subtle change, and basic characteristics should remain more or less the same. A great example of this comes from the manga Death Note. In it the main character, Light, kills criminals in an attempt to make the world a better place. As he becomes more corrupt, his eyes change from bright and hopeful to narrow and deceptive. This changes his face from one of a naive boy with good intentions to a twisted murderer obsessed with power. Obviously this helps the reader understand the character better and may even change his or her views on Light. But that change was relatively small and subtle; his other features (nose, mouth, hair, body, etc.) stayed for the most part the same.