Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Character Design


I thought a long time about what the first post on this blog would be.  I resisted my initial urge to talk about my obsession with curse word replacements (ex. #%$&@@!) and their evolution and significance in webcomic development.

You’re welcome.

Instead I started where most of us start, character design.  If you’ve ever looked into this with even the slightest bit of interest you'll have probably come across a character or model sheet of some kind or another. 
Barbarian Character Sheet - Paolo Giandoso
 Whenever I see one of these I immediately think, “I want one of those.”  As if they are products one acquires from a grocery store like laundry detergent or gum.  There are, in fact, places that you can purchase them, but you’ll also need to figure out the exchange rate for souls when you sell yours to the devil. 

The rest of us will likely be creating these pages ourselves (or, at least, the content that these pages contain).  When I first started Dreamstruck I had an experience with character design that I don’t think is that uncommon amongst beginning webcomic authors.  In short, I didn’t plan anything; I just went for it.
This should look familiar… I posted it last time too.
In a lot of ways impulsivity can be a healthy creative process, but it should by no means be the only method employed.  That’s where I went wrong.  I got really excited about making a webcomic and threw caution (and any preparation, forethought, or planning) to the wind. 

Don’t let this be your legacy.

After several months of experience in working with my webcomic the flaws of my character design surfaced like pimples on prom night; horrifying little monsters that I couldn’t ignore.  I eventually undertook a redesign which only recently (nearly a year after I began the webcomic) took effect. 

So, in an effort to help you bypass my unfortunate misstep, let’s look at some basic principles involved in character design and some resources that you can check out as you work through the process (Sidenote: The ideas expressed here are a combination of various artistic ideologies from a wide range sources filtered through my personal experiences in this field.  The contributing resources have been cited when and where they have been employed.  In brief, all the smart stuff should be linked back to the website where I found it.)

What is your Webcomic about?

Are you answering life’s big questions?  Are you interested in portraying a very specific lifestyle or culture?  Are you telling a story with a specific moral or ethical truth that is important to you?  Are you just trying to be funny?  All of these can be valid explanations for what your comic is about and all of them will leave an imprint on how your characters are portrayed.

For example, if you’re writing a dramatic webcomic about a frog that is on an epic quest to rescue a captive princess you might angle towards a more serious look (i.e. harder lines, more realistic anatomy, darker colors, etc.).  However, if this story is colored through a humorous lens (Maybe the frog is trying to rescue her to get a kiss to turn into a prince or maybe she owes him five bucks) your character modeling might be a bit more whimsical (i.e. softer and curvier lines, some anatomical license, lighter and brighter colors, etc.).
Hasty Sketch - Bill Kloppenburg
Whatever you come up with, the answer to WHAT your webcomic is about is paramount.  It will inform EVERY choice that you make in the construction and distribution of your work.  If you haven’t asked yourself this question or if you've yet to formulate an answer, sit down with a cup of coffee/tea/grog and figure it out.  

It’s important.

What type of Webcomic are you writing?

Are you writing a journal webcomic?  Are you writing a gag-a-day webcomic?  Are you writing a webcomic aimed at aspecific niche or culture?  Are you writing a faux-drama webcomic that includes references to giant toy-dogs and baby seals?

The type of webcomic you’re writing may not influence how your characters LOOK as much as how you choose to DESIGN them.  If you’re writing a journal webcomic then you’re going to be drawing your main character (i.e. yourself) a LOT.  You don’t want the design to be overly ornate and cumbersome.  In Alan Moore’s comic series Top 10 illustrator Gene Ha talks about an early character design for his character Irma “Irmageddon” Wornow.  He says that her outfit (which was a full-body battlesuit) was so complex that by the end of the first issue he dreaded any page where she appeared.  

"There are two things I really  hate drawing in this series:  King Peacock's pants and Irma Geddon.  But I really have no one to blame because I designed them.  If I get to continue...King Peacock gets new pants and Irma Geddon's weaponry will be retractable."

The type of webcomic you have created WILL impact your character design.  Learn from the mistakes of others!  Read the omens in the sky!  Create your characters so that your webcomicing experience remains fun instead of turning into a job where you detail every single hair on your fur-ball of a main character.

Design Criteria

So, you’ve decided to write your epic frog-explorer webcomic that you always dreamed of.  Where do you start?  For this section I’ve drawn my criteria of effective character design from Dresden Codak’s author Aaron Diaz (Also, his top ten list of favorite character designs linked here is an interesting and informative sampling of what has worked across the wide landscape of comics).

Silhouette – This is exactly what it sounds like.  Does the design of your character cast a unique silhouette?  Several visual specialists from a variety of fields advocate drawing your character and then filling the figure in with black to get a clear shot of the silhouette.  If the silhouette doesn’t read as unique (i.e. it looks like it could be anybody or, what’s worse, misread as another cartoonists work) then it may be time to go back to the drawing board.  That being said, there are a few notable exceptions, but they excel in every other category on this list.

Value – Value, in this context, refers to the percentage of light versus dark.  This is not necessarily color (the topic below), but more of a grayscale effect.  It was initially very difficult for me to understand this concept until I started looking at professional black and white photography.
Children at Puppet Theatre, Paris – Alfred Eisenstaedt
This photograph is an excellent example of proportional and striking value.  The richness of the coats on the two children in the center serves to balance out the lighter tones surrounding them.  Also, the roof-like structure in the back is an even balance of light and dark whereas, if it were just open sky, the brightness might distract from the rest of the picture.

But I’m making characters, not taking photographs! 

Of course you are, but the principles are the same.  If your character is a wash of dark values with little or no light values then they might not pop from the background.  If your character is a combination of lighter values with no dark then you run the risk of little visual interest.  Calvin and Hobbes are an excellent example of proportional and striking value (they are also awesome).
Calvin and Hobbes - Bill Watterson
If your webcomic is colored, the best way to check your values level is to open the finished webcomic in your coloring platform of choice (mine is Photoshop) and change all the colors to grayscale.  All the colors will be translated into their inherent value sets and you’ll be able to more clearly see what, if anything, you need to change.

Color – This is an area where personal preference and style can have a heavy influence on the final product.  However, if you’re like me and you don’t know anything about color, don’t worry.  There are resources for us to use. 
Not a new version of Twister
This is a color wheel.  If you plan on using color, learn to love it.  The general idea here is that complimentary colors (i.e. colors on OPPOSITE sides from one another) will work better together by emphasizing each other.  Red stands out against green very well and vice-versa (probably why we use them for stop lights [but don’t forget yellow!]).  Colors too close to one another on the color wheel can become muddy or visually uninteresting (similar problems to our value concerns up above).

These people are all good examples of excellent color theory at work.
If not for that orange background they would almost all be slapping you in the face with their color
This particular subject could actually stand as a blog post on its own (and maybe someday it will!), but as we have other topics to cover I will direct you to where I learned almost everything about color and value theory.  Brian McLachlan (no relation to Sarah) who is the creator of The Princess Planet has written an extensive and super helpful tutorial on color theory here.  Don’t say I never did anything for you.

Versatility – I read ‘versatility’ as a fancy way of saying ‘character construction.’  This was perhaps my biggest stumbling block on the bumpy road of character design.  When I began my webcomic I just sort of threw my characters down on the page with little regard as to their construction. 
What a sad little bunch of monsters.
The problem with that came later when I wanted Herman to dance and run and express things with his hands.  I’d never imagined that he (or I) would want to do any of those things and I hadn’t prepared the design of his character to handle any of them. 
This is what it felt and looked like.
At that point I was basically super-imposing a complex character anatomy over my original images which is like writing a forty-page paper and then looking for sources to back up what you said.  Two life lessons here:  Always find sources BEFORE you write and always design characters BEFORE you make them the focus of your webcomic.  You’ll be happier in the long run.

For an excellent explanation of character construction have a look at this section from Larry Lauria’s Toon Institute.  There’s a lot of great stuff here, so feel free to get lost.

Iconic – How the hell do you do this?  It’s a question that’s been asked, and asked, and asked.  I think the last link might be a place to start, no matter how vague it may seem.  

“Does it completely CAPTURE an event or artistic style?” 

 Maybe then it’s iconic?  I don't know.
This is iconic...right?
I’d say this ISN'T something you can necessarily expect out of yourself right from the get-go.  It’s something we should all strive for, but don’t let it cloud up your artistic pursuit.  Go for what is most effective for your story/form, not what you think would look great on a movie poster.

Other Design Considerations

In addition to the previous criteria for design there are other elements that can shape your webcomic characters.  These didn’t really fit in any of the previous sections, so I’m cramming them in here before it’s too late.

Anything Will Eisner ever said is true – You can pretty much inscribe this into a stone and install it on your front lawn (put it in-between the ceramic gnome and that creepy, orange-purplely, glass ball on a pedestal).  On this particular topic Mr. Eisner (in his book Graphic Storytelling and Visual Narrative) makes two very good points. 

1:  Let stereotypes work for you.  Stereotypes, in general, probably aren’t the most politically correct devices to access in your daily life.  However, given our (i.e. human) instinct to group people into certain roles and classes based on appearance, stereotype can assist the quick proliferation of ideas without a lengthy explanation.  I’ll let him tell it; he says it better anyway.

“In film, there is plenty of time to develop a character within an occupation.  In comics, there is little time or space.  The image or caricature must settle the matter instantly.”

If your character is a plumber you can spend two pages showing us (the audience) where he goes to work, his customer base, and a day in his life OR you can put him in a pair of overalls and slap a plunger in his hand. 
He doesn’t even need a plunger…you can just tell what he does.
It’s up to you.  There’s no shame in using a visual language in which we’re all (from society to society) conversant.  There is only shame in using a stereotype to perpetuate a negative or hurtful message.

2.  Access primal visual instincts.  This one’s pretty simple.  If you’re having trouble finding a way to visually represent a character consider using features from an animal that is traditionally associated with that character’s personality.  For example, you have a wise old man.  Maybe he takes on some characteristics of an owl.  You have a smooth-talking car salesman.  Perhaps he is reminiscent of a fox.  I would include Mr. Eisner’s illustrations here, but they are not to be found on the interent (at least by me).  I conclude that the internet (as a collective) has too much respect for his work and (like me) would encourage you to consider buying his oeuvre.

My Own Thoughts – I’m generally apprehensive to include these, but I’m going to anyway because that’s what this blog is all about. 

1: Keep it simple.  This maxim will spread throughout many of my blog posts and it is no less important here than elsewhere.  Start from a place of honesty and truth within yourself and build from there.  Whittle your character down to its basic fundamentals and use those ideas to begin the visual representation.  In some cases you’ll start simple and end with a complex product, but you’ll at least have a nuanced knowledge of the FOUNDATION of that character and that’s important.
Hellboy – Mike Mignola
Hellboy, while not being one of my all-time favorite comics, is an excellent example of simplicity.  There is an efficiency of line and function paired with a complexity in content that has drawn people into its world in droves.  Others on this list include Charlie Brown by Charles Schulz and Bone by Jeff Smith.

2: Try everything.  I didn’t discuss model sheets much past the first part of this blog entry, but there is a lot to be said.  The reason you make a model sheet is to have a visual reference for pretty much everything that you’d ever want your character to be able to do.  This is everything from standing still to doing the Macarena.  The bush I’m beating around here is try EVERYTHING.  Draw your character from every conceivable perspective.  Work out all the anatomical thing-a-ma-bobs.  Make them run, jump, collapse.  Do it all.  If it all works then you’ve got yourself a living, breathing cartoon.  Then just write a story and get famous.

3: Do what you want.  If you’re following all the rules, but you don’t like what you’re doing then what’s the point?  Take this advice like you take everything, in moderation.  Have fun.  Don’t get bogged down in rules.  Do what is effective for YOU and you’ll likely be successful and, if you’re one of the lucky few, even innovative.

Resources and Help

We all need help.  I know I sure did.  Here’s what I’ve found on the internet that’s worked for me.  Maybe it will help you too.  If it does, please share it and give credit to these great people who have provided (FOR FREE) all this amazing information.

Cloudscape – A British-Columbian comics collective that discusses all manner of comic theory while providing a venue for their own work.  This particular entry by Anise is a superior, in-depth look at some of the challenges that character design poses and some possible solutions.

Comicrazys – An interesting comic website (temporarily on hiatus…eek!) that provides pdfs of older comics to peruse at your leisure.  This site also offers pdfs of The Famous Artists Cartoon Course which (while dated and a bit sexist) is very useful.  This section entitled ‘Special Types’ is probably the closest to character design that you’ll get for this publication.

Larry’s Toon Institute – I referenced this above, but there’s a lot of stuff here, so make sure you check out all of it (or at least this on model sheets).

The 25 Expressions Challenge – This is an activity that I was not made aware of until very recently, but it appears the frenzied hordes at deviantart (being the talent laden folks that they are) have set up a bit of an obstacle course for aspiring webcomic characters.  The basic idea is to take this sheet and have your character make each of the expressions.  Just like eating your vegetables.

That’s all I got

Okay, so what do you think?  This blog is called a study in ink and not a thesis in ink because I know I don’t have all the answers.  I’m sure there are things I didn’t talk about and sources I didn’t cite (mostly because I don’t know about them).

That’s where you come in.  This blog can be satisfactory with my manic rambling, but it can be sensational with your unique input.  If you have questions, then ask them.  If you have answers, then post them below.  If you like what you see, but don’t quite agree with something then say so. 

At the end of the day we’re a community and, like I once read on Wikipedia, it takes a whole village to make a webcomic.  Let’s do it together.

Until next time, spend your time doing something inspirational.

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