Character Design

We’ve touched on the rigours of character creation before but today I want to discuss the actual design of a character. For this, I’m going to assume that you already know what rôle (yes, I’m using obscure accents in English. There’s one in my name, so I’m allowed.) the character is going to play in your comic, so today’s discussion will focus instead on what the character looks like.

Making A Good First Impression

The cover of Prog 1279 of British sci-fi comic 2000AD

This is not about the Fluffy Bunnies of Happyland

There’s a general assumption that we can tell a lot about a person by the way they look; which is why in comedy it’s always great fun to subvert this. The big, tough rottweiler in Pixar’s Up is funny because he speaks with a high-pitched voice. Nevertheless, before we can subvert the reader’s impressions, we have to be aware of what impression we are intending to create.

Let’s start with our long-suffering Captain Jawbone. He’s a grizzled veteran of the multidimensional Eldritch Wars, which should already be giving us ideas about what he looks like. He’s male, rough around the edges, and probably wearing a military uniform. Chances are he’s muscular, too. But how muscular? What is his uniform like? Is he scarred? Let’s find out.

Now we know the basics, we can start working on the character design proper. Because we know he’s a military man, some designs will fall into place very easily. The chances are he has short hair, possibly cropped on the back and sides, with a flat top. If the style of the comic is more cartoony, he may have a square cut instead, because this gives a more comic feel than the more standardised militaristic appearance.

Get The Look

An example of comedy-styled artwork, from the 'Evernights' comic

Who's betting this guy is the physical type?

Facial features will also depend on the style of the comic. If the comic has a cartoony look in general, the uniform will be less detailed – showing only what it absolutely needs to in order to keep the image from being crowded – and the character’s features will be emphasised, too: big, heroic chin; big muscles; large upper body, with comparatively spindly legs (think Garfield here). These are generalisations but overall, it says: this comic is a cartoon comic. Expect hilarity and wacky hijinks.

Alternatively, the Captain could be rendered in a realistic manner, with a detailed military uniform; well-proportioned physique (but probably still muscular – he is a kind of space marine, after all); and probably a hint of stubble on his scarred face. He’ll look grim and determined, because he’s a grim and determined kind of guy. Again, these are generalisations but when you look at a photorealistic comic of a grim, battle-scarred space marine, what do you think? I’m betting it’s not “Hey, this will be funny!”

Will He Fit In?

It’s worth noting that everything we’ve talked about above will fall flat on its face if the rest of the comic isn’t built to accommodate it. Dropping a cute, low-detail, overtly saccarine character into the middle of The Call of Cthulhu would make the character stand out like a sore thumb. Similarly, the more detailed incarnation of Captain Jawbone is not going to look right if he rolls up in Sinfest. Above everything else, the character must fit the setting.

In the end, what a character looks like comes down to two things: what the setting requires (in terms of detail level, proportionality, etc), and what message you’re trying to convey to your readers. If you’re going for a happy-go-lucky, comedy character who will have lots of fun adventures, drawing them as if they just stepped out of the pages of Tales from the Crypt will be a bad idea.

Unless that’s the joke, of course.

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