Originally Published: January 2013
by Christina A. Tugeau
If there’s one comment I hear over and over from editors and art directors these days, it’s that “It’s all about the character.” Of course, it’s really all about the story, but buyers today feel the story is about the characters and how they react/grow/“are” within that story. The stories they are looking for now are “character driven.” So you, the artist, must find a way to show characters who are interesting, different, identifiable, unique and most often loveable. No small challenge!
An artist who recently contacted me about representation wrote, “The best thing about drawing is getting to meet the characters who are running around slamming doors inside your imagination!” I just loved that very visual comment (and asked to quote her: Alexander Smith). Let’s look at some ways illustrators might get to know their characters well and then project that knowledge into their artwork. Once you write, or read, a manuscript, those little “door slammers” might just pop up as the very characters you want to bring to life.
The key is to find out WHO, WHAT, WHERE and HOW these characters are in real life. Take a walk – literally – with them beside you, or in front of you, so you can observe WHO they are. WHAT do they look like? Glasses? Big or pint-sized? Hair color? Age? Dress style? WHERE do they live? What color are their houses and favorite pillows? Brothers? Sisters? Pets? Two parents or one? Lots of friends or only one? Country or city? Ethnic backgrounds and customs? WHAT might they want to eat if you stopped for a picnic? All these miscellaneous details make up their lives. HOW do they react to the world they are in? WHAT is their context? WHO else inhabits that world, and HOW does that emotional impact or upheaval affect them? Do they keep a box of treasures under their bed holding their favorite things? WHAT is in that box? It does not matter if all this information is in the story; you need to know these things to know your characters. Write the answers down when you return from your walk. Imagine these characters as if they were inyour life. If you believe it, so will your readers.
Once you have your new characters and their friends, family and favorites in your life, let that knowledge seep into your art. Even if it doesn’t all actually appear in the art, your characters’ true natures will emerge.
Consistency is all-important once you start drawing. You must change expressions and perspectives, zoom in and back away, but your characters must always be exactly who they are. They must always look the same, but different! The surest way to kill the book visually, no matter what style or medium you work in, is to be inconsistent in drawing your characters. Many artists do story boards to play with their characters’ movements within the flow of the story. Perhaps put some of those details you know about, but that aren’t in the actual text, into the illustrations. This makes your characters more real and the story more interesting to read, over and over again.
Christina A. Tugeau has been an illustrator’s agent for over 20 years. She’s a longtime contributor to the SCBWI Metro NY newsletter, helped write and revise the SCBWI Artist Guidelines this year, and will be on the faculty of the SCBWI Winter Conference artist intensive in February.