Illustrator Boot Camp 2013: Character Building With Rachael Cole

Originally Posted: September 2013

by Kristy Caldwell

Every story has characters, but not every story is character-driven. Illustrators should know that a character who is “just there to drive the plot along” will not be the focal point of the book, explained Rachael Cole, art director at Schwartz and Wade Books. When characters drive the experience the audience will “get to know who they really are.”

Development of a convincing character is a monumental undertaking because it requires unwavering attention to many details as well as to the bigger picture. Cole offered tools to encourage illustrators to keep the focus on character.

1. Signals

“Signals quickly give us information about the character from page to page” in ways the reader absorbs without effort. Is all of the action happening on the same day? Is the character wearing the same clothes throughout? Signals answer questions the reader shouldn’t have to ask.

Recommended: The Beginner’s Guide to Running Away from Homeby Jennifer Huget and Red Nose Studio

2. Being Appealing

It may seem like a no-brainer to design a loveable character without gore or threatening postures, but Cole noted that it’s easy to get caught up in details that don’t reinforce personality. She pointed out that an illustrator’s job “is to develop tools to help people feel what we want them to feel.”

Recommended: Who Pushed Humpty Dumpty? And Other Notorious Nursery Tale Mysteries by David Levinthal and John Nichols

3. Being Accessible

Accessibility is a natural result of effectively communicating the intention of the story, not of trying to tweak the style of the illustrations to what the market wants. Quirky, less-commercial books have the potential to connect with readers on an intimate level. Cole stressed, “Do the work that feels true to you.”

Recommended: The Mighty Lalouche by Matthew Olshan and Sophie Blackall

4. Consistency

Consistency is key to creating suspension of disbelief. Without consistency, the details betray the story. Readers rely on visual cues to reinforce whether a story is taking place in a magical world with its own set of rules or a historically important setting, and if the rules suddenly change, then the world is compromised. If a character grows horns or even just three inches taller, the story has to reflect that.

Recommended: You’ve Never Heard of Willie Mays?! by Jonah Winter and Terry Widener

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Kristy Caldwell lives in one of New York’s chattiest neighborhoods and makes visual stories for children and adults. See her work at kristycaldwell.com.

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