by James E. Lyle
James Lyle illustrates for clients as varied as Weekly Reader, Zenescope Entertainment and Todd Rundgren. See his work at JamesLyle.net.
"So, how do you come up with or create comic/cartoon characters?"
I was asked this very penetrating question recently by a young cartoonist. I had to stop and think. "How do I come up with characters?" It's been so long that I've been doing this sort of thing that I had to take a moment to remember what it was like not to know. In fact I couldn't recall not creating characters, I've been dreaming them up since I could talk.
And that's when it hit me. We all create characters all the time. "Dreaming them up" is exactly the model that you should follow. Anyone who dreams, or daydreams, is creating characters all the time. You have doubtless created characters all your life. You speak to someone you've never met on the phone, or write a penpal, or have an exchange in an online chatroom. Immediately you begin forming a mental picture of that person. And what happens if you actually meet that person? "You're not exactly like I pictured you," is as likely a response in that situation as any. Why? Because the person you made up in your head doesn't match reality.
However, in the case of creating a fictional character you won't have this problem. Your character can be anything you want it to be!
But how to make your character the sort that will strike a chord with other people? That's the real trick isn't it?
What I suggest is that you use the same approach that you would if you were asked to write a paragraph for school: Brainstorming.
You may not be familiar with this term, and so I should probably explain it. Simply put, you sit down with a pad of paper and write down all of the things you think would be interesting in a character. You might want to do this with a friend. Just write down everything you can. Set a time limit of maybe 15 minutes, or you might be there for quite a while! Write down good qualities, and bad qualities, don't judge them - just throw them out there. You might find that you want to draw some ideas if you're a visual sort. Go ahead! The idea is just to get some ideas on paper so you can play with them.
Once you have your ideas out, then you can judge them. "Is this too much like Superman?" "Am I relying too heavily on ideas from DragonBall?" That sort of question will help you narrow your focus. You might find that you want your character to be MORE like Superman or you want to use DragonBall as your launching point. But you need to decide. Sift through your ideas and find the things that really intrigue you.
You may want your characters to be more grounded in reality, or perhaps you're more interested in the fantastic. Whichever interests you, try to create a good reason for the character to do and be what you think he should be. This is called "Motivation." Batman didn't just decide to put on a bat suit and fight crime, his parents were killed in front of him before he took that step. Peter Parker's Uncle died before Peter ever thought of using his powers to help other people.
I'm pretty sure you know the way it works if you've come as far as asking, "How can I do that too?"
You can think of all sorts of gadgets and inventions that your character might have need of. Go ahead and draw them up. Use an encyclopedia to see if they're possible scientifically, or at least try to base them on an existing theory - it will give your character more believability. You might also think of clothes that your character could wear. Maybe you saw a great looking coat in a catalog that would be just the thing for your character. Gather all such materials in one place so you can keep them handy. This is called "gathering reference materials."
By this time you'll probably have had some ideas about characters for your main character to interact with. Who wants a hero who simply sits around all day talking to himself? You'll probably think of friends for your character, or enemies (sometimes you learn more about a hero from the villains he meets than the friends he keeps). You may think of characters that simply annoy your main character without actually being his enemies.
Like I said earlier, you may want to draw a lot during this process. That's great! Comics is a visual medium, so getting your character to look right is as important as getting it to sound right. But don't worry about getting every single detail down in the very first drawing. If you have a neat idea for a glove, then draw that. But keep all your ideas in one place so you can put them together later.
Again, look at real things. Looking at a real pair of gloves closely will show you how they really fit on a person. Don't be tempted to take the shortcut and say, "Well, it sort of looks like a glove," when simply looking at an actual glove will make your final drawing so much better.
I can't overstate the importance of using reference. It will make your characters more believable, and often looking at reference will give you more ideas down the line. While you're looking for a picture of that special glove you might see a suit of armor, a treadmill, or a salt shaker that will give you a new idea to incorporate in your character or the universe that your character inhabits. (I know a cartoonist who once designed an exoskeletal-suit based on an antiperspirant container!)
Once you've got an idea don't judge it as bad simply because it came from you. Certainly there are bad ideas, and you shouldn't be tempted to hurt or demean anyone with your work - but what I'm referring to is the sort of thinking that says, "That's my idea, but it's dumb. It's just like some other idea I saw earlier, and I don't want anyone to think I stole my idea from someone else." All ideas come from some earlier idea, don't beat yourself up thinking yours is no good.
Keep at it. Continue creating characters until you come up with something that really excites you. If it excites you, chances are it will excite others as well.
This may not happen overnight. It's a long process. When I was 13 I created a character that has continued to intrigue me ever since. Every so often I pull this character out of the back of my head and play with it, adjusting it little by little. Very few people have even seen this character, but whenever I'm stuck for something to draw he's always there. Each time I practice with this character I learn a little more about how to write and draw a character. My fellow artists who have seen this character have often commented about how my work with him seems to have a life of its own. I'm so familiar with that character that it's perfectly natural for me to say, " I wonder what he'd do in this situation that I'm in right now?"
Strive for that sort of familiarity with your character and you'll be on your way.
©James E. Lyle
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