I posted a while back about my dismay at having broken “the 180-degree rule”, and some folks expressed unfamiliarity with it, at least as it applies to comics, so to explain, here’s how I screwed up plus one possible way to fix it.
(This is from Page 1 of Whisper Grass; I know I said I wouldn’t post any more art from that here, but Page 1 is just an inked version of this.)
Picture 1: The original art. You can tell I realized my error right before I started inking TJ’s hands, haha. Now, this change in angles is spatially, physically correct (as shown in Picture 3), but when rendered on the page it makes for a jarring switch that can throw the reader out of the story. (The angle-switch in the sketched version in the main comic is the same, and is still kind of jarring, but the characters’ sizes relative to each other are much closer, which makes the change less dramatic. I still shouldn’t have done that, though.)
Picture 2: Just showing where the word balloons would go in the old art.
Picture 3: A diagram of the room layout and the position of each character. On the left is the camera position in the old art. On the right are a couple of possible solutions. There are way, way more possibilities than these two, but since this is a pretty sedate scene, I’m keeping the camera at waist/chest height, which limits my choices. If this were a dramatic action scene, I could have gone low angle, high angle, whatever.
(I’ve found that it’s tremendously helpful to sketch “staging diagrams” before thumbnailing an indoor scene. Just an overhead view of the space, noting the position of each character, furniture, etc. Helps me move the “camera” around in my mind and decide which views to draw.)
Picture 4: A rough layout of the new panel. Still spatially correct, but keeps TJ and Amal in the same left-right arrangement as the panel before it. The balloon flow is both better and worse now — better in that the reader’s eye can just flow down from balloon 3 into balloon 4; worse in that TJ’s facial expression and open mouth register a split-second before his dialogue, forcing the reader’s eye back up and to the left a bit. His line in that balloon is just “I know, right?”, so I figure it’s unimportant enough to let it slide this time.
(I’m also gonna fix the proportions of the room in photoshop because good lord they are in a hotel room, not a convention hall)
Anyway, hope this makes sense and can help somebody!
I mentioned before some of my favorite character designs in the world of comics and have been meaning to tackle this subject again. I came to realize, however, that “character design” is itself a fairly massive subject, and that it would be best to break the topic down into separate installments. Today, true believers, we’re going to talk about outfits and costumes, which are often a pivotal part of a character’s design.
3 Essential Questions
Clothing can convey quite a bit of conscious and unconscious information to the reader, but it should never be doing 100% of the legwork. Body language, shape and overall behavior all come into play when building a character, and the trick is to figure out what clothing can do that these other elements can’t. To get started, it’s important to ask some basic questions about your character before jumping into costume design.
1) Costume Hierarchy
How often does this character appear? Is it a main character or a side one? Primary characters have more complex needs than side characters, which is to say that the more information you have about your character, the more that can be conveyed in their appearance. Additionally, the more frequent the character appears, the more versatile the design needs to be.
2) Environmental Relationship
If it’s a side character that only ever appears in one setting, for example, you need only design the outfit to fit in that environment. If they are a main character, though, chances are you’ll need the outfit to mesh with more than one setting.
3) The Naked Test
Is your character recognizable without any clothes on? Body types, especially those of the main cast, should be distinctive even without the help of any outfits. The naked form is the foundation of all character design. Before you start dressing your body, make sure it’s a body worth dressing.
Once you’ve sufficiently answered these questions, it’s time to jump into the actual design phase!
Every character, no matter how complex, should be designed around an overal unique visual shape. This theme should not repeat in any other character. This shape should be readable enough that if you were to shrink all your characters into a super-simplified cartoony state, they should still be distinguishable. Character designs follow a hierarchy: you grab the reader’s attention with the most essential information and then invite them to investigate the details. If important elements of your design are only evident in the details, then it needs to be reworked. If your character is not completely distinguishable in silhouette, it needs to be reworked. Detail should always radiate from the core theme.
Kim and Vonnie stay distinct in a few ways.
The primary difference in shape between the above two characters is one of curves versus triangles. Vonnie is very angular, and her clothing’s angles mimic the scaffolding of an art deco building to emphasize her height and posture. Kim’s outfit makes her look shorter, but jaunty. There are a lot of soft curves going on there to make her seem younger and more innocent.
What does your character do? In what way would their clothing reasonably convey how they spend their time? This is an easy question if it’s a uniformed occupation, but it certainly doesn’t stop there. A more bookish or socially inept character is often prone to mismatched clothing, while a person of a very high social status is often wearing clothing that is physically less practical than those of the working class.
How does your character move? What are their default postures and body language? A good outfit should accentuate the body movements that you deem most important. If a character stoops and hunches a lot, their clothes can augment that behavior. For example, Kim is frequently hunched over, so I tend to dress her with a hood that’s shaped to go with poor posture, as well as a repeating “arch” shape to suggest this basic form.
How much does the character wish to communicate with their clothing? Not everyone wears their personality on their sleeve, nor is everyone especially fashion-conscious. Nothing’s worse than having a cast where everyone is immaculately dressed and overdesigned. A more outgoing character might be more aware of their appearance, while a more introverted one may be less concerned. To add another layer, a character may dress a certain way to disguise something they don’t want to show to others, just as someone might act overconfidently to hide their insecurities. You can tell your audience a lot about your character through what that character chooses to display to others.
Core shapes and patterns should repeat on the outfit. The entire design should exhibit some bilateral cohesion, which is to say if you were to cut the character in half horizontally or vertically, each part should look like it belongs to the other.
As mentioned, Kim has a lot of solid colors and arch shapes which are broken up by fabric and metal seams, with very few sharp edges.
Vonnie, on the other hand, is structured almost like a building, with vertical lines and triangles that take the shape of supporting beams on the surface of her outfit. Her triangles and broad horizontal planes repeat throughout her outfit, including her glasses.
This extends to multiple costumes worn by the same character. Even if a particular character changes clothes, the core shapes should still be evident. Scott Pilgrim is a good example of this. Most of the cast change clothes frequently, but in each scene it’s generally easy to recognize the characters by the “type” of clothing they choose. The details change, but the essential shapes do not.
Color and Contrast
Different colors can imply different moods. ”Winter” colors like cooler blues and purples can suggest an introspective or reserved personality, while warmer colors like yellow or red can imply a more energetic attitude. If your character only ever interacts in one type of setting, you only have to worry about how those colors will fit in one environmental color palette. If, however, your character needs to mesh well with more than one environment (as is usually the case with protagonists), you have to make sure your character’s colors will fit with multiple settings.
Also, don’t be fooled by superhero comics: it’s generally bad form to have two dominant colors in a single costume. My personal rule of thumb is to have no more than one prime color in an outfit design, followed by a secondary and then supporting colors.
In the case of Kim’s outfit in Dark Science, the primary color is black, with the secondary being off-white. These are then supported by the muted blue and silver accents that appear in both her prosthetics and clothing. Color and value contrast is very important, especially for a main character, which is why Kim’s basic palette can be reduced to black and white without losing any essential information.
Vonnie’s outfit is more colorful, but less contrasted as a whole. Green dominates and is blocked in by a secondary, warmer black. Green is the complementary color of red, and so her clothes naturally bring attention to her hair and reddish skin tone, inherently highlighting more sexual elements than Kim (whose black outfit essentially matches her hair). White is also present, but it’s only a supporting color here.
Above all else, keep it simple. Comic characters are not pin-ups or other illustrations; you have to draw them over and over again, from various angles. If you pile on too much detail, you’ll wear yourself out slogging through all the bits every time you have to draw them.
If you follow all these rules, good costume design should create this basic pattern when presented to a reader:
- Read: Silhouettes and essential shapes should be instantly recognizable
- Inform: The costume should then tell the reader essential things about the character
- Compel: The costume should then invite the reader to learn more about the character
- Move: The costume should never impede the flow of action within the comic
If you stick to these basic guidelines, you’ll never fail. Next up on character design: bodies and faces!
I’m still in the trial-and-error phase of all of this, myself. (Conventions are still a mystery.)
The only advice I feel qualified to give is this: making a long-running comic is a job so I treat it like one. Not “treat it like a job” as in “suck all the fun out of it”, but telling this story is important to me, so I make it important in my daily life. Here’s how:
- Setting a work schedule, same as with any occupation; with start/end times, breaks, advance planning for vacations, and a buffer of completed work in case of illness. I even schedule off times. (Tuesday evenings and Saturday/Sunday early mornings.)
- Defending that schedule. My friends & family know that comic work isn’t something I can just drop on short notice or shove aside for whatever thing comes up. I generally need about 2-3 days’ advance notice for social stuff. Yes, this has fucked my social life, but I’m getting the comic done. It’s not an ideal choice, but it’s the one I made.
- I try not to get overwhelmed by the long-term scope of the project; just take it a bit at a time day by day and keep going. “500 pages left to go” is daunting as hell but “3 pages this week” is doable.
- Instead of setting the update schedule to keep up with the Joneses, I first got a feel for how long it took me to put a page together start to finish, and planned around that. (My personal formula was taking the number of pages I can feasibly complete in a week and then cutting that in half to allow for glitches.)
All the above are framed as “I/me” statements since I don’t want to give blanket advice or speak for other artists, but it’s what’s worked for TJ & Amal.
Hope this helps!
Someone on DA asked me for some help with character creation/development, and I typed up this whole monster thing about it… I thought it may help someone else out too, so after a little encouragement I thought I’d post it here. <://);;
Disclaimer that I am not a wizard on anything- still in-training. I’m sure I’m forgetting a bajazillion important points, but I hope it helps anyone looking for a little insight on the topic.
Things to think about when writing characters! ヽ(‘ ∇‘ )ノ
- They need to feel like real people that aren’t you. Pull from real life friends, enemies, acquaintances, parents, lovers… the age bracket of your inspiration doesn’t actually matter, it can help balance wise/worldy characters or naive/sheltered ones. It honestly takes a lot of patience and refinement to get good at imagining them this way. This helps me stay aware of stuff they wouldn’t or would do…. It helps avoid the stereotypes or archetypes or overly exaggerated emotions seen in cartoons- and also keeps them from falling flat and boring generic. (preppy hyper, snooty/snob, depressing goth, etc- DISCLAIMER this is not always a bad thing. Archetypes are not bad unless you don’t give them anything else to live off of.)
- The other thing I do is the exact opposite- you gotta walk in their shoes, pretend you’re in their situation. This is really important because you relate to their struggle- But the thing is, what they do, based on their personality, may not always be what you AGREE with. This is important! This is what makes them different, interesting, REAL people. Their choices need to frustrate you sometimes— as a friend, or a parental creator of sorts. They can’t always share the same values you do.
- Another thing, I mentioned archetypes earlier- it’s essentially a “type” of character (ex: preppy, princess, bad boy, jock), but not a stereotype, which is when it becomes oversimplified and based on assumptions/first impressions for a group of people (ex: punks all being druggie rebels, jocks all stupid meat heads)
These are really fun, honestly. Archetypes AND stereotypes alike are fun building blocks because you take them as foundations and turn them into something unique with the other parts you build into it. Character creation is like a huge customization process.
What if that jock is actually damned smart? What if they’re a romantic? What if they’re actually pretty shy? What if that preppy girl actually has self esteem issues? What if she’s lonely but lashes out to hide it? What if she’s struggling or super well in school?
- When you look at a person you have judgements of them. But do you really know who they are or what kind of life they have? The possibilities are endless, and so no person is a cookie cutter stereotype. This also will make you a less judgmental person so I highly encourage playing “what if this person…” games with yourself when you see them.
It all sounds sort of complicated to weave together, but they’re all very simple building blocks that become more complex as you grow the character, like a tree.
Sometimes the traits we give OCs stress “opposite of the expected” but it doesn’t have to be. There’s nothing wrong with “expected” qualities. Which reminds me! It’s totally okay to start with groundwork for a character that changes later on as they grow! There’s honestly no real WRONG way to figure out a character- no wrong order or direction. It’s just a matter of learning how to keep things balanced within them.
Also, blatantly disregard that “mary sue” junk you may hear about- that’s some internalized misogyny at work, because women can’t be successful/attractive/well-liked/confident/kind at the same time without being judged and scrutinized, whereas the same qualities on a guy make him Hero material AND the ideal love interest.
I know kids do this a lot with ocs, but damn let them have their fun for now. We have ALL been there, making overpowered self-inserts, and eventually we grew out of it and learned we could do it in a more fair, refined way. It’s good to learn that flaws are not bad, they are the spice of life— and being completely unlucky is no fun forever, either. There’s no need to tear them down and be the wiser bully on the playground when they’re just having fun.
I ultimately stress balance. No one is perfect, and there will always be something troubling, driving, or inspiring a character to grow. The only thing to watch out for is any character having NO flaws/NO enemies or ALL THE flaws/enemies, etc. Once you stop trying to grow a character, they’ll stagnate and fall into repetition.. which is usually when I realize it’s time to revamp, revisit, or refine them.
I hope it helps someone!