Manga From Scratch 2: Character Design

Manga From Scratch 2: Character Design

Some people start with a plot and write characters, then design them, other people draw character designs first and make a story to go with them. I wasn’t sure whether to do the plot tutorial or the design tutorial first for this reason, but design won over because that’s how I work personally. There’s nothing wrong with you if you prefer to write the plot and plan the characters before designing how things look, I just had to pick some kind of order!

So, character design. Some people find it more important than others. Personally, I’m crazy about character design, I love it. Some people find it comes very naturally, others find it difficult, so let’s go over the basics:

1. Don’t over-detail.
You’re designing a comic, not a video game. What’s the difference? Well, you may notice that in many 3d games, particularly RPGs, the characters have very complex designs. While it’s tempting to make designs like these you should remember one thing: You usually only have to make a character model once, maybe two or three times at most. A comic character on the other hand, you will have to draw tens, maybe hundreds of times over the course of a comic.
Obviously, the level of detail anybody can stand to draw repeatedly varies from person to person, so you need to find your level through practice. If a character is frustrating to draw and seems to take ages, they may have too complicated a design. Serialised manga in particular (like Naruto, which in Japan updates about 20 pages per week) need strong, simple designs to make the characters quick to draw. To simplify a character design, try drawing them quickly a few times without a reference. Any details you consistently forget to add or get really bored when drawing them this way are probably superflouous and you should consider their removal or at least their simplification.
Remember how in the old CLAMP ‘Rayearth’ comics, the characters spent huge amounts of the books chibified because their designs were so complex? Personally I think that’s not a great way to do things. The simpler designs they used in later works like ‘Tsubasa Reservoir’ were more effective as well as less labour intensive!

2. Give distinctive looks.
I’m talking from experience here. Try to make each character clearly different. Even if your cast are all close in age and background it’s still very possible. Giving each character distinctive eyes is a good start, hair and clothing are obviously important, but try not to rely soley on different clothing and hair stuck onto cookie-cutter characters (imagine if you drew all your characters having just walked out of the shower wearing just a towel and their hair all wet. are they still all recognisable?). Try to give people different heights and builds. Even if you’re set on the whole cast being attractive, different people are attractive in different ways. Perhaps one character is petite and elfin and cute looking, while another tall, elegant and majestic.
If you want to make an iconic, memorable character, try giving them a distinctive visual ‘hook’. If you can make a character who a person could draw a stick figure version of, and they’d be recognisable as that character, you’ve probably got an iconic design. In the Manga Shakespeare ‘Hamlet’ drawn by Sweatdrop’s Emma Vieceli, she gave Hamlet white hair with a black fringe and big white sleeves with slimline black trousers and top. This was a very simple and effective character design and is very memorable. The great thing about a character with a good visual hook is you get lots of fan art because anybody can draw them in any style and with any skill level and it’ll still be recognisable! Of course, not all designs need to be iconic. If you’re creating an everyman figure for a short comic, you may not want him to be all that memorable or stand out from the crowd. But for an ongoing series, it can really help draw in readers (and sell merchandise!) if your character can be instantly recognised.

3. Think about media.
If you’re using colour, you don’t need to worry about ‘which characters have dark hair and which have light’ because you can have light haired characters of all different colours. In black and white, however, you’ll need to think about which characters have white hair (generally anybody with white, blonde or pale hair colours) which have black (black or dark brown hair, or any other dark colour) and, if you’re using them, which characters you’ll use a tone on their hair (for mid-tones).
For pure, toneless black and white, you ideally want each character to have clearly defined areas of light and dark on them. For colour, you’ll need to think about their design in a different way, based on which colours look good together. With tones, try not to have more than one pattern on their clothing. Stripy shirts and checked trousers together will make your eyes spin! Also, don’t make everything grey when you’re using tones. Using lots of close mid greys just makes characters dull. Try to use some strong areas of light and dark, since contrast is eye-catching. Remember with black and white that colours which can be rendered as black aren’t just black, brown and grey, but any dark colour. You may notice that in Naruto, Sasuke’s blue shirt becomes black, as does Sakura’s Red tunic. It’s all about how dark the colour is in comparison with the colours it’s put with, not how dark it is in general.

4. Context!
If your comic is set in medieval times, and you want to keep consistent with the technology, don’t have characters with zips on their clothing! Zips, though relatively simple, require mechanical assembly, so though in a fantasy you could say they were invented before somebody in our time thought them up, at least consider that to make a zip, you need some sort of machinery.
Try to think about levels of technology and types of culture in your setting. Do your research, think about fabrics, particularly about how a character puts on and takes off their clothing. This may seem annoying, but actually can lead to really interesting bits of design, like a row of buttons on a glove to show how it fastens may become a cute detail!
Characters in a cold climate should dress for cold weather. Always consider practicalities, as these help immerse the reader. Cultural details can give visual clues about a character, tartan, for example, is not only associated with Scotland, but with Punk music and culture, pigtails and blonde hair tend to make people think of northern europe and also innocence, since often children of north european descent have lighter hair than adults, bottle blonde however, can have very different connotations to natural blonde! Even something like a box of pocky poking out of a non-Japanese character’s bag could perhaps indicate they’re an otaku! Consider what you’re trying to tell the reader about a character. If you see somebody wearing a baseball cap and branded tracksuit and bling jewellery, you know they’re probably a chav, and if you draw a character dressed like that, the reader will likely also identify them as such.
If you have trouble coming up with clothes and hairstyles, break out the books and magazines! History books are great, as are fashion magazines . Plus there’s always the internet.

So, to sum up, a good character design should be simple, communicate information about the character’s background and personality and clearly differentiate them from the rest of the cast, and should be rendered in a way that makes best use of the medium you’re using to create the comic. Not so hard, right?

Give it a go! If you have any problems or suggestions or want to show us a design your proud of, why not post on our forums!
Have fun and good luck!

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