Illustrative Character & Narrative Design


ICND / Update 6 / May 20th

I have been looking forward to this session for a while. We were visited by the School of the Art Institute of Chicago alum, cartoonist, animator, storyboarder, and friend, Ariel Chan.

She discussed her creative process in relation to the course topics (character development, environment, and narrative), gave feedback about the students' work, and shared her journey from being a kindergartner who couldn't stop drawing to a practicing artist, who supported her along the way (her parents!),  and how going to a top art school influenced her work. We ended the session with a storyboarding activity, each taking turns to finish a strip.

We have one more session to bring all that we have learned together to conclude the course. It has been great fun. 

You can view Ariel's work at


ICND / Update 5 / May 6th


When we first start drawing characters, environments, and writing stories, its easy to let it all come together intuitively, but becoming aware of narrative elements can take us where our intuition leaves off, and ensure that our character development continue to server your purposes.

If you look at all the stories written throughout history, they tend to contain similar structural elements. Becoming aware of these can help become more masterful story tellers. We looked at two diagrams of these elements. In the same way that asking "How does a character's environment serve that character?" helps us to stay on track and make intentional environment decisions, asking "How does the narrative serve the characters?" helps to stay on track and make more intentional narrative decision.

The Traditional Narrative


We examined these elements in the short film Lion Dance and the iconic 8 minute tear jerker intro to UP:

Additionally, the diagram below shows how narrative and character development can work for weekly comic strips. The main purpose of comic strips is usually to crack a jock or give a piffy quip about humanity. The overarching narrative is often not as important, but it can serve the main purpose to think about where the characters overarching narrative is heading.



There homework is to be able to tell me a story that follows the traditional narrative.
They can change it, but need to explain why.




ICND / Update 4 / April 22nd

While we were chilling in the doorway waiting for pick up, I asked my young illustrators-in-training an honest question: “Is the course what you expected it to be so far?” I was pleased that they were brave enough to give me an honest answer: “No.”

That is not a bad thing. It was interesting to hear their impressions of what the course would entail, which revolved around “how to draw cartoon characters,” as in, “start with a circle, draw the face, then the arms, etc.,” or “Here’s how to draw a fat character, a skinny one, a villain, a hero, etc.” I can see why. They have the capacity to make up wonderful stories and characters right now, but probably just lack the immediate skill how to make their ideas come to life on paper. Also, most of the illustration content marketed at grade schoolers revolves around how to draw characters. I told them I may add some more formal character drawing training to suit their interests, but as a whole, ICND isn’t that kind of course, and for good reason.

Do a quick search on “How to draw cartoon characters” and you’ll get thousands of book results. It’s honestly hard to learn from them, as all three girls agreed. I never had much use for such books either, aside from getting a few ideas here and there.

If I taught how to draw cartoon characters in that way, I feel I would be wasting their time, and the books are frankly cheaper. And, besides, most of what they will learn about how to draw characters will be from observing and practicing on their own. The big difference in ICND is that I am teaching them how to THINK, specifically how to think about how to design characters, environments, narratives, etc. I can teach them how to draw a few characters, but then what? If I teach them how to approach good character design as a whole, then they can take that and apply it to every drawing technique they may learn in the future. As the old adage goes:

              “If you give a man a fish, you feed him for a day. If you teach a man to fish, you feed him for a lifetime.”

In the meantime, on to the update:


The big question that the character’s environment has to answer is, “How does the environment serve the characters and the story?”

If you look at a lot of animation backgrounds, they were vary intentionally designed. Some with the intention of drawing the viewer into the world and style of the character, and some, as in Garfield, are meant to be as little of a distracting to the punch line as possible:


For a good example, take a look at one of my visually favorite animated series, Samurai Jack; a story sprawled over an alien landscape, covering all manner of terrains, seasons, and characters, as the noble samurai searches for his homeland and a chance to avenge his father’s death at the hands of Aku, the evil shape shifting master of darkness.

The tone of the series does get intense at times, but overall keeps a lighthearted humors tone, with a very distinct, simplified, Japanese-esc visual style. Yet, observe how that tone and narrative would be dramatically different in scope and depth if the style were changed.


There homework is to observe the style and feel (tone) of the two environments below. Then draw at least one human character that visually fits into that environment. Be prepared to explain your line and material quality :-) Click on the image to make it larger.


ICND / Update 3 / April 15th

Language \ Noun \ lan·guage \ˈlaŋ-gwij,-wij\ (2) :  a systematic means of communicating ideas or feelings by the use of conventionalized signs, sounds, gestures, or marks having understood meanings

No. We didn’t study ESL today. But, we did study the use of shape and color languages. In the same way we intentionally consider the words and sounds we put together to express ourselves, illustrators do the same with shapes and color. We can use simple words to be clear and to the point or we can use combinations to create complexity and depth, just like illustrators use shape and color to portray simplicity or depth of personality and character.


And, we discussed how changing even simple shapes can make significant
differences in how we respond to a character:

No homework.


ICND / Update 2 / April 8th

I was super impressed with the sketches the girls brought in. I hadn't even taught them anything yet!!!
We got the ball rolling with answering the question “What is Character Design?”
Namely, it’s an individual process of taking an idea of a character and bringing that character into being. The more we are aware of how to do that the more satisfied we can be with how our characters capture what the personality we're aiming for.
To do this, the students became aware of three ideas:

1) Character Shaping

Having an awareness of your character’s basic shapes will allow for consistent proportions from different angles and situations.

2) Line  Quality

Soft smooth lines will portray a different personality than sharp solid lines. Using bold lines in particular areas can draw attention.

3) Medium Quality

Using different mediums (pencils, ink, pastels, etc.) can change the personality of a character. Soft smooth coloring will portray a different personality than sharp solid coloring.


The girls were asked to draw at least one new character, intentionally using the three ideas above, and come prepared to explain how and why they used the particular line and medium qualities.


ICND / Update 1 / April 1st

Despite the usual first day wrinkles that get ironed out in time, I introduced the course and we began our first step into developing the characters, environment, and narrative of graphic novels, manga, comic strips, and the like.

To begin with Character Design, we compared the early and later works of some well-known characters, and made the point that creating a good character is a process that even the masters take time to develop:


Lastly, for this course, I give light homework, just to make the best use of class time, which is: Draw three random characters of your choice and your design. They just need to keep track of their yellow homework folders to bring next Friday. See you then.