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Approaching Character Design for Comics
There are multiple approaches to character design, and which approach you use is up to you, and the needs of your comic.
For other methods of approaching character design, please check out my Outside References section.
My core goals when designing characters:
- Represent a diverse cast without perpetuating stereotypes
- Design relatable characters inspired by people I've encountered
- Design clothes that are practical and suit the character
- Feature women and girls positively and prominently
Designing Characters in Batch:
Useful for shorter works, or to establish a main cast.
Momotaro- Black and White
Designing historical characters based on information gathered on site (Tokyo, Edo-Tokyo Museum, photos and sketches) during the Japan Trip.
Critical Missy- Inkwash Grayscale
For Critical Missy, I needed to design two groups of characters- the fantasy themed DnD characters (a mage- Missy, based off magical girls, a half orc barbarian, and an elf archer), and four humans.
Designing Characters or Appearance by Chapter:
Useful for longer works that require multiple outfit changes, larger casts, or characters that evolve over time.
Even before Chapter 1 began, Kara as a character saw significant evolution. Early versions saw her older, and taller- a teenage Lilliputian, but my thesis research showed a need for independent, younger female protagonists. I decided to have her a little younger than originally planned, at 11 years old.
7" Kara- Color
For chapters that show a montage, cover several days, or require a costume change, I research and design the chapter's outfits ahead of time. Here are a selection of the outfits used for Chapter 6.
Chapter Seven not only covers three characters, but features a montage where Kara models a variety of doll clothes inspired by Barbie clothes throughout the decades. This required some research beforehand, and I found it handy to start a Pinterest board dedicated to the chapter.
My goal is to depict Kara as a well dressed, but actively little kid. While I do often put her in dresses for promotional art, the majority of her chapter outfits feature shorts or pantaloons, as they're more practical for a small person exploring the huge outside world. I wanted Kara to represent the notion that femininity can be practical and can cover a spectrum even in a single person, rather than conventional treatments in comics, which tends to either only present the most practical, tom-boyish outfits, or overtly feminine, covered in frills, impractical ensembles.
Designing Characters En Masse:
Good for time crunches, large casts, short comics
Knight School- Color
Since I had so many knights to design, I decided to represent as many personalities and nationalities as possible. Although their names are all traditionally Germanic, Viveca, Adair, Cerdic, and Lenna are all African, Magnilda is German, Halfrida is Korean, Philiberta Irish, Karlotta and Bethilda are Indian, Minetta is Hispanic, Selma is English, and Uta is Chinese. The girls are also a range of ages, from five to seventeen.
Transition to Color:
This was an opportunity for me to embrace diversity and showcase a variety of girls who all embody what it means to be a knight by the chivalric definition. I would have loved more space to explore their personalities, but early contributors to 1001 Knights were asked to up their knight count and lower their page count (a bit cruel if you were submitting a comic)
More on Knight School
Cicada Summer- Black and White
Using tracing paper to design a large family
Inexpensive tracing paper, torn to size
Each branch of the extended family is color coded with lead.
When designing characters, I begin with fairly basic shapes. The torso is blocked in with rectangles or hourglasses.
From there, I begin to build out the skeleton. An egg shape for the rib cage, a rectangle for the pelvic box, sticks to determine the gesture of the arms, cylindars for arms, legs, and neck.
Only after the basic form is fleshed out do I begin worrying about clothing design. For this comic, which is set in Picayune, Mississippi in midsummer, everyone needed to be dressed practically.
For such a large cast, it's helpful to have a baseline of comparison. In this case, it's the main character, a 13 year old girl.
She was sketched directly in my sketchbook, and when designing other characters, I tape the tracing paper on top.
And use this for size reference, rather than relying on measurements and hashmarks.
The crawfish boil pitch chapter from Cicada Summer requires me to design and draw 20 total characters from four different (but related) families.
Although I'm drawing my own family, there aren't photos from the time period, so I'm having to rely heavily on memory. Photos would make this much easier- so if you have photo reference, use it!
Tips for designing large casts, or casts that are related by blood/marriage
- Baseline height is set off the main character.
- Familial relation is designated by lead color.
Tips and Tricks:
- Design ahead, and make sure your designs are clear enough for you to read later.
- Collect reference ahead of time- this will make designing quicker
- To speed up the process, pick a stock pose that shows all important features of character and use it when designing all characters.
- Consider using a doll or a base for quick character designs
If you enjoyed this sample of 7" Kara pages, you're in luck! 7" Kara has recently launched as a webcomic!