Five Tips for Drawing Characters

Five Tips for Drawing Characters

“Sarah Bryant's whole life changed when she found out that her family has been hiding a secret from her.” The secret is bad news for earth and for its inhabitants, but Sarah Bryant is up to the challenge of saving earth in the web comic Adrastus by Liz Staley.

Staley is not only the brains behind this addictive web comic, but she’s also an expert Manga Studio artist. Her book, Mastering Manga Studio 5 covers 3D models, actions and personalizing the software for optimal creativity. We asked Staley to share some of her expertise with our audience. Read on for her five tips for drawing characters.

1.  Design the visual around the character's personality.

Is your character serious? Perky? Emo? Tough? A general rule of thumb is that it's good to be able to tell something about your character just by looking at them. (Unless, of course, the character is hiding something about themselves. If they have super-strength but are hiding it behind the facade of a nerd, for example, they probably won't go around wearing muscle shirts and flexing a lot).

Let's take a look at the following two characters, who dress similarly but are very different.


Both characters are men in suits, wearing sunglasses. The bottom one, though, is a good agent, while the top is a villain. For the serious (actually, sort of brainwashed into compliance) character, I kept his suit jacket firmly buttoned up, eyes covered at all times with his sunglasses, and his hair combed back tightly. Michael is a joker, very open and expressive. With this in mind, I designed him with his suit jacket open, unruly hair with a lot of body to it. He often looks over the top of his glasses so his eyes can be seen.

These two characters could have looked very similar, but by thinking about their personalities we can give them each a distinct look that says a lot about their individual outlooks- even though they're both essentially wearing the same exact outfit!

2.  Think about silhouette.

Quick, who are the bad guys in the above lineup? Can you tell? Just by looking at the silhouettes, can you figure out which characters are probably more outgoing and which are more withdrawn? Who's probably the softest and kindest?

The four characters on the bottom right are some of the main villains in Adrastus. I designed the right-most three with silhouette in mind. One I wanted to be unimposing- an adviser, not a fighter. The others I wanted to be imposing, striking fear and radiating “bad guy”. So I made the silhouettes spiky. King Vardi (Third in from the bottom right) also uses a lot of big shapes, to give him a lot of visual weight- it goes with his authoritarian weight. General Xantros (bottom right) is prickly, and intimidating. Nothing about his shapes says that he's a good character. 

3. Use every part of your character to act out their emotions.

Body language is so important when designing your characters. A mousy, weak character is going to stand a lot differently than a strong, outgoing one. And a character who's angry is going to have much more aggressive body language than one who's being open and honest. Be sure to use your character's entire body- face, hands, and posture- to get their mood across. You can even use their hair! Take the following drawing of Sarah Bryant, from Chapter 13 of Adrastus:

Just from looking at the body language, can you tell how she's feeling? She's drawn in, arms clutched tight and folded in on herself. Even her hair is pointing down, drawn in to her.

Now, take a look at Brent, from Chapter 12 of Adrastus in the following panel:

You can only see a small part of him, but his shock is obvious. Eyes and mouth are wide and open- and even his hair is pulling up and away from his face, adding to the shocked expression.

Watch people in life as they talk, or watch movies with the sound off and pay attention to the body language of the actors. (Make sure they're good actors!) If you need a cheat sheet for some common body language to have as a reference when writing or drawing, check out The Body Language Cheat Sheet for Writers (This pdf originally came from but the site appears to be down at the time of writing this article, so I'm offering an alternative link.)

4. Don't be afraid of straying from the safe pose.

Okay, unless you're doing a comic that's actually talking heads or strange critters that can't move, I'm talking to you. If you're doing a comic with humanoid characters and they're doing anything other than sitting in one spot, every once in awhile you'll need to switch up the poses. Not only does it add visual interest to your work, but trying out new poses can make you grow and improve as an artist.

The above panel of Sarah from Chapter 13 of Adrastus could have very simply been a straight on shot. That wouldn't have been very interesting though, so presenting her from a looking-up angle, with her fist close to the camera, increases the drama of the shot.

The above panel of Mack, from Chapter 8 of Adrastus is another example of a risky pose. The easy way to do this sequence would have been to do a black frame with the sound effect, and then show Mack knocked out on the floor. Showing the character, however, adds action and visual interest. Often when I need a pose that's from a strange angle, or something specific that I can't find a reference for on the internet, I will pose for the picture myself. Most digital cameras even have a timer system already incorporated so that you don't need another person to take the picture. Simply set the camera somewhere, set the timer, and then get in to the pose you need. A mirror near your drawing area may also help with some difficult angles and poses.

5.  Thinking about color.

This can be for your backgrounds as well as your characters themselves. Color (or even lack thereof) can be very important to your characters. Color can tell a lot about your character, actually. Think about some of the main characters in classic comics: what colors are their costumes? Usually a heroic character can be found in primary colors- red, blue, and yellow. And often villains are in secondary colors, such as purple, orange, and green. But you can play with these colors to tell a lot about your character and their personality.

Look at the colors behind Michael in these shots. As the dialog goes on, and Michael's mood falls, the colors change from vivid green to a muted blue, as his emotions drop.

You'll notice that most of the characters in Adrastus follow the primary colors scheme, with some exceptions. Michael is primarily blue and black, while Sarah is red, black, and purple- but the purple is an accent color. Now, look at the color scheme for the evil Varugo:

These muted secondary colors distinguish the villains from the heroes, and the muted nature of them tells that these are not bright, happy beings. Color can accent your design, bringing out more information about your character and ultimately aiding the story that you're telling. And don't feel bad if you're not currently a color expert- there are so many good tutorials out there about color theory, simply do a search and read up on some articles.