Posts Tagged 'character design'

Voices on the Coast Part 2

This was my first year at Voices on the Coast, where I ran several different kinds of workshops with both primary and secondary students. My favourite part of these kind of events is meeting the kids and teens, as they’re funny and inspiring and so much more clever than I was at their age. Here are some of the drawings we did together in the primary school workshops…

Squishy Speech Bubbles

In this session I talked about how I tell my stories visually. We discussed emotion, body language, facial expression and a visual storytelling method I use in Squish Rabbit: pictorial speech bubbles. In this activity I had the kids brainstorm what picture we could draw in the speech bubble to let a reader know that Squish is hungry. There were some great creative suggestions, including tacos, sushi, pancakes and guacamole. We also discussed what each food would tell us about the kind of rabbit Squish is (ie. sushi might tell us he is Japanese, or well travelled, or is quite adventurous for a small rabbit).

We then chose one food to draw together – in the above class we chose a burger and the kids suggested all kinds of things to fill it with (clearly, we had to sneak in a carrot). We then worked on making it look extra tasty so the reader would really empathise with Squish and feel his hunger – notice the smell wafting, the sesame seeds and the big bite mark.

Making Monsters

In this session I talked all about characterisation – how I create my characters, the research involved and the drawing process. I used the example of a picture book of mine called ‘Monster Music’, where I had to create a whole horde of little monsters. In coming up with the characters, I actually drew about 100 different monsters before deciding on which ones to use in the book. In order to make sure they all looked like they belonged together and ensure they weren’t too scary (the story is more playful) I ended up basing each character on an animal and then adapting it. After demonstrating this I got the class to choose an animal to base our monster on.

The above class chose a bird, so together we brainstormed a couple of features unique to birds in which we’d keep – you can see they chose a beak, wings, feathers and claws. Next comes my favourite bit – we worked together to monster-ify our bird. The kids came up with all sorts of crazy ideas to make sure our character was really monster-like (the girls often want to keep their monsters cute, but the boys are quick to add fangs and blood). And did anyone notice the bunny ears on my monster? It actually wasn’t my idea!

The kids were a blast, and I wish I could show you all the zany foods and monsters they created. Or maybe instead I’ll just borrow some of their clever ideas for my next book… mwa ha ha <evil artist laugh>.

Illustration Sunday

There seem to be two ways picture books develop for me:

  1. The story comes first: something triggers an idea for a story, so I write the first draft before setting out to design characters to fit it
  2. The character comes first: a vivid character turns up in my mind and demands to be drawn, and after a while their story becomes apparent

My little monsters are an example of the first, while Squish Rabbit is an example of the second (Squish was with me for about 2 years before his story turned up). Below are my latest sketches and another example of the latter. About a month ago I woke up with this character’s name and image firmly in the front of my mind. Even though I was desperate to draw him then and there, I didn’t. Just like with my story ideas, I’ve learnt that putting characters in my sketchbook too early can trap them on the page. If I leave them in my head for a month or so, they’ll grow and change. It gives me time to watch them gamble about; to observe how they move and interact with the world. Are they confident, shy, clumsy or zen like? Do they seek to be with others or prefer to wander alone? What do they look like from each and every angle?

Just yesterday I was finally ready to draw my new character. His name is Piggy-Wilikins, a tiny teacup pig with big ears:

His story hasn’t turned up yet, but I know it will – and I’m certain it wont take as long as Squish’s did! I’m starting to get a good sense of his personality already, and I think he may just be my very first confident protagonist (although he’s still a misfit, which seems to be developing into my trademark). Now I have him down on paper I can get back to the story I’m supposed to be working on – the storyboard of a new rabbit picture book. I’ll be posting character sketches from that project in the next few days.

Please excuse me while I hop off to dabble in some rabbity ink…

PS. Happy Valentine’s Day!

Fattening up your Characters

I don’t mean literally – no need to go putting your characters on a high carb diet – but a lovely blog reader recently asked how I develop my protagonists, and I find the process is a lot like fattening them up. When starting out you begin with just bones – the bare outline of your main character. Through time, research and writing you start to build up their flesh, and in the final stages you add quirks and traits that lay their skin down over top, leaving you with a 3D living breathing character. But how do I get there?


  • I often begin with a small kernel of knowledge about my main character. Something that’s important to them. The hint of their voice or personality. A snippet of conversation. A glimpse of how they look or how others see them. Like any story, it starts small, but you have to begin somewhere
  • Help the bones to grow: I use my natural writer’s curiosity to ask question after question. Who is this person? Why are they important to this story? What about them and their needs could drive a whole novel towards its end? Where do they come from and where will they go? The questions start out big, but become more specific as the story narrows down
  • First draft: once I know enough about my character and their story, I begin the first draft. That’s when I figure out how little I really knew…


  • I only truly begin to understand my main character once I have sat with them through an entire draft, watching the way they speak and move and react to the world. By the end of it I have a more through understanding of them, and need to go back in draft two to make sure they’re acting consistently
  • At this point I also make sure that the person I want my character to be isn’t inhibiting who they actually are. As writers we need to let them be their own person, even if they do things we would never do
  • Character profiles: before draft two I use a detailed set of questions to plumb the depths of my character’s personality, from their childhood through to their desires, strengths and weaknesses
  • Character sketches: as an illustrator I draw these myself, but others I know find magazine images of people who perfectly capture the look they’re after. This is important not only to make sure you describe your character consistently, but to ensure you’re conveying their personality through their physical appearance – how they stand, hold themselves, dress etc.


  • The skin: the nitty gritty details that make us all individual. For me these traits develop over time, after being with my character for several drafts
  • Encourage the details: I do this by imagining my character – watching them move around, putting them in various situations, wondering how they would react to something joyous or uncomfortable or during a confrontation. As I walk around day to day, I wonder how my character would react to the situations I face, or what they would do in place of characters on TV
  • Collect foibles: writers are great people watchers. I’ve always been fascinated by the quirks people around me have – the words they use, the way they speak, the ticks and mannerisms that make them unique, the walk that means you recognise them from behind. If you can give your character unique mannerisms, they’ll suddenly become very real

It’s easy to get intimidated after reading a brilliant book with characters so real you wish you knew them. But don’t feel you have to know everything about your main character before you start writing. It’s all about layering. All writers layer, adding more character details with each draft. Characters will always begin as bones, mere shadows of who they will become. I’m currently at the ‘skin’ stage of a middle-grade adventure novel, and certain minor characters are only just starting to feel real rather than stereotyped. In a few more layers it will be ready.

What techniques do others use to develop character?

Illustration Monday

For the moment I’ve vacated my mind of rabbits (a tough job) all to make way for a rather stubborn duck – the star of my latest picture book project. Although his title of ‘star’ is contentious. He may well be thrown from his throne by a character that is definitely, 100% NOT a duck. These two have been waging a little war in my head for the last few weeks, both competing for attention in their own unique ways. Duck is demanding and difficult but endearing in his own way. Not-Duck is free spirited and willful and also a little loopy. The project is still in the character design phase at this stage, but I’m almost ready to do up a storyboard. I’ve made the images below using ink, watercolour and digital collage.




Character Design

Usually, when first designing characters, I go through many drafts before I start to feel like I’m capturing their ‘essence’.  However occasionally it doesn’t take so long.  Just recently I’ve been developing some characters for a junior adventure novel I’ve written, and because the characters have been sitting in my head for so long (and developing as I wrote the first draft) when I sat down to draw them they sprung onto the page almost fully formed.  Of course, they’re likely to still change and grow as I draw them more, but I’m reasonably happy with how they’re going.

When trying to capture the essence of a character, I try to focus on their personality and think about how this would influence all the little things about them.  Such as:

  1. Their stance: do they slouch, stand up perfectly straight, bounce, balance on one leg, stand on their hands, cross their arms, hands on hips, stand with feet planted firmly on the ground?
  2. Their expression: do they smile lots, frown, scowl, constantly look a little amused, easily become agitated or bored?
  3. Their hair: is it messy, impossible to tame, neat, long, short, curly, straight?  Hair is one of the first things we notice about a person, and it strongly influences how readers assess a character’s personality
  4. Their clothes: are they neatly dressed, scruffy, wearing a perfectly matched outfit or one with competing patterns, wearing traditional or modern clothes, clothes from a specific culture or region?  The clothes people chose to wear say a lot about their personality

I’m sure I’ve missed some.  Please chime in if you have others!  Below are some of the early sketches:





About this Blog…

A blog of ramblings about the world of writing and illustrating for children, by an author / illustrator who might just have a thing for rabbits.

Katherine's picture books, 'Squish Rabbit' and 'Brave Squish Rabbit', are out with Viking (Penguin, US) and UQP (Australia). Please e-mail if you would like her to blog about something in particular.

All text & images  Katherine Battersby

Released Sept 2012:


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