Character design/rendering: an example

While I’ve posted before about the benefits of visual character design upon writing–even quick sketches and color palettes can help you in often surprising ways–I haven’t yet shared how I actually put a portrait together from start to finish.

So, in case my process might be useful to someone, here it is, step by step.

Step #1: World-building

Some authors start with their characters and build a world around them.  Others create plot points and then design characters who will be able to move between them.  And while both of those methods are totally valid, and I’ve used them on the fly in the process of writing, my major tendency is to build the world first and then populate it.

World building allows me to create all the geographies, economics, beliefs, histories, etc., that will set parameters for how my characters are to appear, interact, and progress.  And it helps me to pin-point which aspects of the world hinged on character actions, which in turn helps me to design the movers and shakers, the engineers and educators, and the objectors.

For instance–I determined that Atlantian history went through three major phases, and that one of the watershed moments involved the withdrawal of magic-users from the human world sometime during the transition from Medieval world views to Early Modern. So, I needed a suitable character to be the catalyst for this withdrawal.

I considered characters of my own creation, as well as historical figures who could be spun into energists, and in the end I settled on Joan of Arc.

Joan of Arc works because she has enough supernatural myth around her to paint her as an energist, she’s right in the time period I need, and she meets a (supposed*) end gruesome enough to scare the seemingly immortal energists out of their complacency toward humans, spurring them into a separation between worlds.

[*In my book the energists rescue her from the fire, but not before she’s damaged enough to serve as a hotly-contested, cautionary tale for energist/human interaction.]

Once I decided on Joan, I started toying with her story line and tweaking my world to accommodate its increasing specific history (one of those instances where the character helps build the world.)  And I started compiling my research.

Step #2: Collect components

I’ve already mentioned that I look to history for inspiration.  This is partially because I am a historian, and I have lots of class notes and textbooks on hand. But it’s also because history is chalk full of narratives that are just as fantastic as anything we can make up.  If you’re looking for character inspiration, I highly suggest you just fall down a wikipedia rabbit hole and see what you find.

But what about when you know who your character is, and you’re having trouble perceiving them?  When you need visual recognition of the person you’re creating?

For that, I go to the following indefatigable sources:

  • Pinterest, dear god, Pinterest.  Each of my characters has their own Pinterest board, riddled with clothes, era-specific settings or personal possessions, jewlery, etc.  You can find Joan’s particular board here, if you’re interested.
  • Magazines.  I have a subscription to GQ and Vanity Fair, primarily so I can tear them apart in search of fashion looks, poses, faces, hairstyles.
  • TV. It’s the golden age of TV, y’all, so don’t be afraid to turn to Netflix and Hulu for unique shows with unique characters.  And don’t be afraid to screen cap the things that inspire you.
  • Life.  Take pictures, make notes, be observant.  And get to know your character through embodiment. What about your day would they have enjoyed? Hated? What was their body language as they reacted to it? What choices would they have made differently and why? Etc.

Step #3: Narrow components

Artistic research is ridiculously fun, and it’s a good idea to let it explode outward to start.  But after the enthusiasm begins to wane, reinvigorate your design by narrowing your options.  Rule out the things that you know now won’t work.  Rule out the things that feel cliche, or that feel self-indulgent.  And start thinking seriously about how you’re going to render them into a piece of art.

For me, that involves selecting maybe two or three faces with features I’d like to include, maybe four or five pieces of clothing that would work in combination, and a pose that suits their body-language.

[You might not need this last one if you’re a trained artist, but for me? I need something to look at while I’m drawing so the anatomy doesn’t come out totally skewed.]

Here’s some of what I set aside for Joan:


And in addition to that, I googled pictures of boots, chest plates, and eye-patches.

Step #4: Make a quick sketch

Lob the components together into a quick sketch to make sure that they’re going to work:


Step #5: Draw!

There are probably a million different ways to start a picture, and you should start where you want to.

But for me, the easiest place to start is with an outline of the fully-dressed body.  I make sure that I get the shoulders right, because the rest of the body falls into place under that, and then I draw the upper and forearms, to make sure my proportions won’t be off as I fill in the details.

After that, I go back in and decorate the clothing and draw the face.  I do not shade–that’s for the colored pencils.

Here’s the finished black and white sketch with details–I got all excited and forgot to take a picture of it in progress…sorry:


Step #6: Make your color palette and fill ‘er in

Before I add the color to the actual portrait, I experiment with color combinations and textures off to the side:


And then I add my chosen shades and textures to the portrait:


Step #7: Let it sit overnight

I always let my portraits sit overnight before tucking them away into folders, because I often change my mind about small details.  With Joan, I just went back and added a few undertones to her hair. But on other portraits, I’ve entirely redrawn faces (hence why I leave them primarily without color) or added extra layers of hue to clothing to deepen the effect.

Step #8: Keep it?

Seven or eight times out of ten, I’m really happy with what I’ve come up with–the research helps with that.  But a good handful of times, I’ve completed a portrait that was a bit more experimental, stood back to look at it, and thought…nope.

In those cases, you need an extra step.

Step #9: Learn from your cases of mistaken identity

Take Riversdale for instance:


It’s a perfectly fine portrait, but when I stood back and looked at it, he just seemed washed out and wrong somehow.  I had fashioned him as a scribe to the court of King Richard the Lionhearted and sent him on a crusade…

…when really he’d been waiting for the crusades to arrive.

I mean, he’s an ancient sprite who went to Earth (before Joan’s time) to learn about poetry from the most advanced civilizations around.  Why the hell would he be traipsing around after the “Franks” when he could be kicking it in Syria, surrounded by Arabic and Latin texts?

And *poof* he morphed.

He changed from Riversdale “Verse” West to Ayah al-Gharb*, a highly respected sha’ir.  The blood on his stolen trophy tunic (pacifist that he is) took on a new meaning.  Rich skin tones flooded in, connected to a rich history.  And his smile seemed that much more genuine.

[*I’m going to have to check on the grammatical accuracy here. I believe this translates directly to Verse of the West, which is perfect if that’s the case.  I don’t need the name to be in actual circulation (I have another character named Shards, for instance); I just need to make sure it’s not clunky or inappropriate.  And I need to do more research on sha’ir.  But, hey, it’s a place to start!]

Lesson learned?  Portraits aren’t set in stone–let them move and change.


And that’s about it!  Let me know if you have questions about any intermediary steps I may have missed, or if you’d like to see the coloring/sketching in more photo-essay detail.

Happy drawing and designing!








Historian, novelist, musician, and imagination professional.

3 thoughts on “Character design/rendering: an example

  1. Wonderful creative process! I see a bit of Malcolm Reynolds in Joan, but I suspect that has more to do with the pop culture in my head than your influences. It’s really interesting to me how the historian in you plays such an important role in your creative writing, and marries fiction and non-fiction so well.

    • I am literally the only person in the world who hasn’t seen Firefly…but I do like steampunk captain sorts in general, and that show is definitely on my list. : )

      As for the history–I’m so glad you find that interesting! It’s both natural to me to incorporate it, and also a conscious action when I do, so it’s nice to hear that it’s working in a fluid way.

      • I’m sure you’re not the only one, but I do recommend giving it a view. It’s a favorite of mine. I think you can safely say that incorporating your historian side is working very fluidly.

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