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Bringing Characters to Life ~ 4 tips for the artsy writer

Hello friends!

Today… we’re not going to be talking about the coronavirus. I know, I’m breaking the mold. It seems like the virus is kind of the thing to talk about these days. I know it’s a very real and relevant problem, and I don’t take it lightly, but honestly… everyone else is already talking about it, and I don’t feel the need to add my voice.

Okay, now that I’ve made it clear what I’m not talking about, let’s talk about what I am going to talk about. And that is character art! This is for my fellow artsy writers… or writsy artists. (Is that a thing?… *shrugs* It is now.)

I love making character art, for other writers as well as myself. I’ve actually been doing a bit of character art lately. Some have turned out well, and some… not so well. And it’s got me thinking, What makes the ones that turn out good, good? and of course, Can I break this down into tips and write a blog post about it? (‘Cause when you’re a blogger that’s how the thought process works.)

So without further ado, here are my tips for making good character art, and infusing your drawings with life and personality.

1. Draw Real People

This is kind of a given. If you want to be able to draw fictional people, you have to be able to draw real people first. So find some reference photos, or get family members to sit for you and make some art! Drawing faces from photos and life will get the anatomy implanted in your mind, and make it easier for you to draw accurately from your imagination. I can assure you, your art will benefit from this no matter what style you prefer. 

Alright, now let’s get to the actually character drawings (aka, The Good Stuff).

2. Use Multiple Layers of Emotion

Alright, pull out your pencils and paper, ’cause it’s time to have some fun.

The first thing we’re going to decide is what your character’s outer emotion will be. I say emotion, but it could honestly be just your character sitting/standing there like, “Oh, hey!” Or maybe you’re drawing your character doing something and you just want them to look determined, or focused. That’s fine. But it’s also okay to go with something more bold and emotional like joy, snarkiness, anger, sorrow, etc. You know your character, and if you’ve drawn them before (or even pictured them in your head) it shouldn’t be too hard to come up with an outer emotion for them.

Now we’re going to go deeper and find out what their inner emotions are. This is where it gets really fun.

I’m going to go on a bit of a tangent here, but don’t worry, it will make sense in a moment. Did you know that most of the time anger is actually a secondary emotion? I recently heard this in a talk about reading body language, and I’d never though about it before, but it made so much sense. Here’s what Prof. Google says about it:

“Anger is often called a secondary emotion because we tend to resort to anger in order to protect ourselves from or cover up other vulnerable feelings. We almost always feel something else first before we get angry.”

This is what I’m talking about. Anger is the outer emotion here.

It’s pretty easy to draw an angry character. But if you want to bring out something deeper and more real you’re going to have to hint at the root emotion. Often with anger, that inner emotion will fear, sorrow, shame, or guilt.

(See what I mean? Multiple layers, people.)

Anger isn’t the only emotion this works for. Joy springs out of sadness, snarkiness is used to cover up a loneliness and hurt, sorrow and hope walk hand in hand, and the list goes on. There are exceptions to this, but often times your character’s outlook on life—whether it’s optimistic, depressed, hopeful, hostile, etc.—will often be the underlying “emotion” when they’re just sitting there looking purty, or going about in their daily activities.

Of course, adding whispers of these multiple layers is much easier said than done. How can we apply this practically?

The answer is: very subtly.

3. Subtlety is Key

Art is another form of storytelling. You wouldn’t smack your readers upside the head with a statement like this, “Jamie was quirky and funny, but really hurting inside,” (it kind of pains me just to write that) and you don’t want to do this to your viewers either.

So how to we convey something that’s barely there in a way that’s perceivable? How do we subtly hint at the underlying emotions? There are many different ways, but I’m going to give you a couple methods to start with.

The eyes tell the truth.

I think I can safely say that we’ve all seen someone smile when they’re not actually happy. And most of us have seen joy shine through an unsmiling face. And we knew what that person was truly feeling because we could see it in their eyes. It’s wild how much the eyes, even by themselves, can speak.

Play around with eye shape, eyelid shape, wrinkles round the eyes, and especially eyebrows. The slightest raise or frown of an eyebrow can allude to so many different emotions.

Body language

Posture alone can tell a lot about who your character is. Even if you’re just going for a head and shoulders piece of art. A slightly downward tilted head can show humility or that your character is hiding something, while an upward tilted head can convey arrogance or openness and confidence. A slightly turned away head with a side glance can hint at a guarded or apprehensive character. This is so much fun, and so satisfying to put into practice.

But don’t take my word for it. Play around with your own expressions and poses. When in doubt, take a look at the man (or woman) in the mirror. Honestly, a lot of my time as an artist is spent making faces at a mirror. *very professional nod*

Find out what works for you and what doesn’t. But most importantly, don’t overdo the secondary emotions. Keep them subtle.

4. Embrace Diversity and Imperfections

When I was younger, all of my character art looked pretty much the same. I only drew girls, and all of them were very white, very American looking, and very… symmetrical.

It took me a while to acknowledge the fact that not everyone is a white American girl with a symmetrical face, and even longer to embrace that fact. (‘Cause drawing guys was just so. hard.) But once I did, there was no turning back. I love people, even the fictional ones (sometimes), and I’ve realized it’s their imperfections and diversity that causes me to love them.

So embrace it. Create imperfect, diverse, and complex characters.

Well, folks, that’s it. I hope you learned something from this and that you’re inspired to make something amazing.

I hope everyone’s doing well, staying healthy and joyful, and that the-thing-I’m-not-talking-about hasn’t put a damper on your ability to create.

Until next time, remain lionhearted. 🙂

~ Chalice





20 Replies to “Bringing Characters to Life ~ 4 tips for the artsy writer”

  1. I love this … I’ve never sat down and done character drawing before, but by the way you described it it seems like even more than just drawing a person in your imagination, it’s a study of emotion and body language and many different things. I gotta try it out sometime soon! Your tips are amazing … and I *def* agree about the eyes. They say so much, sometimes even more than words can ❤
    power to the local dreamer ||-//

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you! Yes!! I couldn’t have said it any better! You should definitely try doing character art sometime. It’s so much fun! And what you said about the eyes is so true! (That’s why they’re my favorite part to draw. 🙂 )

      Liked by 1 person

      1. oh i completely agree about the eyes! ❤
        i actually have a question for you … your blog kinda inspired me to take a step further in my art and I was just wondering … how did you get from the point of an artist just drawing on her own to be taking commissions and earning money from it? it sounds like a daunting step for me and i would love to hear from your experience!
        (if you do not want to answer anything, no worries! i completely understand :))

        Liked by 1 person

      2. Ooh, that’s a question with a kind of long answer. I’ll try to keep it short though. Art has always kind of been my “thing.” My family and friends knew it and supported me, and I’m REALLY grateful for that. My first commission was actually from my Granny. 🙂 Friends would also commission me to do drawings for them every once in a while, and a lot of times I would just do drawings for free. Kind of a bad business move, haha, but it did help get my name out there. I would draw something for a friend, that friend would show it to one of their friends and then that person would ask if I could do something for them as well.
        Setting up a platform was really my big step forward. (Though, I know there are still a LOT of steps left to take.) I set up an Instagram account where I only posted my art and let people know that I was open to taking commissions and things kind of took off from there.
        That’s the shortened version of my journey anyway. I hope that answers your question. 🙂

        Liked by 2 people

      3. Wow thanks so much for responding! Oddly enough my story is super similar – I’ve always been the “art” kid in the family etc… Right now I’m prob at the stage where you were drawing things for your relatives and friends.
        Last night I was actually pondering starting an IG account … maybe I should jump forward with that! I’ve always wanted to draw as a side-hustle … it’s truly one of my favorite things to do. Your story is amazing because I’d never actually come across someone around my age who successfully starting making money off of their art!
        Your comment was so helpful, thanks a lot for getting back! :)) ❤
        power to the local dreamer ||-//


      4. No problem! I’m so glad I could help. I think it’s totally awesome that you’re pushing yourself to take the next step! 😀 (Because, well, like you said, there’s not a lot of younger people who are seriously pursuing art as a business.) So, I would encourage you to go for it and I’m praying that God blesses you along the way! 🙂

        Liked by 1 person

  2. I learned a little about the anger issue from the DVD study The Emotionally Healthy Woman. The questions we need to ask ourselves: What am I afraid of? or What am I hurt about? I thought those were very good… And I have to agree with Patience! Samples, please?!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I haven’t tried drawing people outside of a doodle style, but this post is so inspiring. I can tell how intentional you are about creating powerful art that glorifies God.

    “So embrace it. Create imperfect, diverse, and complex characters.” 🙂 I love your passion!!


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