Our Illustration KnowHow series continues with Claire O'Brien exploring the physicality, shape and storytelling elements of character design.

Designing characters is often instinctual, coming either from the process of sketching or observing someone interesting. In the publishing world it can start with reading the manuscript or being given a brief. There may be notes on how the character looks, or the publisher may just have faith in your own approach and style. In this article I suggest considering three important elements when designing characters: Physicality, Shape and Storytelling.

By Physicality I mean visual attributes that signal what we are looking at. Often, this draws upon tropes, for example the physicality of a human is typically that they have one head, two eyes, a nose, a mouth, two ears, hair on the head, two arms and two legs, etc. Physicality is useful for signalling an archetype of some sort - take for example one of my favourites, a witch. A witch typically has a pointy hat, cloak, a big nose and chin, green skin, etc. These visual elements are a starting point to design a character, explore the trope and move beyond it to make the character unique.

Sketches of bats made for the illustration above, looking at physical attributes.


Shape is where your aesthetics and visual design flair can be let loose. Keeping in mind the three basic shapes - square, circle and triangle - you can start by tackling the gestalt, the overall form of your character. 

Add visual interest using shape hierarchy by using a dominant (large) shape, subordinate (medium) sized shapes and an accent (small) shape. 

The Storytelling element is pretty self-explanatory. This is where you can add the action and emotion the character is experiencing by their pose and expression. 

Aim to use strong silhouettes for clarity. 

Shape has its own visual psychological language, for example circles are round, therefore suggest soft and safe, squares solid and balanced, triangles are pointy therefore dangerous. Combining shape language with storytelling can indicate an intended audience or genre. 


Claire O’Brien lectures in art by day and draws by night. She has illustrated book covers and has independently released Under Ice, a 16 page mini comic. She currently is working on a Graphic Novel retelling of a North East local legend, The Lambton Worm


Eleanor Pender is Knowhow Editor. If there's something you'd like to know how to do, send your suggestions to

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