Art directors and agents like to see character studies – but how do you create engaging characters, how do you make readers feel with and for them? Bridget Marzo explores her characters.

I’ll start a story by doodling characters but more has to happen. Children will often draw story characters head-on, looking rigid, and at best, self-conscious. Eye direction, expression and gestures help loosen them up as I show them in school workshops. Plus a telling exchange (or avoidence) of glances between two characters can be springboard for a story idea. 

End page for Tiz and Ott’s Big Draw by Bridget Marzo (Tate Publishing)

For my book Tiz and Ott’s Big Draw, I deliberately simplified the characters for children to enjoy drawing them step by step too.

Tiz and Ott’s song, character studies for Tiz & Ott’s Big Draw

Have you noticed how when you meet young children they will often shun direct eye contact when you say hello? If instead, you focus on say their shoes - they will engage more readily. Similarly to feel engaged with a character I draw, I need an angle, to find out what interests them. How does their interest show? What engages them?

Now, what kind of character to choose? Whose hand will I want to hold as I follow them through a story? As I enjoy working in different ways, I start by looking for a visual approach that best fits the characters’ role in the story. 

Cover of Mini Racer (Bloomsbury)

And every book I have illustrated seems to have demanded something different – from Tiz and Ott who draw their way through their own story, to many cartoony characters in the rollicking chase of Mini Racer that I needed to differentiate at a glance.

from Kiss, Kiss! by Bridget Strevens Marzo & Margaret Wild (Little Hare)
...and in the more realistic Savannah setting of an earlier book Kiss, Kiss! I felt this mother and baby hippo needed a much more naturalistic touch from me.

With talk of the understandable need for diversity in children’s books, it’s easy to forget how useful animals can be for encouraging identification and empathy.   

Why is that, when they do NOT look like us? As Scott McCloud explains in Understanding Comics, the Ancient Greeks knew that animals function as masks, for us to identify and engage with. Anyone can engage with a mother and baby hippo – get ‘inside’ them - and it’s harder to engage deeply with realistically-drawn but unfamiliar humans.

Bridget’s Book of English, Bridget Marzo (Bayard France)
And animals can be as diverse as children, though I didn’t even think of these characters as animals or humans when I drew them – to me they were simply ‘children’.

‘People sketch’, prep for an unpublished project by Bridget Marzo

Ah but what about these people? I love sketching them and am fascinated by their interactions. But no one here is intended to lead us into a specific story. It’s more about the pleasure of ‘people spotting’ as in Where’s Wally.

Impro drawing by Bridget (left) and Serge Bloch (right) done on stage at the South Ken Kids Festival 2017
And yet a human face can engage us - with the right expression and simplification they too can serve as a mask for us to ‘get’ behind and feel for. I treasure this example which I sketched live in a ‘drawing duo’ alongside the great French artist-author, Serge Bloch before an audience at the South Ken Kids Festival. The characters that popped up from under our pens helped mask our own fears and forget we were on stage, as they interacted with each other in unplanned ways. In this final unfinished sketch which I was able to take away, my donkey and his boy conveyed exactly what we felt by the end.
Main Image by Bridget Marzo

Bridget (Strevens) Marzo has illustrated over 25 picture and novelty books for English, French and American publishers. The first ever SCBWI International Illustrator Coordinator, she returned to London in 2011 after decades in France. You’ll find her on Instagram @bridgimage_art and Twitter @bridgimage

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

No comments:

We love comments and really appreciate the time it takes to leave one.
Interesting and pithy reactions to a post are brilliant but we also LOVE it when people just say they've read and enjoyed.
We've made it easy to comment by losing the 'are you human?' test, which means we get a lot of spam. Fortunately, Blogger recognises these, so most, if not all, anonymous comments are deleted without reading.

Words & Pictures is the Online Magazine of SCBWI British Isles. Powered by Blogger.