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A green lion, a pink alligator and a perplexed penguin – telling stories through character design

By Pathways

An illustrator is a visual storyteller. This is especially true when it comes to making pictures for children’s books. Illustrations help children connect with characters and enhance the emotional depth of the stories they are reading. Therefore, it’s incredibly important for an illustrator to be able to create characters that can communicate a particular story while building an emotional bond with the reader.

In January, my fellow Pathways mentees and I attended three Character Design masterclasses at Camberwell College and Nottingham Trent University aimed at guiding us to develop strong, well-rounded characters. There were many amazing lessons in each masterclass, but the biggest takeaway for me was related to the importance of building a connection with the viewer while creating a story for a character. While it is tempting to start drawing as soon as you’re asked to design a character, we were encouraged to stop and really think about the narrative we were creating. What is their personality like? How are they feeling? What are they wearing? Are they living in a particular historical period? The main issue involved thinking about how we could go beyond the text of a given story to provide more depth to the character.

I incorporated what I learned at these masterclasses while creating a series of illustrations for an Instagram-based drawing challenge. The challenge involved illustrating an animal in an unnatural colour. I chose to illustrate an alligator, a penguin and a lion.

While designing the alligator character, I thought, perhaps he has an unusual colour because he decided to paint himself pink – he has too much of a personality to be plain old’ green like the other alligators! And just like that, the character design came alive.

Pink alligator illustration by Zhi Ling Lee

With the lion, I thought that since it was Veganuary at that time, perhaps he was transitioning from yellow to green, thanks to his new plant-based diet.

Green lion illustration by Zhi Ling Lee
Green lion illustration by Zhi Ling Lee

For the penguin, instead of focusing on the story behind her unusual colour, I created a scene where she was reading an instructional manual on how to fly by tying balloons to her chair.

Penguin learning to fly illustration by Zhi Ling Lee

None of these stories was complicated but they certainly made the illustrations more interesting than they would have been had I just slapped on an unusual colour to an animal and called it a day.

To date, these three illustrations have had the most engagement from my audience on social media. What seemed like silly made-up stories for these animals made an impression and brought a moment of amusement to those who saw them, proving that a good story is pivotal in getting someone to connect with a character.

Thank you to our Pathways mentors and tutors for this useful insight into character design. I look forward to developing more characters with personalities that can engage readers, young and old!

Zhi Ling Lee is a Malaysia-born, London-based illustrator and Pathways mentee whose aesthetic is driven by her love of beautiful typography and richly-textured illustrations. She has a background in software engineering and IT, which allows her to bring a unique perspective to her creative projects wherein whimsical and playful illustrations are anchored on thoughtful concepts and solid design principles.