Character Design: Why Bother?

I was sitting in class at City College once, not taking notes – drawing instead. One of my peers looked over and asked what I was doing. I turned my book so she could see a sketch of one of my favorite main characters.

It wasn’t enough for her. “Who’s that?”

I told her and she asked, “You draw your characters? Why?”

Now it was my turn to be confused. “Why wouldn’t I?”

Writers are taught that in prose, it’s a clever tactic to leave the physical appearance of characters to readers. Give them guidelines – simple descriptors that create an image of the kind of person someone is. You could say, for example, that Rock Stout had golden hair, perfectly curled, and wide teeth that almost glistened when he smiled they were so white, and from that we’d generally get that Rock Stout was an ass – or probably an ass.

The same occurs in Fantasy writing. The simplest description in the world is “he had a chest like a barrel.” I’d almost be worried about quoting someone specifically, but this has been said in so many ways in so many stories that I believe it’s impossible to quote anyone specifically with this, and – furthermore – I’m not saying this descriptor is a bad one. The point is, we get everything we need to know from that phrase: this man drinks, laughs loudly, probably uses an axe or warhammer, probably likes wine and whores, is possibly a black smith. It’s simple – about as simple as Rock Stout’s description. Likewise, our hero can be simply described as “usually the tallest head in a room” and again, we get the idea.

The question then is, why bother doing more than this? Why devote as much time to character design and artistry for a media that barely needs it?

The answer is simple. Because I don’t want this to happen:

My... God.

This is the US cover of Robert Jordan and Brandon Sanderson’s The Gathering Storm. And, sadly, it’s probably the best cover for the series so far, or among the best.

Now, let’s see what happens when, Seamas Gallagher, who takes his time and, more importantly, cares, renders Rand Al’Thor:

Kind of totally way better.

So, what am I saying here? Is it that all fantasy writers should spend time trying to draw and design their characters? That even if they do, the artists assigned to do their cover art somehow will – or will even try to get it right? No. What I’m saying is that when War of Exiles is released, if it has a cover that looks as off base as this –

This book is not about a waterfall. It's - wait... Are those people?

– you can come back here and look at the awesome character sketches and art that I’ll have up by then until the pain stops and the tears go away. Mine and yours.

Where to Start?

I’m embarrassed to tell you exactly what hooked me into writing fantasy.

Embarrassed because, in retrospect, it’s shameful. Most writers will tell you immediately that they were turned by Tolkien, or someone very similar. While I feel such a start has it’s disadvantages, it’s definitely based in literature. And that’s good.

Because I got my start with J-RPG’s. Please, please don’t stop reading. I know, I said it and I’m sorry. I should’ve warned you. Well, warned you more. I just thought it was best to come out with it.

But it occurs to me that you may not know what “J-RPG” means and that’s great. Hold on to that. First,

Disclaimer: I’m not in any way married to the visual or narrative style of J-RPG’s. In no way is my writing just a vessel for convoluted plots that revolve around progressively larger weapons and star extremely pretty, teen characters with unfathomable hair.

That said, “J-RPG” stands for “Japanese role-playing game”, a genre of video games that’s only different from manga in two ways:

1. Manga is more often not set in fantasy worlds.

2. You can play J-RPG’s.

This poses an interesting question, I bet: How does such a start lead to a credible career as an American fantasy author? Alone, I would say it doesn’t. But following it up with plenty of sci-fi and fantasy literature creates a different perspective on things.

Yes, it is a bit embarrassing to have begun with J-RPG’s, but I often feel now that if I hadn’t, I’d be writing about orcs. The heroes in my stories would inevitably run into old mages who would send them on a 400 page long horseback journey. Not – and I stress – not that those things are terrible; dragons for example, are awesome, and someone like Brandon Sanderson can blow your mind with their approaches to magic. However, a basis in J-RPG’s can put everything on an interesting slant. Do there need to be dragons? Does there need to be that old wizard? Does my hero have to have a special power only he can pull off? But also, conversely, with tempering from American fantasy, do my characters all need unfathomable hair?

And, of course, such questions lead to more questions. Does my hero always have to win, unharmed? If my hero and his entourage win, will they be happy? Is it more believable for love to come out of nowhere or for it to, perhaps, be something my characters can – and do – miss?

The end result of all of this questioning and tempering is necessary, I think. At least it is to the kind of author I want to be. A different author, with the kind of style and visual artistry you would find in… oh… let’s say this picture.

Here, Ayami Kojima has rendered a stunning Alucard as he was in Castlevania: Symphony of the Night. Notice that he’s not simply wearing a doublet.

Now, this kind of style and a more serious, realistic tone?

Come on. You know you want it.