Illustrating characters for stories


There is something really enjoyable about illustrating characters. Seeing a drawing come to life through your imagination offers no limits to the possibilities of what artists are capable of achieving.

The origins of illustration prior to the invention of “writing” – date back to the cave painting at Chauvet, Lascaux, and Altamira, when paleolithic artists used charcoal and ochre to illustrate what they saw around them (c.30,000-10,000 BCE). Such techniques are still used today.

Digital technology and advanced software have opened up so many possibilities of creating in a whole new way.

Here are a few examples of industries.

  • Animation
  • Gaming
  • Cartoons
  • Education
  • 3D vision
  • Virtual reality

I am an art enthusiast and I enjoy working in a variety of mediums.

The combination of traditional and digital mediums has so far offered me the most flexibility to explore more avenues of art that interests me.

It might not be the case of you. Nevertheless, I have put together a summary of my experience with illustrating characters for stories. The learning curve is steep and continues to be.

But I encourage you to start somewhere and see where it leads you.

What does illustration mean?

The word illustration means to visually portray something in order to make it clearer to understand.

Illustrating a written story is a great way of accompanying the reader into the environment that you have created. Emphasizing emotions, features, and context can help a reader to relate better to a story.

Especially true to fantasy art and imaginative worlds.

An illustration is a decoration, interpretation or visual explanation of a text, concept or process. Designed for integration in published media. Such as posters, flyers, magazines, books, teaching materials, animations, video games, and films.

The origin of the word “illustration” is from the late Middle English (in the sense ‘illumination; spiritual or intellectual enlightenment’)

Illustrating and storytelling go hand in hand

Illustrating characters cannot be possible without a story.

Sometimes a story is developed from sketches or visual ideas first.

But more often than not, illustrations are created based on an existing story.

I was fortunate enough to recently collaborate with an aspiring author to illustrate a story about dragons.

At the time we discussed this project I had no experience with drawing dragons and no prior knowledge about the main subject of the story.

Nawsheen Golam Hossen, the author of the story; was able to share with me her visual interpretation of the story. Creating a road map for us to start developing characters and landscapes.

“The Curse of Engan”

The Curse of Engan is the title of the story. Engan is a dragon who lived 8 million years ago.

As an illustrator. Detailed, short, descriptive sentences are extremely important to have, especially in the early stages of character designing.

Here are some basic illustration definitions to help you understand why and how the following tips can be useful for your project.

The Curse of Engan "Book cover"
The Curse of Engan “Book cover”

What is a story?

story is a description of imaginary people and events, which is written or told in order to entertain.

We all love a great story. Some prefer fictional others’ fantasy or true stories.

No matter what the subject is a story will allow you to briefly immerse yourself into the life or context of others.


Coming up with a good story

The making of a story requires you to have a good knowledge of the subject that you want to write about.

Being confident with the information you are providing will certainly help in building credibility in your story.

The more details you include in your descriptive writing, the easier it will be to illustrate characters in an accurate and dynamic manner.


Characters are the individuals that the story is about.

All characters should stay true to the author’s descriptions throughout the story. So that the reader can understand and relate to the characters.

Consistency in repetition is essential to building character integrity. If you have multiple characters in a story.

Consider treating each character differently.

Viewers can associate themselves easier with the story and what each character represents.


A plot is an actual story around which the entire book is based. A plot should have a very clear beginning, middle, and end.  


Location of the action – where will your story take place? Describe the environment of the story in such detail that the reader can picture the scene.


There is a problem – the plot is centered on this problem and the ways in which the characters attempt to resolve it.


Resolution is the way the action or conflict is resolved.

The challenge

Set down rules and follow them. Even if the story is fictional – you owe your reader that. Equally as important is the emotional connection – the story has to make you feel things.


How to set up a storyline that is clear for your readers.

Set in Mauritius eight million years ago, the curse of Engan tells the story and fate of a special dragon who was the best at everything, until he met one challenge that he could not overcome.

Let us take a quick look at the structure of this paragraph so we can use it for our visual inspiration.

We can already see that it has a clear definition as well as a reference to a location and time period and a geographical setting.

Contact with the main character is made and we know his name. We can also guess what to expect of the character’s role in the book.

The paragraph finishes with an open-ended comment. Leaving the reader curious. hopefully wanting to read more.

How will this introduction translate to illustrating characters?

Now that we have a basic understanding of the story we can start to make some preliminary decisions to do with the visual interpretation of this story.

The curse of Engan “Inside illustration”

Here are 5 steps for illustrating characters and landscapes based on a written story.

1. Research references that can help you with illustrating characters.

Illustrating a new character with unique qualities that suit the story requires careful analysis of detail which is not always so straight forward especially when you are working with fictional characters.

Having no previous knowledge of how to draw dragons I started researching existing and extinct creatures such as reptiles, birds, and insects to find inspiration as well as become familiar with particular traits that a dragon character may have.

Here are a few examples of my process for illustrating characters when developing ideas outside my comfort zone.

I initially thought of pairing different species together to find similarities in traits that could match. Using reptile and bird examples to test outcomes.
While looking at a general shape for the character I tried adding some external textures.
illustrations of bird wings in pencil
As I was unsure about the structure of a wing so I tried drawing the wings from large birds.
I wanted to keep a bird-like feel to the dragon so I investigated the idea of dinosaur legs and body frame.
Illustrating character features in the early development phase.
This was a trial attempt at merging a dodo into a dragon.
I tried merging wings similar to a bat with the body of a bird and the jaw of a reptile.
From the Dodo experiment, I decided to push the idea to fit the context of a dragon figure
Looking for a particular line of action I used a gesture sketch to test a few positions
Eventually, a resemblance of a character finally started to appear. This drawing became the base from which Engan started to take shape.

2. Step two is all about referring to the story to capture the same interpretation visually as read from the text.

Some of the main characteristics that need consideration during this process are:


Colors themes

Landscape settings

Time of the day

Weather conditions

General atmosphere

Digital-art-mountain illustration
This was a test to see what a close up view in a fight scene could look like.

In these last slides, I wanted to focus on finding a color pattern that could suit the story. Although this phase was very experimental there were a few elements that stayed on to become important elements in the final layout.

3. Finding consistency when illustrating characters

Step three is probably the most difficult part of the process.

This is where most of your final decisions are taken in relation to your character in addition to the general look of the story.

Your character will have to remain consistent in all your illustrations from here on. This will contribute to achieving a professional result.

The final result looked a bit like this. After playing around with a few different compositions.


The following examples depict a similar process to investigate Engan as a character flying, landing, and fighting.

Engan flying
Illustrating character landing
2 character fighting

Illustrating characters for stories is not always so straight forward.

For example, the scene in the above slide didn’t turn out to meet our initial expectations and was not used in the final draft. But it helped me to figure out a few composition issues that I was struggling with.

The slide below is a variation of the fight scene which had a better visual impact than the previous composition.

Digitally Illustrating characters in a firefight scene

4. Illustrating characters for supporting roles.

Once your main character is defined and you have a good enough idea of the composition in relation to the storyline you can start to include the supporting characters which will help build up the intensity of your illustrations to tell a more compelling story.

In this case, I did a few sketch studies to find a second dragon character as well as a turtle. Again I will not go into the details of each development but rather give you an idea of the process with a few slides.

Dragon Character number 2
Illustration of a turtle skull. This is the main food source of Engan and the other dragons.

Summary of part 1 in a 4 step process.

The first 4 steps have to do with character development and becoming familiar with the mood of the story.

If you have reached this stage in your project then your characters should start to be in line with the vision of the story.

Buy now you will have had several meetings with the author to cross-check information about different character traits. Big decisions have been taken about the landscape scenes as well as the general flow of your illustrations.

These are the building blocks for step 5. So expect that there will be changes along the way and be ready for challenging requests.

This process may require you to reconsider some initial decisions. Resulting in having to start drawings from scratch.

5. Scene selection and finding the flow of the story.

Inserting text into your illustrations allows you to determine if the context of the story is working in harmony.

In some cases. This requires adjusting the visual elements to leave room for the text without affecting the overall composition.

When you are illustrating characters for stories it is important to always keep the text in mind.

This will save you a lot of time when you get to the page layout phase.

The trick here is to look for a balance. For example in the positive and negative spaces of your page.

Keeping in mind that the negative space will eventually be filled with text which can also be referred to as a graphic element.

In step 5. The writer.

In this case, Nawsheen plays an essential role in the validation of pages. Paying careful attention to the way the text flows throughout the story.

The illustrations should serve to enhance and guide the reader to immerse themselves into the story.

For this to happen. There needs to be a balance between the number of visual pages and nonvisual pages. We played around with several variations during this process.

In some cases, the changes made a significant impact on the overall readability of the story.

The final draft is 64 pages with 18 illustrations.

Nawsheen and I are now currently investigating our options to publish and print this story.

Our aim is to release a book in 2020. I hope this information has helped you in some way. Perhaps given you some inspiration to start your own project.

Or to understand a bit more about the processes involved in creating illustrations for stories.

If you prefer writing as a creative outlet than there is no better time than today to start practicing your storytelling skills.

We encourage anyone who wishes to write a story or illustrate characters for stories to just give it a try. See what happens when you put pen to paper.

Why not let your imagination take you on an adventure by illustrating characters for stories that everyone can enjoy. Bye for now.

Sharpen your pencil | Learn to Draw | let your imagination free

Book illustration Engan

David Lagesse

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