Meeting Characters Through Drawing

Some of my earliest memories of creating story involve worn pencils, graphite-smudged fingers, and scrap paper.  They feature the hum of my parent’s TV, playing Rugrats or Pokemon on a loop, as I sat on purple leather couch and tried to draw the people I saw on screen. But it’s only ever been a hobby. I hunted writing classes with eagerness—I avoided drawing classes like the plague. When I was in high school, if people suggested I become an author, I would light up. If they suggested I become a visual artist, I recoiled in horror. I’ve never wanted drawing to be anything more than a hobby.

What I didn’t expect is that my drawing would adapt to my love for writing, and then strengthen it.

 And now at 23, drawing is a crucial part of my writing process. It usually goes something like this:

  • Character idea appears
  • I write a few pages about them
  • I can’t take it anymore, and I have to draw them—and that’s where the real magic happens
vivna monster
Sorry about your demon-tendril-thing…you must be having a rough day.

 When I draw a character, I forget about the pencil. I can hear their story in my head. I figure out all kinds of quirks about them—oh, this character is short, they’ve got a scar, they always wear giant clunky boots and each of those tiny details are a nugget of character info. I learn about their vanity through the clothes they wear and their skills through the kinds of weapons they carry.

okay but look at how happy the dragon is

 Sometimes, though, when I’m just freehanding to practice, a character pops up out of nowhere. I start with the face, always, and when the rest blooms around them, a character I’ve never known or thought of just…appears. And sometimes, they show up again and again and again, until I have to learn their story before I draw something new.

 This is how I met Ranka, the main character of my current manuscript, BLOODWINN.

 When Ranka first showed up, it was in a tiny portable sketchbook in one of my college English classes. I remember starting with her eyes, and wondering why they were so angry. I drew her with a cheap mechanical pencil, and she felt so real to me, realer still as I swapped pencil for pen and outlined her blurred edges with harsh black ink. The more I added—armor, lopsided hair, an axe, a strange book—the more I learned she was a girl that had surrounded herself with walls. I wanted to know why. I kept drawing and redrawing her in different clothes and body types and stances, but the anger in her eyes was always the same. It was a lonely anger. It was the anger of those who have been left behind.

baby ranka
My first drawing of Ranka. Even though she looks a lot different now, this drawing was the spark.

 I wanted to know why I could never draw this warrior girl without that anger. She had to smile sometime, right? I tried drawing people around her, but they either didn’t work, or her fury was still there—I drew a girl I later learned was her sister, and a boy she hated that would become her best friend. But Ranka was always scowling. Maybe she wasn’t a people person? I surrounded her with dragons and cats and birds—nope, still glaring.

 It wasn’t until I drew a smirking, curly-haired princess holding a vial of poison that I could draw Ranka smiling, and then, just like that, a story clicked into place: A story about an angry, hurt girl that thrives on violence and the sly princess capable of softening her sharp edges.

 I wrote a page about Ranka, and then five, and then fifty. In three weeks I had a 94,000k hot mess of a first draft about a fierce girl that used violence as a shield. She is, as my writer friend put it, kind of a “big sad cinnamon roll” on the inside and I love her. After so many years of reading—and writing—YA that shied away from female anger, it was refreshing to write a cranky girl that was quick to judge, slow to trust, and always had her fists at ready. Some of my own anger is in Ranka, and maybe that’s why she’s so cathartic for me.

 A lot has changed about Ranka. That magic book is gone, her armor is completely different, her magic is has been scrapped and reworked, and a sibling even disappeared, but she still smiles around the princess, and scowls around everyone else. Now I have 86,000 words about that her loneliness and anger and loss—and learning to let go of it.

Even now as I draw her, it feels like she’s hiding something from. As if I still haven’t earned all of her story.

 Maybe it’ll come out through a drawing.

 If you’d like to see more of my ridiculous doodles, I often post them on my twitter and my Instagram

4 thoughts on “Meeting Characters Through Drawing

  1. Love the doodles. Sorry if I missed this, but do you have plans to include them with your writing? Perhaps as chapter headers?


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