Cartoon Characters

This week in my town, I’m teaching my yearly cartooning class. It’s a perfect match: slow summer days and goofy drawings. But with gas prices being so high, I won’t make you drive here. I’ll share some of my ideas on how to help kids make their own cartoon character.

If you want to help your kids get started cartooning, I have a page that shows how to draw a cartoon face. In this column, let’s consider the next step: making a cartoon a character.

Many kids I meet have invented some silly cartoon guy or girl or animal. Nowadays, they have more and more of a Japanese anime feel to them. But what these budding cartoonists almost always overlook is giving their creations some personal qualities. Just because they’re drawn on paper, cartoon characters don’t have to be flat.

Great comic strips have well-defined characters. Calvin and Hobbes, Peanuts, Pogo, and more recently Bone, aren’t just drawings that talk; they’re personalities that are drawn. What makes them memorable is that, just like characters in a great film or book, you feel you know them and care about what happens to them. Will Charlie Brown ever win a baseball game? And doesn’t Calvin secretly like Susie?

s don’t think about such things, though. They just want their cartoon creations to be funny, or cool. But everything is rooted in character. Humor flows from how the hero plays off our expectations of how he’ll act. Cardboard cut-outs are seldom funny. Or, for that matter, cool.

So how does one make an interesting character? By asking questions. What is he good at? What is he not good at? What is he afraid of? Does he have a secret? What does he want most in the world? What’s his favorite saying? (Gadzooks! Don’t forget the saying!) Think about what makes him sad or happy. Who are his best friends and why?

Thinking this deeply about a cartoon figure may seem silly, but it’s fun. And it’s a very good way for kids to learn what goes into an interesting character. One more thing: learning to understand someone by asking questions is a wonderful life-skill to have.

Who knew a simple cartoon could do all that?


Bruce Van Patter

all material ©2005 Bruce Van Patter