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Start with Words and Ideas

Lesson 2 from: Developing Characters, Environments, and Story Boards

Mary Jane Begin

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Lesson Info

2. Start with Words and Ideas

Lesson Info

Start with Words and Ideas

So story character and development. Probably one of the biggest things that is an issue for people, is figuring out where to start and what their story is or what a character should be about. So it helps to kind of think about what could be my first idea. And to elicit characters, you need something to springboard off of, and even if you're not a writer, there's lots of ways to do that. So starting with words and ideas. So this is something that came to me after the election in 2016. I was inspired to create a character based on current events. And there was no story, there was no narrative, other than what was happening politically. And so I started to sketch out the idea for a character for the Emperor's New Clothes. This was a story that resonated with me as a child, I loved that story. It meant a lot to me. So I started to think about what a king or emperor character would look like, and connect that to a contemporary political figure. So the first thing I did was I just did some v...

ery simple sketches combining an animal with a human character. This is called anthropomorphism, and it's a common device in story telling. So the first thing that I did after I did my initial sketches, was I did the research. Once I knew I had a kind of basic idea of the face and the form, I researched the animal, the costume, the details, the crown, the clothing of a certain time period, because I wanted him to look royal and part of a certain time period. So that kind of research creates a certain authenticity. And I highly recommend that if you're going to try to put something in a particular context, doing that research is really essential. So this didn't start with a story narrative, it was just an idea, and I fleshed out the sketch based on my reference materials, and then this is the finished painting. For the finished painting, I decided that I wanted it to feel like it was from the renaissance, so I did a technique with acrylics and kind of mirrored or matched what someone would do with oils. All of this is glazes of color, acrylic color. And so that allowed me to build up the form in a way that kind of was reminiscent of those style of paintings. And so again, there was no story here, it was just a concept that I had, but it lead me later to creating a storyboard for the Emperor's New Clothes. But I'll show you that in the third segment. So another really, I think really cool example, is a project that I did with students at RISD, and basically what it is is a video game opera. I had a librettist, Cerise Jacobs, came to me and she said she'd had a Pulitzer Prize winning opera, and she said, "I want to do an opera "that looks and feels like a video game, "and has interaction with the audience, "downloading an app, so they're actually effecting "what's happening on stage. "We would have the singers in mocap suits, "and literally a screen in the center of the stage "with CG characters interacting in battle." And I was like, oh my God, they've never done anything like this. This is a whole new concept. But she came to me, because she wanted RISD students to do the visual development. And the visual development is the characters, the environments and the storyboards. So Permadeath was, the visdev is created by all of my RISD students. And the work later was passed on to Berkeley College for the CG translation, excuse me, Becker College and Berkeley School of Music for the music. And so with Permadeath, the first thing we had to do, or the students had to do, after I had done it, was read through the story. Now the story is an opera. So it was probably about eight pages long. Every student before they started the class had to read this, and read it twice, read it three times. And absorb what the material is about. And basically, these are classic Greek gods and goddesses, with a few added characters, battling onscreen throughout the whole storyline. And so the first thing they had to do was research Greek mythology. So we went to the RISD museum, they took lots of photographs of statuary and vases and all kinds of things tied to that, and they created what I call a mood board. And basically a mood board is a wall, a space, it could even be the screen of your computer, like Pinterest where you're pulling out all these pictures. It's a space where you're showing your visuals to feed your head. And I think that's a critical piece for anyone trying to invent something, is don't sit in a blank room and try to think oh, I have to come up with everything on my own. Feed your head with visual. And so we quite literally transform this whole classroom into a mood board. All the walls were covered with costume ideas, Greek statuary, all kinds of references that were historical from Greek mythology, and then the students started to rif, they started to sketch, and we got that on the walls. So this was an exercise to step into story virtually through, you have this text, but then how do we do a deep dive into the visual. And this really helped. There were probably 20 students, kinda, in the room. So the other part of this was it was collaborative. So you have all these different ideas and minds developing this single entity, which was really cool. So one of the big things we had to do was also sort of deconstruct the story. And this is just what you call a story map. And I recommend this for people who are dealing with maybe someone else's narrative, you're working with someone else's story. How do you get inside of that? If it's a long text, especially like a chapter book or a longer tale, doing a story map helps you simplify what is the story about. And so we came up with these basic themes on a whiteboard of what the story was really talking about, and what the pure, simple elements were. And this helped the students a lot kind of you know disseminate what am I talking about here? What's the story about. The next thing they did on the whiteboard was to break down all the different characters and their characteristics. And you can see here, like we know Apollo, Greek mythology, what are the associations with Apollo, fire, sun, music. Aphrodite, what is she all about, vanity, sensuality, flowers, seashells. So it's both sort of descriptions and also symbols of these characters. So with each character, this got the students drawing and every student had to get their sketchbook out and just start riffing. And when I say riffing, I mean like pure stream of consciousness. You're not focused on rigidity, you're focused on letting it flow. It's probably the most challenging thing for people but it's the most important piece to start. And every student just started taking those adjectives and adding to them. Like what is the description of this character? What are the visual associations. This was, I believe, yeah, for Aphrodite. And then how do I explore that? Page after page after page. So this was our first step in creating this visual world. Anda again, remember, this is gonna be a battle. So when you have a battle, what happens. When you're in battle, what do you need, Canna? I'd say you need weapons. Yes. You need protection. Yes, exactly. So part of the initial stage for this particular project involved both those things. What is the weaponry, what is the armor, how do they affect their weapons when they're in battle. So they couldn't just think about the character, they had to think about that, as well. So another thing that, you know, this is an exercise that I did in illustrating characters and the stories they tell, which is providing, I will call it like a prompt or a springboard to elicit story. And these are what I call shadow shapes. And basically they're just a silhouette of a potential character, but the student's job is to invent what cast that shadow or that silhouette, what is it? And now some people might look at it like this person did, like a kind of a, almost like a robot. I sometimes see this as a hat and this is as a head. So it's really dependent on how you see it. Take that and then draw it out. And so what's cool about this student's sketches, is they really thought about body gesture and motion and movement and facial expression. And they also, again, adjectives to describe who is my character. How would I describe them. It's just like when you meet a person, how would you describe their personality? That really helps get inside of this character to make them real. So one of my students took this silhouette and turned her silhouette into Beefy Joe. This is Beefy Joe here. And so she went to the next step, because it was the assignment, they had to illustrate an image, one single image, that told a story and created other characters to interact with them. She created Beefy Joe, and then Beefy Joe's mother and love interest. And so by doing that she just sketched out all these different ideas for scenes. And as soon as she started to create one character, those contrasting characters helped define Beefy Joe. So that was I think a really excellent exercise before she landed on her single, final image. And her single final image is Beefy Joe in the living room with his mom. And what I love about this, is that he's an exercise in contrast. You can, you look at these big tough arms. Obviously he loves his mother, that's very clear, and he's in his mother's house. So the pallette reflects mom's house. And it's kind of a contrast for Beefy Joe. He has these big bulky arms, but he's holding this tiny teacup. So that contrast is both humorous and also shows a kind of sensitivity. Even though Beefy Joe has some kind of, you know, he's packing heat here, he's still careful enough to hold the teacup that belongs to his mother. And they have a good relationship. So all the elements in this space, in addition to the characters and their contrast, helps define who he is, and also who she is, and builds a world in a narrative. So from one silhouette, came this. And I think that's kind of an exciting thing that you can take something that just you observe in the world, translate that to story. If you need a prompt, just look around you and find one. They're everywhere. It could be a shadow shape, something you see in the cloud or the rocks, or a person that you meet. Those are all prompts.

Class Materials

Bonus Materials with Purchase

Character Slides Artist Reference PDF
Character Slides PDF

Ratings and Reviews


I have to say, this class and the companion class were very humbling. I assume I am not like most people who would watch this class in that I have no such artistic talent. I cannot draw at all (limited to "Spike" from TED Talks), but I had no idea such thought, imagination or ideology went into creating these designs. Professor Begin has an amazing presentation style, she is clear, concise and thoughtful. The subject matter was amazing and I can only see it helping me in evaluating my own work and taking a whole new perspective on art, light and evaluation. I highly recommend this class whatever no matter your creative bent. Thank you Creative Live for hosting this wonderful speaker.

a Creativelive Student

This course is well organized, very informative and goes into great detail regarding the best way to develop character(s) and how they should relate to their environment. Mary Jane articulates her points through art fundamentals, color theory and the power of strong research - as well as her extensive experience in the creative industry. I highly recommend this course for anyone interested in advancing their career or pursuing a career in animation, game design, or children's book publishing.

Nancy Morrison

Excellent!! This is a course that I will review over and over for there are so many great bits of information extremely well explained embedded in the broad concepts of composition and detailed illustration both in her own pieces and that of constructive critiquing her student's work. MJ is an excellent teacher! I am looking forward to her other classes! Nancy

Student Work