Thursday, February 17, 2011

Writing & Illustrating Tip/Developing Character with Leslie Helakoski

"We like this story, but we don't like the art."  I heard this comment for years. Each time I sold a picture book, I held out hope that I would be able to illustrate my own work. I knew I could draw, so what was the problem?

The problem was that good design and execution are not the same thing as good children's book illustrations. For me, the answer lay in better character development.

Just as we strive to develop strong characters when we write, we must develop them even further when we illustrate. We have to do more than show what the text is saying, we have to show something extra about the character than can be seen visually.

Authors often fill out character trait forms to get to 'know' their characters. I do the same sort of thing when I start drawing. I make many rough sketches until I start noticing specific character traits that come out as I work. Here are some questions I ask myself when I start
sketching a character:

1. How is this character different from others of his species. (What physical traits make him/her stand out? Big feet, nose size, crazy hair? Bowlegged?)
2. What does the character's stall/home look like? (Neat, messy, extravagant?)
3. What does she love/hate to eat?
4. What does she look like as he moves? (Graceful, clumsy, joyous? This can lead to showing her tripping in a scene or maybe wearing toe shoes and mooning over pictures of ballerinas)
5. What is the predominant emotion in each scene?
6. What fears/strengths does she have? (Does she shrink back from others? Tower over them? Have a nervous tick?)
7. Show attitude!
8. Will I know something personal about this character just by looking at her in this scene or is she a generic space filler?
9. Can I emphasize emotion from the way I place her on the page? If she's feeling uplifted, should I show her high up on the page? If she's feeling left out, maybe I can show her far from the others in the spread? Or,
using perspective, show her small and other characters large to emphasize how she feels?
10. Is she intentionally doing something contrary to what the text says?
11. Do I show different view points and vary the size of the characters?
12. Are there any bigger than life characters I can compare mine to, that help me amp up my character? (Is my wanna-be beauty more of a Zsa Zsa Gabor or more of a Phyllis Diller?)
13. Can I exaggerate a point or understate it?
14. Does something about my character change over the course of the story?
When I finally started developing my characters more on the drawing board, my art was picked up along with my text.

Of course, I also spent a lot of time viewing other's illustrations and learning just by absorbing--which sometimes just takes time. But I did find that as an illustrator, I have to do all the things I do as a writer.
Revise, develop strong characters, show changes, show humor and emotion. Include more information than you see at first glance. And I thought all I had to do was draw.

ABOUT LESLIE: Leslie Helakoski writes humorous picture books and sometimes (but not always) illustrates them. She lives in Michigan with her husband, three large (as opposed to small) children, and one literally small dog. Her latest book, Fair Cow, is about a dairy cow who dreams of winning blue ribbons at the state fair. She gets beauty advice from a pig but finds something is wrong with her shape, her hair, her hooves and even her walk. How can she compete?

Book trailer for Fair Cow:
Book trailer for Big Chickens:

Previous books:
Woolbur (Harper Collins, illustrated by Lee Harper) Nominated for 9 state
book awards.
Big Chickens (Dutton, illustrated by Henry Cole) Michigan Reads Award,
Great Lakes Great Books Award
Big Chickens Fly the Coop, 3 state book awards
Big Chickens Go to Town
The Smushy Bus

PERSONAL NOTE FROM LYNNE MARIE: I had known Leslie previously from an online critique group, but you can imagine what a pleasure it was to meet her in person at the Highlights Foundation Writer's Workshop at Chautauqua in 2001.  Just another example of the fabulous(!), talented(!) people you can meet at those spectacular(!) writing retreats, which you have noticed, I cannot say enough about (LOL).


  1. Oh, Big Chickens is a favorite at our house! I'll have to check out Fair Cows!

  2. I loved hearing her process! Thanks for sharing.

  3. @Corey --Woolbur is another favorite at our house <3 Check that one out, too!
    @Catherine -- I agree! This is another one of my favorite Guest Blogposts as well!

  4. Thanks so much for sharing, ladies. I love Big Chickens and Woolbur. Just ordered three copies of Wilbur today. Leslie, did you write any art notes for the Big Chickens books?

  5. You know I meant to say WOOLBUR the second time, right?

  6. No, I did not write art notes for the first Big Chickens book. Nor the second. By the time I wrote the third book, Big Chickens Go to Town, Henry and I had become good friends. I wanted the city in the book to be New Orleans (I'm from the area) and when I mentioned this to Henry he insisted on a trip to Louisiana for accuracy. We had a great time picking scene locations out and our editor from Dutton met us there too. I'm stretching here but I suppose those were kinda like art notes!

  7. Wonderful! Thanks for sharing, Leslie.

    You KNOW I'm a fan. :)

    Tammi Sauer