Visual Narrative in Graphic Novels: Characters

What is visual narrative?

Visual narrative in comics is how we communicate and engage an audience through visual storytelling. It can convey information at a glance, guide the eye, evoke emotions, and enact the senses to become an immersive experience.

“a book is a little empathy machine. It puts you inside somebody else’s head. You see out of the world through somebody else’s eyes.” Neil Gaiman

Underlying the visuals is the inward relationship between the creator and the reader. The creator asks the reader to make their own logical connections between events and to participate in the unfolding of a story. Much like how people see colors differently, stories are experienced differently from person to person. We weave the story threads and they string along connections, interpreting it in their own way.

Each of the choices we make while developing a comic works together to create a tapestry of visual language on the page. To explore this, we’ll be going over seven elements:

  1. Character
  2. Speech Balloons
  3. Backgrounds
  4. Framing
  5. Page Layout
  6. Light and Shadow
  7. Color

Let’s start with the first on the list – character!

1. Character

What can you tell about a character at a glance?

Heartstopper by Alice Oseman

What personality do they seem to have? What kind of world do they live in?

5 Worlds: The Sand Warrior
Lightfall: The Girl & the Galdurian

How are they feeling? What is their motivation or struggle?

New Kid by Jerry Craft
Stargazing by Jen Wang

And how does style affect our perception of age, genre, and mood?

Pilu of the Woods by Mai K. Nguyen

Appearance and body language can sometimes say things that words never will.

So, how do we communicate character through visuals alone?

Here are a few concepts to consider when crafting character:

Shape Language

Shape Language is the emotional and psychological meaning communicated through shapes. It is a design technique used to convey feeling or character utilizing three primitive shapes: the circle, square, and triangle.

Shape Language Tips and Techniques, 

A character’s body, clothing, and items they carry can all be designed with shapes in mind. These building blocks can be mixed or combined to be as simple or complex as needed. The Walt Disney Family Museum has a great resource pdf that breaks it down further here.

I’ll give my own interpretation of a few examples:

Donut Feed the Squirrels by Mika Song
Norma and Belly

Norma is triangular and the strategist of the two.
Belly is rounder and intuitive.

The Accursed Vampire by Madeline McGrane
Dragoslava, Quintus, and Eztli

Of the three vampires, Drago is the most visually iconic “vampire”, and that different style reflects their own feeling of otherness even among other vampires. Quintus is rounder, friendlier, and emotionally aware. Eztli is sharper, likes fun and games, and bugs – perhaps because of their bird-like attributes.

5 Worlds by Mark Siegel, Alexis Siegel, Xanthe Bouma, Matt Rockefeller, Boya Sun
An Tzu, Jax Amboy, Oona Lee

An Tzu with a plant twig sticking from his flame-like hair and mismatched attire is the most complex in design and organic of the three. He is an orphan from the slums who later discovers the cause of his illness and where he came from which can be hinted visually in his design.

Jax Amboy is an android who is a renowned starball player. His hair design is a homage to Osamu Tezuka’s Astro Boy and his character goes through the experience of learning emotions and becoming a living human in this series. The Starball uniform he wears is just like knight’s armor, the belly showing a lotus may signify rebirth.

Oona Lee is a sand dancer who grew up finding it difficult to control the sand. Of the three she is the most fluid, her design is rounded, matching the flow and curving movement of the powers she wields. Later in the story her design shifts after she discovers her true heritage.

Depending on the length of the story character designs can be much more complex or simple. Keep in mind, shapes have more than one meaning and you can subvert expectations if you choose to. This is a simple guideline so make of it what you will. Experiment and have fun!


Silhouette is a great way to test if your character’s design can be read clearly. It can also help you to create distinguishing features, choose a strong pose, and experiment with proportions. Try shading in your character to see if you can pick their design from a lineup or a cast of characters.

Wendy Xu, Infinity Particle character sheet

Line of Action

The line of action is the imaginary line that extends through the main action of a figure. Preston Blair explains it best:

Advanced Animation by Preston Blair

Body language is just as important as dialogue and facial reactions. Can you say what you need through the body alone? Perhaps exaggerating the figure’s form can push a moment further. Squash, stretch, caricaturize the body and/or expression for a dramatic or comedic effect. Even if your style is less animated, knowing the angle of the hip and shoulder, and the shifting of body weight, can create a more grounded pose.

Kinetic Motion

Illustrations don’t move but we depict it in other ways: 

Tracking is when a reader’s eye follows the subject’s motion in a visual sequence.

Freestyle by Gale Galligan

Motion Blur/Smear a frame by stretching in-between actions, often adding motion lines (this is a technique animators use to mimic a camera’s way of blurring motion).

My Giant Nerd Boyfriend by Fishball

Emanata (or Visual Morphemes)

Emanatas are pictorial symbols emanating from a character, object, or subject that depicts their state of being.

Reimena Yee
Fry Guys by Eric Geron and Jannie Ho

Observe What’s Around You

Studying people and animals, live drawing, watching films, reading books, analyzing work, and collecting what inspires you are good ways to keep building the understanding of character, but the best thing is to experience, well, your own life!

Animation is about creating the illusion of life. And you can’t create it if you don’t have one.” – Brad Bird

The same could be said about creating a graphic novel.

We perform characters on the page, play scenes, and develop deeper connections with them as we go. It is an exploration of the human experience – your experience, and others’ experiences, where it overlaps to become something bigger than ourselves.

Stay tuned, the next blog post will focus on Speech Balloons. Til then, happy creating!

About Jade Vaughan

I am a non-binary storyteller who dreams of one day owning a mango tree. I grew up as a military kid traveling the U.S. and Europe. We never stayed at one place more than three years but between all those moves Studio Ghibli films and magical girl anime were my constants. I love fantasy, magical realism, & slice of life with queer and whimsical characters. I want to work on projects that balance humor, hardships, and heart!

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