Being an artist and doodler at heart, I thought I’d share with you my sure-fire way of getting creative ideas flowing for me. It’s quite simple really: sketching. I carry two sketchbooks with me everywhere I go: a large one for anything work-related, and a smaller sketchbook for on-the-go sketching whenever the mood strikes me.

Now, I know what you’re thinking: “Hey, not all of us are as artistically inclined to just pick up a pencil and start drawing!” No problem. The same thinking that I use for drawing while looking at people and places around me can be applied for you writers who might need a jumpstart for coming up with ideas for characters.

When I first moved to Portland, I would ride the bus back and forth to work daily. I loved noticing all the different assortment of people who’d ride along with me—some regulars, some not so regular. I began to bring along my 5 x 7 inch notebook to record some of these interesting characters and to at least capture the moments that might otherwise be lost if I didn’t somehow sketch them down.

At first, I was drawing my surroundings, mostly:

Then I’d muster up the courage to start drawing others around me while sitting, hoping that maybe no one would see (or care) that I was perhaps drawing them. I had to be stealthy.

As I found my groove, I’d capture the little things, the little moments that might’ve been overlooked: the pencil with a large eraser stuck in a young woman’s hair, the tilt of a hat on an older gentlemen’s head, the way a woman would read the morning paper.

Every once in a while, a really interesting person would show up on the bus and I’d start sketching feverishly, capturing the details the best I could, as well as jotting down notes:

The regulars were always an interesting bunch, as well. One day I decided to draw only them, since I’d see them every morning, along with some notes and details to help me remember the little things:

Out of these daily sketching sessions, I’d eventually gather a great deal of character ideas. Great for character development. For some, I’d make up backstories in my head while I was sketching them. This character building would even spill over into my work while coming up with characters for the picture books I’d illustrate, especially the City, Baby! books. It might’ve been a simple pose that someone on the bus did for a brief moment, and the ideas would snowball into a fully-fledged character with pathos and perhaps their own story arc.

If you don’t have a sketchbook, that’s fine. A notebook or anything with pages for you to write something down should work out perfectly. Or, if it’s more convenient, Post-It notes. Whenever creative lightning would strike, but a sketchbook is nowhere to be found, Post-It notes always did the trick for me! And you can always collect and stick them into your sketchbook when the time is right:

It’s all about observation. Being aware of your surroundings, of the people around you, and taking in all the details.

Here’s a spread from NEW YORK, BABY! with plenty of characters gathered on—yup, you guessed it, a city bus:

Like I said earlier, you don’t have to be an artist to do this sort of thing. You can simply write down what you see. And you don’t have to be on the bus, either. This exercise can be done while waiting for your flight, while eating in the food court at your favorite mall, or watching TV. Recording the little moments that happen all around you. By building up this assortment of details, of moments, you are adding on to your cache of characters. Whether it be actual sketches or scribbled down notes, being aware of the canvases around you can be constant jumping off points for any type of character, whether human or human-like. The ideas for character development are limitless.

Best of luck with creating your characters!


Ward Jenkins is an animator, illustrator, and lover of all things aesthetically pleasing. He is the designer behind PiBoIdMo 2012’s logo and badges, and his sketchbook shared here today is online at Flickr. Ward illustrated Michael Phelp’s HOW TO TRAIN LIKE A T-REX AND WIN 8 GOLD MEDALS, Sudipta Bardhan-Quallen’s CHICKS RUN WILD as well as Chronicle’s NEW YORK, BABY! and SAN FRANCISCO, BABY! Catch him blogging at Ward-o-Matic and if you like his art, you can get some for your walls at his Ward-o-Matic shop (Tara’s favorite, which hangs in her home, is “Speaking in Color”).


Ward is generously giving away a signed copy of NEW YORK, BABY! and SAN FRANCISCO, BABY! to two winners who comment below. Remember, one comment per person, please. Winners will be selected in one week. Good luck!