The Dress Code
You need only a passing familiarity with cartoons to notice that 'toons rarely change their clothes. Day in and day out, Charlie Brown wears his zigzag T-shirt, Bart Simpson wears his red shirt and blue shorts, and Cathy wears a blouse with a heart on the front. And for characters like Beetle Bailey and Spider-Man, the outfit is an integral part of who they are. This is because a character's clothing plays an important part in expressing personality.
Uniforms aren't limited to occupational garb. Priests have “uniforms.” So do pirates, Vikings, clowns, and vampires. A uniform is any combination of clothing that is immediately recognizable as a character type.
To get ideas on costuming, search the Web for stores that sell Halloween costumes. Halloween costumes tend to be simplified for an immediate effect — just like cartoons. For a more realistic approach, search books and Web sites devoted to theatrical or historical costuming.
It isn't even necessary for the entire uniform to be present. Put a cape on a person and she's a superhero. Put a horned helmet on a man and he's a Viking. Consider these partial costumes and the connotations they carry:
Long, pointed hat: Wizard (or, less often, a dunce)
Long, pointed hat with a wide brim: Witch
Pocket protector: Nerd
Long white lab coat: Doctor or scientist
Crown: King or queen
Uniforms are very powerful because they immediately identify the character as belonging to a certain group. Furthermore, they carry an implication that the person wearing the uniform has the typical personality associated with people in that group. As a result, uniforms can be played against body type to create a unique character.
But what if your characters are just normal people? Clothing doesn't have to be odd or unique to carry information about a character's personality. A character's choice in fashion is always a great way to express a facet of his inner self.
For example, a turtleneck can make the wearer look more studious. This is especially true if the shirt is not oversized like a floppy sweater. Add a tweed jacket with patches on the sleeves for a truly academic look.
For women, the hemline of a dress can migrate up or down according to her attitude. Long dresses tend to be worn by more serious characters. Shorter skirts imply a more frivolous disposition.
Sometimes the fit of the garment tells your audience something about the character. A loose-fitting flannel shirt will denote a casual, leisurely individual. A neat, well-tailored shirt or blouse describes a completely different person — one who is neat, tidy, and perhaps a bit formal.
An extension of the person's way of dressing is his or her hairstyle. Cartoonists should not treat hair as an afterthought — it can speak volumes about a character. Avoid a beginner's mistake of drawing your character bald, and consider other options.
Unfortunately, much of how your readers will react to your character's hair is rooted in attitudes from decades ago. For example, readers will not immediately identify a head as female if she has short hair. Conversely, a male with long hair is instantly perceived as a “hippie.”
That's not to say that you shouldn't draw short-haired females or longhaired males. However, it's a fact you should be aware of as you're refining the design of your characters. Clearly, women can be drawn with closely cropped hair, but it would be wise to amplify some other female facial characteristics so new readers are not confused.
Hair is not limited to the top of the head. Facial hair, too, can convey attitude. A well-trimmed beard carries a look of sophistication. A goatee — once a sure giveaway for evil — now says “yuppie.” There are dozens of styles of moustaches — each of which says something different about the wearer.
Hairstyle and facial hair can help shape a character's personality.