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Character design for Deficient

A fellow writer, Vicki Stiefel, recently shared a thought-provoking question on TikTok along the lines of, “What’s more important – a strong plot or strong characters?”

I believe that excellent characters are the core ingredients for quality storytelling. Imagine trying to make a salad with a bunch of expired veggies. You can prepare the salad in all the right ways, but the final product probably won’t taste very good if the raw ingredients aren’t fresh and tasty. Similarly, a book with stale or wobbly characters probably won’t make for a compelling read.

Of course, a book isn’t a bunch of fantastic characters floating around doing nothing. They need an intriguing plot to carry the reader through a journey. But even the most fantabulous plot stands little chance of captivating readers if it doesn’t have the characters to back it up.

I think that’s why I invest a lot of time in the characters I create. I try to understand their backstories as much as possible, as well as their core motivations. I develop character sheets where I capture physical and personality traits, and I seek to understand how each character relates to the story’s protagonist. The characters often shift and evolve over the course of writing, which helps me to understand them more. I want to know why they behave the way they do and what drives their decision making. I also want to know their deepest desires and to what lengths they’ll go to achieve them.

Several months ago, I decided to capture the characters of Deficient visually. I’ve always loved seeing how different artists portray book characters, and I wanted to see if someone could do the same for Deficient. I reached out to Erik Ly, an extraordinarily gifted artist whose work I follow on Instagram. I was drawn to his imaginative use of lines and color with a style that reminded me, somewhat, of a modern take on Yoshitaka Amano’s character designs. I found myself poring over Erik’s images the same way I did (and admittedly still do) with Amano’s portrayals of Final Fantasy characters. Luckily, Erik was interested in the project and gave it the time and attention it needed.

Over the course of several weeks, Erik and I mixed our creative forces to transform words into imagery and capture the cast of characters.

The lineup of Deficient characters, drawn by Erik Ly.

To help inform Erik’s initial sketches, I shared as much information as I could about each character, including my character sheets and photos of people who, in my mind, bore a resemblance to the cast. Erik would send back various sketches, and I’d select the ones that I felt most immediately drawn to. We’d work together to refine the features, poses, and outfits. I’d even consult people who were real-life inspirations for the characters to get their thoughts on their portrayals. After a few back-and-forth communications, Erik would send me his final products.

Initial character sketches of Alejandro by Erik Ly.

I absolutely love how Erik brought the characters to life. When I look at Alé, for instance, I see a boy with a slumped posture, clothes that are a bit too big (as though he’s trying to disappear inside of them), and a wary facial expression. As a Deficient, Alé is someone who constantly finds himself in a state of fight or flight. He looks like he’s ready to flee at any second – something that works for him until his best friend’s life is on the line and he has no choice but to act.

Yalamba is as mystical as I imagined her, with her purple hair and eyes and a wand-like paintbrush that demonstrates her power of using art to bring objects and scenarios into existence. Gwen is a force of determination and strength, and Kazuki is Mr. Quirky – small in stature but with enough personality to light up a room.

Initial character sketches of Yalamba by Erik Ly.

Erik even went into the detail of designing the students’ school uniforms (which I wanted to be a futuristic take on a matador jacket), as well as the logo of the Achewon Egalitarian Academy. The characters wear their uniforms in unique ways that reflect the differences in their personalities.

While I know my readers are more than capable of using their brains to conceive what my characters might look like, I like the idea of sharing images that might spur their imaginations. Personally, when I can visualize characters, I feel more connected to them. Ultimately, I hope these visuals promote connection and curiosity.

I recently created a character page on my website where you can fine designs for seven of the students of the Achewon Egalitarian Academy. (The school has many more than seven students, but this is a start!). You can click or tap to get more information, see their full-body images, and learn more about their personalities and power ratings. With the graphic design support of Kiana Stockwell, I’ve created trading cards that feature the characters’ images and power ratings, drawing inspiration from comic book trading cards I collected when I was growing up. I’ll be handing these out at different events in the coming weeks, so if I meet you in person, you can get cards of your own!

The back of the trading card for Alé Aragon.

In addition to commonly used categories like strength, speed, and fighting ability, I added a new one that I’ve never seen on trading cards before – grit. To me, the sense of courage and resolve that exists within a character and inspires them to fight for a cause is just as – if not more – important than some of the more supernatural traits. It’s also something we need in spades if we’re to survive the tumultuous years of adolescence.

I’d love to hear what you think about the character designs and if you’ve ever done something similar with your own creative work. Which character speaks to you the most? What do you think about the artistic style? And if you have gotten to read Deficient before its release, do these depictions mirror what you were imagining? Why or why not?

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