Wednesday, November 1, 2023

Creating Characters with Melquea Smith

Photo by Pablo Izquierdo - Capturing Belief
 Melquea Smith (pronounced "Mehl-kwee-yah”) is an award-winning children’s book illustrator based in New York. She is an administrator for BlackCreatorsHeadquarters and also a PAL member of the West-Central New York SCBWI region, which is how I met her. And – she has two books that release this fall: The Time Machine (October 2) and The Biggest Gift of All (November 16).

I’ve been wanting to chat with her about illustrating kids’ books, and we finally got together (virtually) a few weeks ago. It was a delightful chat; Melquea bubbles over with joy when she talks about the characters she has illustrated. I asked her all kinds of questions about how she goes from an author’s manuscript to creating a three-dimensional, very much alive character on the page.

Cardinal Rule Press
Me: What’s the first thing you do when creating a character?

Melquea: I start with the story, and after reading it over a few times I begin thinking about what sort of character might inhabit the story. In particular, what sort of character haven’t I created before? I think about their features: are they light-colored or darker? Is their hair kinky or curly? Who is in their friend group, and how do they fit in? How do they dress? For example, in The Time Machine the main character, Bailey is very sciency. She’s not the type of girl to wear frills – but her best friend, Nia, is.

Also important for me is to find a way to add the experience of black girlhood, from the accessories they wear to how they act. This is where I bring my lived experience, growing up a Black girl.

Includas Press
I also think about what I don’t see in the media. I want to showcase the spectrum of personhood, celebrate the soft, dark-skinned black boy, for example. So many times we focus on spunky characters or those who have been hardened by life experiences. This is why we need more books, because one single book can’t be the catch-all to represent the spectrum of experiences.

Me:  I notice that you illustrate characters from diverse ethnicities and cultures…

Melquea: Yes, and I do research, just as an author does. Tia and Mia, in The Biggest Gift, are twins. They are also Asian. Whenever I create characters, I pay close attention to stereotypes of marginalized groups and steer away from them. Stereotypical images are like when you write a cliché. The other thing I do is try to add a little bit of myself to my characters. Mia, for example, wears cat ears. I’ve done that – and continue to do that!

Me: Once you get your idea for characters, what’s next?

Melquea: I begin working on “discovery sketches” – just to learn who my characters are. I grab a sheet of computer paper and a marker and I start playing around with shapes for their face. I might snap a photo with my phone for sketches I particularly like, Then when I get a good feel for the shape and language of my character, I’ll go deeper. I might play around with proportions, sketch different body types, try on some different hair styles: afro? ponytail? locs? I’m looking for what feels right for that particular character. 

At the same time, I want to make sure that my character doesn’t look like others I’ve drawn in previous books. I’ll also put them in a line-up with other characters in the book to see how they complement each other, as well as how they differ.

When I get their looks down, I play around with how they move through space. I might invite them to go out for ice cream with another character, and sketch them together. I’m also attentive to visual and personality quirks that help them interact with other characters.

Me: I’ve invited a character or two to share hot cocoa and cookies with me…

Melquea: Yes, like that. Illustrators need to sit with our characters. We need to know how they move both within the story and outside the story. How are their fingers positioned when they talk to a friend? Sometimes adding a small detail to a face can really make their emotion come through – and we have to capture that emotion on the page.

Me: Thank you so much for inviting us into your illustrator’s life!

You can read more about how Melquea designs characters over at her blog. Learn more about her and her books at her website and on her  Instagram .


  1. Melquea and Sue, what a great virtual chat! I'd like to have cocoa and cookies with you both. Congrats on your 2 books. It's so important for authors to know the craft that illustrators employ to make a book come to life. TY.

  2. What a fantastic chat! I learned so much about how you live with your characters and really get to know them. Lining them up and making sure they go together as well as have their own characteristics is an idea I really like. And I *so* appreciate that you think outside the "spunky" or "hardened by life" box. Boxes are so limiting. And inviting them to go for ice cream with each other? Brilliant. I can see how I can use some of these thoughts as I flesh out my characters in my writing. Thank you both so much!