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How to Train Your Dragon


1. Drawing characters

CRESSIDA COWELL: One of the things I think is very important in telling a story through drawing is to focus on the expression in people’s faces. My characters don’t necessarily look exactly like a human being looks but the expression is a really key way of telling a story. I’m very good at drawing how people feel. Whether they’re grumpy, whether they’re happy, whether they’re sad. And what I do for this, and actually interestingly when I was over talking to the animators at Dreamworks, they do this a lot as well…I look in a mirror and I pull a face, like this to be grumpy, I think of what it might be like to be grumpy and then I quickly go down and I draw what I looked like in the mirror. And an animator does exactly the same thing because they’re trying to tell a story through the expressions on somebody’s face. And I remember watching the animator for Hiccup telling me exactly that this is what he did too. So I would say to children if you’re trying to tell a story with your characters, don’t just make the faces blank, try and imagine what the character might be feeling at the time and draw that on the face, and it really will make the story come alive.

2. Maps

CRESSIDA COWELL: I start before I even write the story, I’ll have drawn the characters, but I draw a map of the world that I want them to live in and as I drew the island, I drew this cliff, Wild Dragon Cliff and I thought, Wild Dragon Cliff, that’s so exciting and this is where I began think of the dragons. What if these Vikings really did have dragons, they trained the dragons, they had to capture wild dragons and then train them? So as I drew the map of my island, of my world, I began to make up the story as I was doing it. And I’ve found, I’ve gone into schools and done workshops where I’ve got the children to draw a map of their own imaginary island and then to write a story out of it and I’ve found they’ve had some wonderful results and they wrote such lovely, exciting stories about their fantasy worlds.

Another important reason for drawing a map is it makes your imaginary place seem more real because if you think of writing as a bit like telling lies, (laughs) telling a really convincing lie. You’ve got to treat it as though it’s a real place in your head, so if you draw a map, you can then know, it’s like making an imaginary place a real place. And you can then know, here is the village and this is how long it would take them to walk to Wild Dragon Cliff. So you can make things seem more real because although it’s all made up, the more real you can make it seem to your readers, the more the story will work for them.

I think about this in the way that I write as well, so I try and be very precise in the way that I describe people so that it makes it come alive in the reader’s head. For example, if I say that Stoic had a big red beard, you can’t really see him in your head, but if I say Stoic had a beard like exploding fireworks, you can see that image in your head. So that’s another thing I often say to children, when you’re writing, try and think of ways of describing things that are very unusual and that really tell the story to the person. Try and think of funny things to compare the beard to or whatever you’re describing in order to make it come alive in you reader’s head.