Today I thought I'd use my two characters Flavio and Marguerite to explain how I come up with characters for my own projects.
When designing cartoon characters for studio animation, you're given several aids along with your assignment: The premise of the program you're designing for, written character descriptions, a style guide with which your designs must jive, and sometimes even a final storyboard. All must be carefully considered, as well as the amount of time allotted to complete said assignment.
In stark contrast, my own personal projects follow a very lenient schedule, since the only one I have to answer to in such situations is myself. 90% of the characters I draw on a regular basis began with a doodle. A cartoonist is one of very few who can utilize being stuck on the phone or in any place he or she would rather not be. My best doodles have always come out of such circumstances. Being slightly distracted can even be quite beneficial, keeping me from getting in the way of what my 'id' and pencil want to come up with together. I can make some sense of what I've drawn and why I've drawn it, but rarely right at that moment. For this reason, I save most of my scribbles in files, and then go through them with a more critical eye later, weeks or months after I've first drawn them. Then I re-file whatever strikes me as interesting at that time, and toss the rest.
With Flavio, it was little more than a few quirky physical characteristics that led to my developing him as a character. There was something funny to me about a diminutive guy trying desperately to look tough in a skull cap and sleeveless undershirt. In countless pages of amassed doodles, he would show up in one corner or another, sometimes a little more defined than the time I'd drawn him before. I began to notice that he had stylistic things commonly found in many of the European comic books, or bande dessinées, that I grew up pouring over as a kid. This is why I decided to make Flavio European... (to get technical, he's Italian, but lives in a small french town with his long-suffering girlfriend, Marguerite). Marguerite herself is obviously simple and plain-ish in design, but would prove to be a considerably more intelligent and subtle character than her boyfriend, making them potentially effective as a couple... or at least as entertainment!
The both of them seemed to be good characters to tell whatever stories I might have had about love, and the familiarity of love, and what happens over time when familiarity breeds not just contempt, but any number of other things.
Over the last several years, I've roughed out two separate comics stories with Flavio and Marguerite, but have never gotten around to completing them.