The central characters in my new comic series, Toil and Trouble are the three witches of Shakespeare’s Tragedy of Macbeth. In the play, these women function as supernatural seers delivering two prophecies to Macbeth that inspire Macbeth’s treachery and eventually lead to his downfall. The premise behind the series is to retell the story of Macbeth from the point of view of these three witches to uncover the true motivation behind their role in Macbeth’s fate.

Smertae rough design

Initial Character Sketch by Sarah Stone

In this series of blog posts, we’ll be looking at the design process for the witches and the thoughts that went into both their look and their characterization in the book. In our initial pitch, all of the witches were going to be completely nude as they are supernatural beings with no need for clothes and a lack of clothes would underscore when our “normal” characters can and can’t see them. (Also, while the entertainment industry seems to almost require partial female nudity, there’s something about non-sexual, full-frontal female nudity that still makes many people uncomfortable. We toyed with the idea of nudity to essentially put our audience on an uneasy footing right from the start). This was later changed to help the book get a teen rating and be more appropriate for schools and libraries. So fair warning, there will be some nudity in these posts.

Our lead character is Smertae who in the play is known as the “Third Witch”. Smertae is sort of the middle sister in our trio of witches and looks like she is in her late twenties. All of the witches are tied to an element and Smertae’s is water. We also wanted to play with the idea of the maiden-mother-crone cycle, so Smertae is representative of the mother. Here were my initial character design directions:

Smertae: the main character.

Element: Water

Smertae design

Final Colored Design by Sarah Stone

Type: Mother

Colors: Red Hair, white skin, blue tattoos. Her tattoos should be almost bruised into her skin. Smertae should have slighty rounded features with wild hair. Her hair should always look like beach hair, like it just dried.

Her familiar, Harpier, is a white crab and frequently put upon, fidgeting constantly.

All of the witches are meant to have supernatural elements that set them apart from the mortal characters in the book. They each have tattoos or magical markings with Smertae’s being done in woad, a blue dye made from plants that the Picts were known to paint themselves with. Smertae also has spikes like a crab that pierce her skin and grow when she uses her magic.

When artist Sarah Stone designed the witches, these were her thoughts behind the design:

Smertae: red hair, loose flowing curls, angular but perhaps the most ‘curvy’, middle height of the three sisters. pale hazel or gray eyes. tiger claw necklace “piercings” built into and around spiral tattoos that look like bruises instead of ink. old scars. Her silhouette is broken by small sharp thorns (like the tiger claws), similarly to a crab they come in threes.

Smertae kyla

Art by Kyla Vanderklugt

Later when we added clothes, we researched how the early Picts wore simple dresses and tunics. Sarah wanted to make sure the dress still felt stylish so she added the cutaways on the arms and legs to show off Smertae’s spikes and tattoos. we also thought it gave her a tattered, more realistic look. If you had spikes coming out of your hips, your skirt wouldn’t last very long either.

One of the coolest things about a character design is seeing how other artists interpret it. After Sarah designed the three witches, cover artist Kyla Vanderklugt and interior artists Kelly and Nichole Matthews had to bring that design to life on the page. The strong elements that were important to us from the start (her hair, her spikes, her dress), are all noticeable in every incarnation even as little aspects may change with each artists’s style.

Smertae preview

Art by Kelly and Nichole Matthews

When the series opens, Smertae is returning to Alba (aka Scotland) after years in exile. She will have to come to terms her fellow witches, Cait and Riata, who have very different plans for the fate of their homeland. Smertae confronts the mistakes of her past, even as she battles for the soul of the man she believes should be Scotland’s king.

Stay tuned for future posts about the designs of Cait, Riata, and some of our other characters. Toil and Trouble will be available in stores and digitally on September 2nd and can be pre-ordered at your local comic shop with the form below.

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