5 Characteristics of Graphic Novels You Must Know!

5 Characteristics of Graphic Novels

5 Characteristics of Graphic Novels You Must Know!

5 characteristics of graphic novels you must know are essential to teach students prior to reading the graphic novel. What is a graphic novel? A graphic novel is a compilation of graphics and text structured on pages at the length of a novel. How long are graphic novels? Anywhere from 100-500 plus pages. The difference between a graphic novel and a novel is that the graphic novel has graphics (images). The difference between a graphic novel vs comic book is the length. Graphic novels text features are different than a novel just like nonfiction text features. The 5 characteristics of a graphic novel are: shapes, perspective of frame, angles, structure, and layout.

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There are different types of graphic novels just like there are novels with different genres. Some popular graphic novel examples are: Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi, New Kid by Jerry Craft, American Born Chinese by Gene Luan Yang, The Diary of Anne Frank by Anne Frank, Edgar Allen Poe graphic short stories. Graphic novel books are a great way to engage students who are not particularly interested in reading, or students with special needs; however, anyone and every age group can read and enjoy graphic novels.

There are arguments against graphic novels. However, I have found that I can refute those arguments. The main argument is that students are not able to use their imagination to picture characters and setting. However, there are activities that can be supplemented to fulfill this standard. For example, providing text for a scene in a graphic novel and having students create an image of the scene based on text description. Another argument is that the length of words is to short in the graphic novel. However, Students can read more graphic novels, which beats the alternative of not reading at all.

Characteristics of Graphic Novels Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi

Graphic Novel Basics

How do graphic novels work? When teaching a graphic novel, it is essential to teach students the basics. I pass out a graphic organizer and use a PowerPoint to go over the 5 characteristics of graphic novels

Characteristics of Graphic Novels

The first out of the 5 Characteristics of Graphic Novels is:

Basic Shapes

1. Basic Shapes

Vertical=signals strength 

Horizontal=a calm and stable atmosphere 

Circles=signal unity 

Movement Triangle=a stable and unified atmosphere

Whole Diagonals=signal action

The second of the 5 characteristics of graphic novels is:

Characteristics of Graphic Novels: Perspectives of Frame

2. Perspectives of Frame

Close ups=establish an emotional relationship between the viewer (you) and represented subjects or characters

Medium Shot=establishes objective (without judgment) relationship between viewer (you) and represented characters or subjects.

Long shot=a long shot establishes a relationship between represented figures or characters and surrounding environment

Below is a long shot from the graphic novel, “New Kid” (Full lesson on Teachers Pay Teachers) by Jerry Craft. What is being represented is students on campus having various conversations. This perspective allows the reader (you) a glimpse into the characters and their perspective relationships. The subject in this particular scene are students speaking about the various vacations they took over the holiday break.

Examples of graphic novels: “New Kid” by Jerry Craft

The 3rd of the 5 characteristics of graphic novels is angles:

Characteristics of Graphic Novels: Angles

3. Angles

Vertical Angle=situates the reader (you) and the subject/character on an equal level.

Low angle=situates represented subjects or characters in position of power. Imagine being down low, looking up high.

High angle=situates the reader in a position of power, omniscient view-point. Imagine being up high looking down as we are in the image above. We are situated as the “all-knowing” figure to what is happening on campus.

The 4th out of 5 characteristics of graphic novels is:

Characteristics of Graphic Novels: Structure

4. Structure

Left-Right Structure

Given=information that is known to the reader, and taken for granted or not given much thought. An example would be the main character in “Smile” having braces in her mouth. This is not a surprise because we/the audience accompanied her to the dentist.

New=information that is previously unknown to the reader and therefore catches the readers attention. For example, when George Takei’s family is picked up by the American police and placed in a concentration camp in, “They Called US Enemy”. This would be new information in the book.

The 5th out of 5 characteristics of graphic novels is

Characteristics of Graphic Novels: Layout

5. Layout

Layout Panel:

A distinct segment of the comic, containing a combination of image and text in variety. Most graphic novels have consistent panels with mixed-in-single panels.

Characteristics of Graphic Novels: Panels

Panels: offer a different experience than simply reading text:

-The spatial arrangement allows an immediate juxtaposition of the present and the past. On one page we can see a character thinking about the past while being in the present, and looking forward to the future.

-Unlike other- visual media, transitions are instant and direct, but the exact timing of the reader’s experience is determined by focus and reading speed. In the traditional novel we have foreshadowing and hints of what is to come in the future, whereas in a graphic novel, at times we can see what is coming right around the corner, even when a character cannot. This is really helpful for struggling or young readers.

Characteristics of Graphic Novels: Frames


The lines and borders that contain the panels; akin to a picture frame that lines around a picture.

Characteristics of Graphic Novels: Gutter


The space between framed panels. The thin space that separates the frame or metal from the actual picture. In the case of an actual picture, this would be the cardboard space.

Characteristics of Graphic Novels: Bleed


An image that extends to and/or beyond the edge of the page, this can include a single image on one page.

Characteristics of Graphic Novels: Foreground


The panel closest to the viewer. The author may structure the foreground in relation to importance of what he wants the audience to focus on. The background may contain the small details, less important to the plot.

Below: Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi. Note: the clever way the author separates the main character from the panel on the right to the panel on the left. The author also notes that we won’t be able to recognize her although all characters look the same. At-this-time in the novel everything is orderly, at peace-hence the  straight lines and perfect panels, gutters, frames, etc. Also note that the panel on the left would be considered the foreground-it is closest to the reader because it is slightly larger than the other images.

Examples of Graphic Novels: Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi

Characteristics of Graphic Novels: Midground


Allows centering of image by using a natural resting place for the reader’s vision. The artist deliberately decides to place the image where a viewer would be most likely to look first. Placing an image off-center or near the top or bottom can be used to create visual tension but using the midground permits the artist to create a more readily accepted image.

Below-“American Born Chinese(Full lesson on Teachers Pay Teachers) by Gene Luan Yang: Note- the hand is placed at the top, slightly off-centered to the right. The coloring is also brighter in lighter tones than the rest of the images on the page. In the novel there is an emphasis of power by the wizard to the monkey, which is noted on the face of the monkey.

Examples of graphic novels: American Born Chinese by Gene Luen Yang

Characteristics of Graphic Novels: Background


Provides additional, sub-textual information for the reader. For example the way characters may be described by how they look in the background. A class-clown wearing a hat sideways, a unique character holding a dummy, etc.

Characteristics of Graphic Novels: Graphic Weight

Graphic weight:

A term that describes the way some images draw the eye more than others, creating a definite focus using color and shading in various ways including: The use of light and dark shades; dark-toned images or high-contrast images draw the eye more than light or low-contrast images do.  Colors that are more brilliant or deeper than others on the page.

Figures Faces

Figures Faces:

Faces can be portrayed in different ways. Some depict an actual person, like a portrait; others are iconic, which means they are representative of an idea or a group of people. Other points to observe about faces include:  They can be dramatic when placed against a detailed backdrop; a bright white face stands out. They can be drawn without much expression or detail; this is called an “open blank” and it invites the audience to imagine what the character is feeling without telling them.

The Diary of Anne Frank: (Full lesson on Teachers Pay Teachers). This is a particularly dreary image of the sister of Anne Frank being taken to Auschwitz by train. Note the fire on top, and fire and smoke ahead. What makes it quite dramatic is her white face and how it glows in the backdrop of the firey hell that is to come.  Even from a distance you can see the terror in her eyes and on her face.

Examples of Graphic Novels: Anne Frank’s Diary



The positioning of hands and feet can be used to express what is happening in the story.


Hands that are raised with palms out suggest surprise or confusion.

The wringing of hands suggests obsequiousness or discomfort, or confusion.

-Hands over the mouth depict fear, shame, shyness or surprise.

Turned in feet may denote embarrassment-think Goofy in most pictures.

Feet with motion strokes can create the sense of panic, urgency, or speed, example, Speedy Gonzalez.

New Kid” by Jerry Craft: in this image the author uses a malapropism of a movie, as a light-hearted way to introduce each chapter. Note the character on the right. She is floating which is an indicator of her as a very flakey, unique, really out there character. She also has one palm up and open facing upward which suggests surprise. Meanwhile her puppet which makes her a “weird” student on campus lies heavily and exaggerated on her left hand. A student that is considered “cool” and collected, has his feet firmly planted on the ground with hands in fists.

Examples of graphic novels: “New Kid” by Jerry Craft

Text Captions

Text Captions:

These are boxes containing a variety of text elements, including scene setting, description, etc.

Speech Balloons

Speech balloons:

These enclose dialogue and come from a specific speaker’s mouth; they vary in size, shape, and layout and can alternate to depict a conversation.

Types of speech balloons: External dialogue, which is speech between characters Internal dialogue, which is a thought enclosed by a balloon that has a series of dots or bubbles going up to it

Special-effects Lettering

Special-effects lettering:

This is a method of drawing attention to text; it often highlights onomatopoeia and reinforces the impact of words such as bang or wow.

The Cask of Amontillado(Full lesson on Teachers Pay Teachers) by Edgar Allen Poe emphasizes the cough of Fortunado by use of onomatopoeia in the bottom right corner. That is quite a cough and alerts us to two things: his health is vulnerable, his willingness to seek out the amontillado coupled with arrogance turns out to be his hamartia in the end.

How Do Graphic Novels Work: Cask of Amontillado by Edgar Allen Poe

By teaching some basics: basics of shapes, perspectives of frames, angles, hands and faces, structure, layout panels, and text captions, students and teachers alike can effectively complete a graphic novel unit. If you teach students and teachers the basics the graphic novel experience can be a great one!

I would love to hear about your favorite graphic novels! I’m always looking for the next graphic novel read. Please share in the comments below! To learn more specifics about the popular graphic novels mentioned above check out my blog on the top 15 teen reads.

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