The Basics of Character Design


Ashley Zhao, Staff Writer

When you think of your favorite series, whether it be a video game or an animated film, what do you picture first? In most cases, what typically sticks out to viewers the most while enjoying a franchise are the characters. Even if some people don’t happen to be the biggest fans of a specific movie, they can still recall a character that has made a lasting impression on them. This isn’t an accident. Great and memorable characters come as a result of the time and effort put into making them by character designers. But to accomplish this process, these designers must not only have a wide range of artistic skills and the ability to navigate design programs—they also need to be able to understand people.


Before even setting pencil to paper or pen to a tablet, a character designer should start with the most important step of all: research. By asking themselves questions like “Where did the character come from?”, “What are their motives?”, and “What is their general disposition?”, these artists can get a solid understanding of their character. After locking down information like the area the character comes from, character designers will start researching such environments and see what kinds of creatures live there. All of this research can help designers create characters, even if they might be a completely fictional character. After all, some of the most bizarre fictional creations have some basis in real-world beings.


When beginning a sketch, there are still several other visual considerations an artist should keep in mind. For instance, first impressions are everything, and this is especially true regarding animated or drawn characters. Character designers will usually take a lot of time to complete the sketching process, as they create a countless number of sketches until they find one that best conveys a character’s essence and background. To do this, artists will sometimes alter a character’s physical features. For a character that is often surprised, designers might play around with different types of large, wide eyes to get the idea across. While these artists can get creative with their designs, they must still adhere to basic anatomical principles as well as the rules of the universe where their particular story takes place. This might mean sticking to traditional human proportions or staying true to an environment where all living beings walk on their heads and see through their toes.


After finalizing a sketch, character designers now focus on creating a thumbnail—a basic version of the sketch that communicates important details about the design to viewers. Most likely, these thumbnails will not include any color, nor will they feature many of the finer details that will show up in the final design. Furthermore, thumbnails can help a designer focus on the character’s silhouette and ask, “If I colored this entire character in black, would viewers be able to recognize it?” To answer this question, artists have to pay attention to negative space, which is the empty space around a character, to make a character easily recognizable to viewers.


Character designers will now start to work on the color palette, outfits, and poses to make a character more dynamic. By doing so, designers can essentially “bring life” to a character. However, they should remember not to stray too far off the original concept of the character. For example, the colors of a character’s clothing should match their mission and setting. Most designers can achieve this by keeping a list of the character’s key elements nearby, making it easy to keep themselves on track. At this stage, designers will also take the time to finalize and round out a character using lighting, texture, and other details like accessories, jewelry, facial markings, etc. These decisions should be made keeping in mind a character’s personality as well as other characters featured throughout the story, as each character should be easy to differentiate.


In the end, character design will always entail plenty of observation and practice, but that’s okay. Australian-born artist Nick Sheehy elaborated on this and said that “having the drafting skills to realize a character in various dimensions requires practice, but [it] is invaluable in creating believability and atmosphere.” After all, no franchise would be complete without its characters. Happy illustrating!


Photo courtesy of BEHANCE.NET