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Creating your own characters, whether it’s for a video game or your own comic book, is one of the most fun parts of building a fantasy world. But where do you go for inspiration when your creative well is running a little dry? In this guide, we’ll give you a few tips and ideas for where you can find character design inspiration for all kinds of character styles or story genres. You’ll have plenty of options to choose from and quick references to keep handy for using again in the future.
Where to Find Character Design Inspiration
There are hundreds of places that you can find inspiration for designing characters of your own, and finding your favorite sources will help you to start building a unique style.
1. Narrow Down Your Story First
Before you can even think about drawing the first line of your new character, you need to think about the type of story you want to tell. Where will this character fit into the world you’re creating? Are they going to be a hero or a villain?
You don’t have to have the entire plot mapped out before you start sketching, but having a sense of direction will save you time in the long run and revisions when it comes to drafting your characters. After all, a terrifying and realistic dragon might be perfect for your Lord of the Rings-inspired plot but probably wouldn’t fit as well in a cute narrative for children!
2. Use Human and Animal References
Even if you’ve been illustrating your own characters for decades, finding references to work from is still a vital step in the process. Once you have an idea of the story genre and a basic outline for the plot, you probably already have a few thoughts about the type of look you want your characters to have.
Finding real-life reference photos of both humans and animals can give you a good starting point for drawing out key elements like body shapes, individual poses your characters might make, and even things like hair or fur texture. You don’t have to make this complicated—Google Images is the perfect place to look for reference pictures if you’re after something specific, as are free photo sites like Unsplash.
Use your pictures to create a template or mood board for each character that can give you a good overview to come back to throughout the design process. Things like outfit ideas, specific colors you want to incorporate, and notable physical traits are all helpful to put into a one-page document that you can reference over and over again.
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3. Rely on Pinterest
When you’re collecting references for all of your characters, it can be easy to lose track of where everything is and what belongs with which character. That’s where a tool like Pinterest comes in handy. That’s right, it’s not just a social media site for homeware lovers and party planning! There are plenty of ways that you can customize your experience to work for you, and that includes making reference boards for all of your creative ideas.
If you’re trying to keep track of several key character designs, create an individual Pinterest board per character. Being able to pin anything you want to your boards makes it a quick and simple way to save inspiration as you see it
Tip: Download the Pinterest extension for Firefox or Chrome, which lets you save images to your boards from any site on the internet.
4. Be Inspired By the Greats
They say that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, and while we’re not condoning a direct copy/paste approach, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with finding inspiration from famous illustrators and animators. After all, your first attempts at creating and designing characters were probably inspired by these artists to begin with!
Animation studios like Disney and Pixar have incredible coffee table-style books that outline the creative process for some of their most well-known films and can give you a behind-the-scenes look at how those characters came to life. YouTube is also a good place to check for tips and ideas from expert illustrators, from anime designers to advertising animators. You might even pick up a new technique or two along the way!
5. Look in Unlikely Places
Branching outside of your comfort zone can be a little unnerving, but it’s one of the best places to find character design inspiration. If you’ve never taken the time to look through a fashion magazine, pick one up the next time that you’re in the grocery store and flip through the pages.
Particularly in high-end publications like Vogue, you’ll find designer clothes that can range from beautiful everyday pieces all the way up to those that make you wonder who would wear something like that. But when you’re trying to design quirky or eccentric characters, those wacky outfits could be exactly what you’ve been looking for!
The same is true for watching films that you wouldn’t ordinarily sit down for or listening to a style of music that you’re not familiar with. You never know when a line of dialogue, a setting for a particular scene, or a lyric in a surprisingly catchy song will spark your creative flame.
6. Head to the Streets
There’s nothing better than getting outside and taking the time to observe the world around you. People-watching is fun for all kinds of reasons, but it’s also a great way to find inspiration in unexpected ways. You never know who or what you’re going to see!
Grab your notebook and head into town for a couple of hours. Find a bench to get comfy on or perch yourself in the window of a coffee shop. Make notes as people walk by, writing down any commentary you have on their outfit choice, their hairstyle, or who they’re with. You could even start to make up your own stories about what you think they’re up to. You might even hear snippets of conversations as people walk by or sit near you, which can be perfect inspiration for both designing your characters and fleshing out the narrative elements of your story.
7. Start With What’s Familiar
If all else fails, go back to what you’re most familiar with: you! Start designing a character based on yourself but, as you go along, think of ways that you can make the character distinctive. Can you go back in time, or age yourself 10 years? What traits would that character have? We all subconsciously write ourselves into our own stories, but actively building a character around yourself is a fun place to start when you’re not sure what else to do.
The same is true for basing characters on your family and friends (although if you’re about to make someone a villain, it might be best to check with them first!). You can even merge elements of multiple people into one character or steal a single trait from a relative to put into a character you’re already working on.
Some of the most loved cartoon characters and animated creatures were originally based on real-life people. Mr. Burns of The Simpsons was inspired by creator Matt Groening’s high school math teacher, and Bugs Bunny’s carrot-eating and sideways talking was based on Clark Gable’s 1934 character Peter Warne in It Happened One Night.
Start Designing Your Characters Today!
No matter who you choose to design, we hope that these reference ideas will give you all the inspiration that you need to start creating your unique and memorable characters.
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