Designing your own characters is one of the most creative ways that you can explore your ideas as an artist, illustrator, or animator. Plus, it’s so much fun! Building characters from scratch takes a lot of work, but when you see the final result, you know that all the effort was worth it. Whether you’re just getting started on your very first character or you’ve been working on your own creations for years, this guide will give you a few character design tips and tricks to help you improve your skills and design characters that you can feel proud of.

Character Design Tips

1.  Stick to a Color Palette

One character design tip is to use only a few colors. It helps the viewer to distinguish between different characters. 

When you’re trying to work on eye-catching and memorable characters, it can be tempting to throw in every color in the rainbow to make your designs stand out. But being selective with your color choices will ultimately help you to create more realistic and distinctive characters.

Think back to your basic art skills, where you learned all about color theory and complementary colors. When your characters have too many colors in one design, it can be difficult for the viewer to know where to look. Focus on having around three or four key colors for each character, which will help to give them their own unique style.

2. Choose Distinctive Shapes

olive oil from popeye and marge from the simpsons
Olive Oyl and Marge Simpson are great examples of characters with recognizable body shapes.

One of the most fun parts of creating your own characters is giving them wacky body shapes and styles. You can certainly stick to traditional, human, or animal-like figures, but when you’re building a fantasy world, there’s nothing stopping you from branching out into all kinds of shapes and giving each individual character a unique look. 

In fact, top illustrators often say that a character should be recognizable from their silhouette alone. For example, anyone could name Bart or Marge Simpson simply from an outline of their hairstyles. 

3. Exaggerate Key Features

strong pirate woman
Use exaggerated features to highlight certain traits of your characters.

When you think about your favorite characters, we can guarantee that certain exaggerated features will instantly come to mind. Whether it’s their giant nose or crazy hair, adding emphasis to certain parts of your design is one of the best character design tips to help your creations stand out.

Emphasizing physical traits is usually a good place to start. Think of Popeye and his giant muscles or Johnny Bravo’s broad chest, sky-high hair, and oversized sunglasses. You can gain so much insight into a character’s personality simply from their physical appearance.

4. Design With Your Unique Style

Take inspiration from other artists and find ways to blend different styles into your own work.

You might feel like every design has been done before. But just like with books, the topic may have been covered, but no one is going to tell the story the way you will. The same is true of your characters. Your unique experiences of the world, what you observe, and how you interpret everything will feed into your art, helping you to create character designs like no one else.

There’s nothing wrong with being inspired by the greats. But pulling your inspiration from different sources and your own imagination will ultimately give you a style of your own.

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5. Concentrate on Facial Expressions

toothpaste character
Facial expressions are a great way to give your characters personality without using dialogue or setting

Have you ever noticed that, when we meet someone new, one of the first things that we remember about them is their face? Even the most difficult-to-read individuals show emotions and feelings in their facial expressions, and your characters should do exactly the same. 

Particularly when you’re creating a two or three-dimensional fictional being, it’s important to infuse some life and personality into their design, so that readers or viewers have something to connect with. Play around with different ways of expressing feelings on your character’s faces. For example, try different eyebrow positions for a surprised or concerned face, or tilt their head to one side for a sarcastic look.

6. Be Influenced by Their Backstory

man with green jacket
Build your character around a backstory, even if you’re the only one with the details.

Having a robust backstory is especially important if you plan to incorporate your character into a bigger narrative, and you can use this story to inform some of their design. Think about what experiences your character might have had before we meet them on the first page—how does this influence the facial expressions they make or the clothes they’re wearing?

Building out character mood boards before you start drawing is a great way to collect all of these ideas and keep your thoughts organized, particularly if you’re designing multiple characters at once. Setting the scene before you start drawing, even if it’s simply as a reference for yourself and never actually mentioned in the story, can give your characters a more believable depth.

7. Make Sure You Can Repeat The Design

Easily repeatable designs are necessary if you plan to develop your characters into larger narratives.

If you’re planning on developing your characters beyond one drawing, such as into a full comic book story or even a video game, it’s essential that you’re able to recreate the design of every character over and over again. Some of the best illustrators and animators in the world often have to draw their creations hundreds, if not thousands, of times for new stories or feature length films and TV shows.

When you’re first designing your characters, create several key poses that they’d usually be found in, like standing still, walking, or running. You can then use these sketches as a template for any later designs, especially if you have help from someone else. Think about the angles that you want your character to be seen from and how you can replicate these in the future.

8. When In Doubt, Keep It Simple

animal eating
If you’re struggling to know where to start, go back to basics and keep it simple.

Just like keeping your color palette to a minimum for each character, when you’re struggling with knowing what to create, go back to basics. Keeping your designs simple and straightforward not only makes them easy to replicate, but also helps you to focus on key features and not get bogged down in the details.

Stick to simple lines and silhouettes to begin with until you feel more comfortable being a little experimental. There’s nothing wrong with using classic lines in your creations. After all, some of the world’s best-known cartoons are really quite easy to draw, like Scooby-Doo or SpongeBob SquarePants!

Start Drawing Your Dream Characters

Now that you’ve learned a few top character design tips for designing memorable characters, it’s time for you to get started with creating your own. Happy sketching!

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Written by:

Holly Landis