Certain characters are hard to forget. Just think of Mickey Mouse, Superman, or Buzz Lightyear—you’d recognize these characters anywhere, in any format. That memorability is the core of character design.
Character design isn’t only about drawing a character; it’s about developing an entire concept, world, and backstory to bring them to life. And it’s not an art form reserved for illustrators, either. Many different types of artists—including authors, animators, and video game designers—incorporate this skill into their work. If you’re just getting started, we’ve put together a step-by-step guide to help you start building your own character design portfolio.
What Is Character Design?
Character design is the process of developing and illustrating a character for any kind of visual story. Those characters are often used on screen (e.g., in a video game, movie, or TV show), but could also be designed for a comic book, illustrated children’s book, or graphic novel.
The key to good character design is creating a character that audiences connect with—someone eye-catching and memorable. That’s why artists can’t just rely on good character design drawings; they must truly understand the character’s personality and backstory.
4 Steps to Designing a Character
Surprisingly, you don’t start designing a character by picking up a pen or pencil to draw. To design an effective, well-developed character, you have to think beyond the drawing itself. Eventually, you may develop your own creative process for character design, but if you’re a beginner, the steps below will help you get started.
Step 1: Research and Discovery
If you’re basing your character off of an existing idea (for example, a character in a book) or already have a good idea of what you want to create, you may decide to skip this step. If you are starting from scratch, however, this is the time to find your inspiration.
Try browsing magazines, Pinterest, or Google Images to develop a mood board of types of characters that interest you. Do you want to design a character that’s an animal? Human? Extraterrestrial? Is it realistic or a cartoon? What time period are they from? Ultimately, the goal of this step is to hone in on the overall type and style of your character.
Step 2: Hone In on Your Character’s Traits
Now that you have a good idea of the type of character you want to design, you can move on to pinpointing the character’s specific traits.
Some of the traits will be straightforward:
- Eye color
- Hair color
- Physical build
- Defining marks (moles, scars, tattoos, etc.)
Other traits may not be as overt, but will influence the way you illustrate the character. For example:
- Where does the character live?
- What does the character do for a living?
- Is the character kind or evil? Patient or irritable? Outgoing or shy?
If you have the freedom (i.e., you aren’t creating the character from a predefined brief for a book or movie), Skillshare instructor Jazza Brooks suggests simply flipping a coin to make these decisions. Heads, brown hair; tails, blonde. Sometimes, this can force you to extend your creativity and think beyond your typical ideas.
Ultimately, taking the time to really think through your character’s personality and backstory benefits your audience. “When you’re really invested in your character, not only are you going to have a good time, but the people who are going to see [your character] are going to get invested in it, too,” explains Skillshare instructor Hayden Aube.
Step 3: Begin Sketching
Now that you have a thorough understanding of who your character is, in terms of both physical appearance and backstory, you can begin drawing. Your initial character design drawing should be a rough sketch (or several), outlining the general anatomy and proportions of your character. Will he have big eyes or little eyes? Broad or narrow shoulders? Perfect posture or a bit of a slouch? If you like what you draw, keep refining it. If you decide you don’t like it or want to change it, move on and try again.
As you continue sketching, you’ll get a better feel for your character, which will allow you to create a more polished, final version.
Step 4: Finalize Your Character Design Drawing
The next step is creating a more finalized version of your character, based on the sketches that you completed. Your medium may vary depending on how you’re going to use the character. A cartoon or comic book artist, for example, may create a final version of the character with ink and colored pencils on paper. A designer creating a character for a video game or film would likely use a computer program to bring the character to life on a screen.
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What Makes a Great Character Design?
Like any form of art, character design is subjective. There are no hard-and-fast rules that define whether a character is good or bad. A complex, detailed character design drawing, for instance, isn’t necessarily better than a simple one—it’s just different.
However, there are a few basic concepts that can help you improve your character design art so that it’s effective and memorable.
Your character doesn’t need to be devoid of detail, but some novice character designers get a little too caught up in complexities. If you make your character too detailed (e.g., wearing a number of different accessories and holding multiple objects), it will be difficult to replicate or animate the character throughout the story. Stripping the character down of those details allows the audience to focus on the character itself.
Brent Noll and Maximus Pauson of the YouTube channel BaM Animation recommend designing your character in a way that makes it recognizable even when the character is just a silhouette. Think of any iconic character—Mickey Mouse, Shrek, SpongeBob SquarePants. You would be able to recognize that character just from its silhouette, without any detail or color. Creating your character with clear, identifiable shapes will help define your character more effectively.
A great character must be memorable. In other words, a character shouldn’t look like just any other person (or animal, or robot) on the street. As a character designer, you shouldn’t be afraid to experiment with principles of proportion, exaggeration, and color to build the personality of your character. Pushing yourself to create something unique will help you design a well-rounded, expansive character design portfolio.
What Makes a Bad Character Design?
You can create a beautifully illustrated character—but if it doesn’t stick with people, it won’t be effective within the context of your story. That’s the crux of determining whether character design is good or bad. If your audience doesn’t connect with your character, it won’t be an effective element of your story.
With that in mind, here are a few common mistakes that character designers make:
Mistake #1: Incorporating Cliches
There are certain character elements that come up again and again: a princess has flowing, golden locks; a criminal wears a black mask across his eyes; a hero carries a sword. When you first sit down to sketch your character, it’s likely that you’ll incorporate at least one common cliche. So push yourself to keep drawing and find other ways to communicate your character’s traits.
Mistake #2: Not Asking Enough Questions
Early in the character development phase (step #2 outlined above), you asked yourself several questions about your character, and that probably gave you a good start. But often, designers won’t go quite far enough to create a memorable character.
What other, unconventional questions can you think through to give your character a more distinct personality or background? For example, what does he smell like? What is he scared of? Did he grow up in a city or in the woods? These questions can give your character a backstory you may not have considered before. Ultimately, this will lead you to a more interesting character.
Mistake #3: Making Your Character Too Normal
Now, there’s nothing inherently wrong about creating a character that’s perfectly proportioned and looks exactly like whatever it’s supposed to be—a human, an animal, a robot. But you can improve your design and make a more eye-catching character by exaggerating certain physical traits. If your character is strong, for instance, maybe you make his muscles disproportionately large compared to his body. If your character has long legs, maybe you make them even longer. This is an effective way to make interesting, fun character designs that stand out from the rest.
Should I Use a Character Design Generator?
If you’re having trouble coming up with a concept for your next character, try searching online for a character design generator (also called a hero maker). These typically free tools will give you an interesting character prompt (say, a young, enthusiastic male robot with a chipped tooth), so you can take the idea and run with it. This can get your creativity flowing and encourage you to think beyond the types of characters you’d typically create.
Ultimately, good character design art isn’t just about the drawing—it’s about the backstory and details that make the character who he or she is. That’s what’s going to connect with your audience and make your character unforgettable.
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