Character Design with Story | Hayden Aube | Skillshare

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Character Design with Story

teacher avatar Hayden Aube, Illustrator & Designer

Watch this class and thousands more

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Taught by industry leaders & working professionals
Topics include illustration, design, photography, and more

Watch this class and thousands more

Get unlimited access to every class
Taught by industry leaders & working professionals
Topics include illustration, design, photography, and more

Lessons in This Class

    • 1.



    • 2.

      Why Story


    • 3.

      Questions, Questions, Questions


    • 4.

      Try it Out!


    • 5.

      Killer Concepts


    • 6.

      Not Just Characters


    • 7.

      Final Thoughts


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About This Class

You can create the most beautiful character in the world, but if there is little thought behind it, it just won't be that interesting. That's what we're tackling in this class—the difference between making pretty pictures and ones that generate real attention. By putting thought in before we draw and using the power of questions, we'll go over how simple it is to see leagues of improvement in your characters.

Together we'll be covering:

  • Why adding backstory to characters makes all the difference
  • The interesting observations about character design that came from having many of you draw pirates
  • How to make unique characters that are more fun to make and to look at
  • How great artists use story in their work
  • How to apply story to everything that isn't a character as well

I hope you learn lots, have a fun time and enjoy what I believe to be one of my best classes yet. See you in class!

Meet Your Teacher

Teacher Profile Image

Hayden Aube

Illustrator & Designer


Hayden here and I am an illustrator, designer and most importantly to you, teacher!

I am constantly hunting for the actions that will have me producing my best work possible--I assure you it's no easy feat. That's why my primary goal in all of these classes isn't to give you just any information, but only the information that's going to make the biggest difference in your work. Think of it as optimizing your artistic development ;)

So if you're looking to level up your skills in design and illustration, consider checking out my classes. I've gone to great lengths to keep them short and to the point so you can get the information quickly and jump to creating.

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1. Introduction: Hello, my name is Hayden Aube, and I'm an illustrator and graphic designer. Something that I'm always trying to do in creating these classes is come up with the actions that are going to produce the biggest results. You can think of it as getting a big return on investment on this time you spend learning. So when it came to character design, something that a lot of you have requested, I really had to stop and think what would be the one thing that would make the biggest difference when it came to creating characters. I spent a lot of time researching, exploring, talking to other artists, I even created a drawing experiment which was actually pretty fun and I think that I have a really good answer for you guys. So rather than show you the nuts and bolts of actually drawing a character, I'm going to be showing you what I believe to be the most important part of designing a character, which is the concept. So together we're going to take a deep dive into why concept is so important when you create a character. To do this, we're going to look at the work of other artists and try to tease apart why they do some of the things that they do and then we're also going to look at the experiment that I created and see what kind of results we can pull from that. For the many of you that I know participated in the experiment, don't be surprised if you see your drawings. So once we have established why story is so important for character design, I'm going to show you some simple but really effective ways of adding it to your characters and then once you're comfortable, I'm going to show you how you can just as easily apply that technique to anything that isn't a character. So that means objects, vehicles, environments, designs, anything. By the end of this class, you're not only going to understand one of the most important parts of creating a character, but you're going to have effective techniques for doing it yourself. So regardless of what software you use or experience that you may have, if you have an interest in making engaging characters that are fun to make, then this class is for you. Hope to see you there. 2. Why Story : Before we go developing the story of our characters, it's important for us to actually ask ourselves, why is this necessary? If you look long enough at any accredited illustration school, something for concept art, for animation, you'll see that there is not just an emphasis on the actual technical drawing skills, but also on the thinking that goes behind it. It's even behind the name concept art. You may think that sure, concept artists work on movies and video games, and of course, they need to really think things through, but how does that apply to what I do? I assure you that if the extent of your character design is just in logos or icons, it's still is very beneficial for you to learn how to create the story of a character. In fact, I would think that designers would understand more than anybody else the idea that form follows function. To explore the benefits of story, I conducted a small drawing experiment in which I had participants draw two pirates at five minutes each. For the first drawing, the brief was pretty simple, draw a pirate. But for the second drawing, they first had to read a few paragraphs explaining the personality and experience of this pirate. Rather than drawing a generic pirate, people were now drawing Edgar Bushybrows, an island stranded pirate who spends his time racing crabs, devouring coconuts, and putting off any plans of actually escaping his island. When we compare the first and second drawings, we see some pretty interesting things. First of all, without even asking, many people introduce scenes into the drawings. The decision that this character is stuck on an island was enough to have many of the participants include the island in their drawing. I think it goes without saying that a character and an environment is a much more interesting than one floating in space. On the same note, many people included objects and symbols into the piece based on the provided information. We had heart-shaped eye patches to hint at his calm nature, sand castles to show how he might spend his free time, and lots of crabs and coconuts to illustrate some of the favorite parts of his island life. Just as with the environment, these elements support the piece and just naturally add more interest. We also got a variety in poses. When I just asked for pirate, most of what I get is a character standing in one place. But when I add some story, suddenly I get all sorts of action poses that actually tell us a bit of who this character is, sitting on the beach, going fishing, building a sandcastle, these are all much more interesting visuals than standing still. Finally, and what I think most importantly, is in the second drawing, we see a breaking of the pirate mold. When most people think pirate, they think in very generic terms; eyes patch, peg leg, angry. While these elements still appear in many of the second drawings, that's not all that exists. We see happy pirates, sad pirates, fat pirates, borderline naked pirates, even a bird pirate. If you want to learn more about this experiment, a more in-depth write up can be found in the class description. One of the biggest pitfalls about drawing such an iconic character, is that we already have all these ideas about how it's going to look before we even start. Chances are anybody seeing your drawing has those same ideas. By creating new decisions about a character before we even start drawing, we can override that default and create something that's much more interesting to make and to look at. 3. Questions, Questions, Questions: So it's clear that adding narrative to our characters is a good idea. But how should we go about doing that? Well, it's actually pretty simple. Remember that we have that default image of what a parrot looks like before we even draw it. Well, imagine that you have that default for just about everything. What do you picture when you think of an alien or a robot, or even a refrigerator? Unless you've never heard of these things, chances are you're going to have an immediate image in your head of what they are. Unless we put some work in, that immediate image is going to be how you're drawing looks. So how do we override this default? Well, if we look back to the drawing experiment, we can see that by creating new decisions before we even start drawing, we can override that image and create something new. What is the best way to come up with new decisions about a character? Well, that's asking questions. This is where the versatility of this technique really comes to play. As you can ask any question of your character, and it's going to influence how it turns out. So let's say that I am drawing a knight, and I asked myself, is he a good knight? No. Maybe he's really bad, and so I want to put a bunch of dents in his arm, I'm going to show that he keeps getting hit. Well, why isn't he a good night? Well, he just doesn't like to fight. So I might hint at that by putting a big like P sign on his shield or on his cape or something like that. If he doesn't like fighting, then how come he's still a Knight? Well, maybe he's just really, really big. So you can see that the further you go with this, the more developed and interesting and different your character becomes. What's great about this too is that it just makes the process of making a character that much more fun. You're asking questions, you're getting really invested in it, and you will found that when you're really invested in your character, not only are you having a good time, but then the people who are going to seen it are going to get invested in it too. So as I said, you can ask anything, and I encourage you to really have a lot of fun with these questions. But if you're ever in doubt, just as with any storytelling practice, you can go back to the 5W's. So who. What is this character's name? How old are they? What is their job? Are they even human, are they an animal, are the stranger from a distant land, what? What are they doing right now? What do they like? What do they dislike? What are their dreams? What are their fears? What drives them? So where. Where are they? Where were they? Where are they going to be? Where were they? Where would they rather be? When. What time of day is it? What year is it? What's the season? Is it a holiday? Why. Why is the character in this situation? Why are they doing what they're doing? Why aren't they doing something else? Why do they fear what they fear? So if you're ever stuck, I've attached a PDF of great questions to ask in the resources section of this class that has these and many more. Start to think of character design as problem-solving, where you create both the problem and the answer. Every time that you come up with a new decision about your character, it creates the problem of, okay, how am I going to get this across visually? So how will you illustrate that your character smells bad or is allergic to cats or likes spaghetti. This is a really fun part of the drawing is that you get to come up with creative solutions for these problems. Maybe you decide that how you're going to show you a character like spaghetti is by making her hair out of spaghetti. Finally, you can continue to ask yourself questions while you're drawing. Personally, I found that the longer that I've drawn, the easier it's become for me to fall into autopilot as I'm doing so, especially when it's something that I draw all the time. So developing the habit of asking questions as you're creating a drawing is a really great way to override that autopilot, and keep yourself engaged and make every stroke of the pencil intentional. 4. Try it Out!: Now we're actually going to try this out. Much like the experiment, you're going to be drawing two characters. One that's just the default approach, and another that takes the concept approach. But there are a couple of rules. First of all, both drawings must depict the same kind of character. Preferably something that's well known, so that we known that you're going to have some default ideas about it. If you don't get an immediate image in your head when you think of the character, don't choose it. Here are a couple options. In the study, I gave people only five minutes for each drawing. Obviously, you're not going to get a masterpiece in five minutes, but it's a good way of limiting the amount of time you have to think for the initial drawing. This isn't necessarily about creating your best character ever, but about noticing the difference it makes to put thought in ahead of time. Lastly, try to draw the first thing that comes to mind for the first piece. It's worth noting that you've just listened to a lot of advice about overriding your autopilot, so your brain is going to want to do that. But let your default way of thinking steer the ship for the first piece. The second piece is where you'll want to start asking questions and breaking the default notion that your brain has. Once you've done both drawings, you can upload them here to your class project. You should include the first drawing, the questions and answers you made for the second, and then the second drawing itself. If you want to take any of the drawings further than the sketch, all the power to you. Next up, we're going to look at some examples of story done right in character. If you still want some more information before you start your own drawings, it may be a good idea to watch this next set of videos first. 5. Killer Concepts: First up we're actually going to look at one of the masters of story and that's Pixar. I could have picked any character from any film, but I thought one that was very good at illustrating these points is WALL-E. You can tell that Pixar didn't just say, "Hey, we need a robot that Compaq's trash," and somebody drew hymn up. Lots and lots of decisions were made about WALL-E that informed how we ended up. Lucky for us, we can see a part of that process from sum of their concept art. From an engineering point of view, it's clear that how he actually functions was a big component of building this character. Lots of exploration went into how we would get around, how we would move his arms, perform tasks, even blinking. The blinking itself wasn't some arbitrary decision, it was Pixar trying to humanize WALL-E and make them relatable for us. Now, of course is personality can come across in his behavior. He is a bit clumsy sometimes. He seems to express real genuine feelings. He does some very human thing. It's just like collecting objects because he likes them. But his backstory is expressed in his physical appearance alone. The shape in tilt his eyes and make them look sad or vulnerable. His worn and dirty body is telling of the work that he does and how long he's been doing it. Even the way he brings his hands together when he stands, gives him a very shy appearance. You typically wouldn't think of a robot as being shy. Again, Pixar are fantastic at conveying story and fortunately for us they have a lot to say on the matter. If you'd like to known more about how they breathe life into their characters, I would highly recommend this article. Next up, we're going to be looking at a piece by a good friend and great Illustrator, Andrew cope, where Pixar has an entire film to get across the personality and story of a character, Andrew often just has a single illustration to do so. He does it very well. In this piece we can see the crew of Scooby Doo playing a game of Clue, a fun enough concept on its own. But what I'd like to point out hear is how the subtle details are really telling of not just the characters and how they're feeling, but also just what's going on in the illustration. Fred who was in the white shirt, is getting a bit frustrated at not being able to solve the puzzle while Velma who's in the yellow, is very thoughtful and reserved. Daphne who is in the purple, is a little more on the casual side and we can seen that in the way that she's sitting while Shaggy and Scooby Doo, who I don't think I need to point out our best friends and that's why they're sitting next to each other. There also the silliest and that's why Shaggy is lying upside down, and their love of food is hinted at by all of the snacks that surround them. Coming back to the concept of asking yourself questions, Andrew shared with me two questions that were very helpful for the creation of this piece and many others he makes. There now actually my favorite questions. The first is what happened to before this illustration? The second is, what will happen after this illustration? I encourage you all to checked out Andrew's work on his website. Not only because he does story very well, but also he freely spoke to me at length on the matter while I was preparing for this class and that generosity really deserves attention. For the final example, we're actually going to go back in time with it to one of my favorite paintings, which is Icarus and Daedalus by Anthony van Dyck. Paintings done by old masters are actually an excellent source for story. That's because back then, much of the work that artists were commissioned for were to depict significant scenes from history and mythology and religion. You got a lot of meaning crammed into a single painting. For people who are not familiar with the tale of Icarus from Greek mythology. Daedalus here created a set of wings from wax and feathers for his son Icarus and himself to escape. Amazed that they'd been banished too. Now Daedalus cautioned Icarus to follow him in flight by not flying too high or too low. If he flew too high, the son would melt the wax and he would fall. If he flew too low waves from the ocean would wash off the feathers and he would fall as well. By pointing the hands of Daedalus and Icarus in this painting, Van Dyck was able to get across that significant part of the story in just a still image. If you're hungry for more samples of story brought the character, I would recommend looking at the work of concept artists, checking out Renaissance paintings, as well as books and film. That being said, one of the best places to found this inspiration is just to look at the stuff that you like. If like me, you really like video games. You can look there because there is a lot of story that goes into the development of those characters. 6. Not Just Characters: So now that you understand that adding story is a very vital component to making great characters, and you know how to do it, I can let you in on something that I think is pretty cool, and that is that it works not just with characters but with anything. Literally anything you could possibly make can benefit from a dose of story. This means objects, environments, designs, even things that are quite abstract. For example, another friend that was quite helpful in creating this class, Meggie Appleton created a whole series of designs based around visually displaying code. While it's possible to just add a bunch of squares and lines to a page and call it abstract. Meggie took a deep dive into researching how code actually functions and attempted to illustrate it in different ways. I think you'll agree that the results are much more interesting than a bunch of arbitrary boxes and lines. Again, when you get invested, so will the viewer. So how do you add story to non characters? Exactly the same way through questions. Let's say you're drawing a snowy mountain range. What happened before this illustration? Somebody yelled. What's going to happen after this illustration? An avalanche will fall across the valley below. So the seen I draw might be of snow cascading down a mountain sighed with all sorts of animals running away from it. What if we're drawing a book? Who owns this book? Maybe it's a wizard. What are the contents of this book? It's a spell to raise the dead and how old is the book? Thousands of years. So the book I draw maybe very worn and dirty, maybe there's some pages falling out, but I might give it a very eerie magical glow and create sum archaic looking depictions of people dying and coming back to life on the cover. Just as I mentioned before, have some fun with these questions, you really can ask anything and when in doubt, just checked the list that I've uploaded, there are even questions on there that deals specifically with non-characters. 7. Final Thoughts: Now, you should have a good understanding of why the story is so vital for creating great characters. You know that if you want to add story, all you need to do is ask and answer questions. Hopefully, by now you've had a chance to try out this technique through the class project, and if you haven't, that's totally fine, but I highly recommend it. Just as with anything else, practice makes a big difference. Even just the 20 minutes that you would put into this can really start to give you the benefits of working with story on characters. As I said, this is all about getting the most results from your actions, but you still need to take actions. I just want to say a few more things before we go. One thing I did mention is research, which is super important, especially when you're doing concept development. Maybe you're making a robot rather than just drawing what you can think up or just drawing what you've seen other people do. If you actually take some time and look at how machines function, some history of robotics may be then study the pseudoscience of Star Wars robots, and these are all things that are going to yield, very interesting, results for your drawing. Second, only add as much backstory as you actually need. In preparing for this class, I created a character, and I went way overboard on the story. It was like an hour worth of drawing, but I spent four hours building the universe that he lives in and the people that he knows and his list of past achievements. All of that wasn't, really, necessary for an hour of drawing. When I spoke to Andrew Kolb about this, he mentioned that your character lives and dies in your illustration. By that, there is no point in creating any story that isn't visually going to impact your drawing. Last, of all, I want to thank those of you who made the suggestion for this class. It really makes my life a lot easier when I know exactly what you guys want, and so I really do appreciate the suggestions. Then those of you who participated in the drawing experiment, thank you so much because that one went really, really well, and I had a lot of fun looking at your drawings. Lastly, everybody who is here right now and is just taking the class, thank you so much. I really appreciate your attention. I hope I was able to return the favor by giving you some value today. Thanks a lot and take care.