5 Character Design Tips

A few years ago I helped teach a workshop on using story principles and at one of the keynote sessions I found myself in the VIP section (for which I feel corny even saying) sitting next to Veggie Tales Creator Phil Vischer and watching veteran Disney animator Glen Keane give a talk about how he designed and animated Beast from Beauty and the Beast. It was a surreal animation geek-fest moment for me, and a rewarding experience I’ll always remember. For me, one of the key take-aways from Glen’s talk was the importance of identifying with the character.

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There are some great books on character design that I’ve personally read and recommend. Check out the resources page to see them. I’ve also gleaned various principles in art school, workshops, and sketch clubs. If you’re a character designer, you know that it’s a craft you never stop learning. Below, I’ve detailed 5 tips to great character design.

1. Know the character.
You can’t pick a direction until you understand the characters personality, backstory and key motivations. What do they want? What drives them? What are their strengths and weaknesses?

2. Use reference material.
Literally going to Africa (like concept artists did during development for The Lion King) is ideal for sketching Afican animals because you can study the real thing first hand. Most artists aren’t afforded that opportunity, so pulling reference from the web, books or other sources is the next best thing. Years ago I toured Big Idea (back in the Lombard, Illinois hay-day) and they used giant foam boards with all kinds of reference photos pinned on them. More recently, I toured Sony Pictures Animation in Culver City, CA, and there they develop large photoshop reference compilations, print them out with an oversize printer and mount them on large foam boards so they can be easily moved to an artist’s office, or set up for display in the pitch and review room.

3. Define the character type.
Is she a villain, hero, sidekick? Is he a main character or a supporting character? All of these considerations influence shape language, size comparison, posing, details, and other character design attributes.

4. Pick a shape language.
Shape language is a term used to describe the key shapes used to define the character’s form. This choice will be influenced by the previous tip as certain character types lend themselves to a certain shape language. The clearest recent example that comes to mind is DreamWork’s “Rise of the Guardians”. The “art of” book for this great movie does a fantastic job showing how each character has a specific shape language. This is the most overt description of shape language I’ve seen in any “art of” books. Usually it’s a bit more subtle, but it works so well for this film.

5. Push the character.
What I mean is…don’t settle for your first good design. Keep coming back to the character and see how far you can take the design. Tom Moore, creator/director of Secret of Kells detailed in their production blog about how he went thru several versions of key character designs and felt he was finished until a friend challenged him to push the designs further to develop a unique look for the film.

If its a cute character, what is the essence of cuteness? Simplify the character to its core…then do the opposite. The art direction and vision of the production (or comic book, or web short, or illustration) will determine the style and influence the design, but the main point here is to capture the characters baseline attributes.

If you want to read more posts about character design, I reviewed a CTNx workshop featuring famous character designer Carlos Grangel. You can view parts 1 and 2. I also reviewed another workshop featuring 6 famous sculptors in 2012, but the content is still extremely relevant.

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What other tips or resources have you found helpful as a character designer? You can post a comment below.