How to Design a Character
Some characters are impossible to forget.
Usually, that’s because the design of the character tells a story before the character ever moves or speaks. In fact, being memorable is what separates characters from simple illustrations.
Full disclosure: The process of designing a character is not easy. Sometimes, it can seem simple from the outside. Iconic characters like Mickey Mouse or Eric Cartman from South Park are as simple as they get. But that does not mean that they are simple to create.
Actually, a lot of time and effort goes into simplifying a character and making them as effective as possible. But characters can also be complex. Think of Final Fantasy and its detailed universe - what goes into designing those characters?
For this article we asked @maddastic about her creative process and we also created a video in collaboration with her that shows you the tools and techniques she uses to design a character from start to finish in Vectornator. Be sure to watch it!
But also don’t miss the theory which is explained below step by step. But first:
What is Character Design?
Character design is the process of creating and illustrating a persona that fits a particular visual story.
Characters are often used on screen, like cartoons, movies, in games, and but they’re also designed for books, either mangas, comic books, illustrated children’s books, or graphic novels.
But character design involves much more than just creating something pretty. It encompasses everything about design at large: the principles, the theory, and above all, the execution.
That is why character design is so important to know as an artist. It touches on so many facets of the design creative process that you are bound to elevate all your technical skills to the next level.
Creating a character means creating a design that speaks personality, attitude, and relatability.
Users should be able to identify themselves with it. As much as you want to create characters that you personally love, you also need to create them for your audience. This might mean that you have to respect certain product or project requirements.
As we move on to the fundamentals of character design, you’ll notice just how personality, story-telling, and the capability to be memorable are the most important aspects in this process.
Start With Research
If you’ve read any of our "how to" articles, you know that this is going to be your first step in any type of creative endeavour.
Pre-production is more often than not the most important step in your creative process. That’s when you understand what you need to create, and you also get those creative juices flowing.
Don’t just browse the internet, but put your critical thinking cap on and try to deconstruct why other characters are successful, while others are not. Study character designs from a variety of sources, and analyze why you like some of their aspects in particular. Your mind is like a visual library; the more sources you have, the better.
And don’t stop there. You are surrounded by a wide range of amazing characters in your day to day life: your friends, family, political figures. Think of the way they walk, talk, dress, gesture, and apply some method theory into your design.
Once you’ve done your research, put together all your inspirational sources in a mood board that can guide your process further.
But Remove Yourself From References
At the next stage, it’s important to take a step back from everything you’re researching, as you don’t want to commit one of the biggest character design crimes of all: repeating what others have done before.
Some artists prefer to not have a mood board at all, just because that can influence their process too much. The act of remembering your reference from your memory might spark more creativity on the way.
Character design is not as simple as just sitting down and sketching characters for the of fun it.
The requirements are ultimately set by the end user. Although it may feel like your client is the one calling the shots, they wouldn't create a product without knowing that there is a demand for it. And said product would not look the way it does, or have the effect it has, without taking into account what the user needs and wants.
There are many angles you can look at before designing a character. And your illustration depends on what your goals are. Is it for an animated series? Is it for a manga? For a children’s book? Are you creating video game characters?
It’s almost like creating a product in itself. So you need to ask yourself these extra questions:
- Who is your end user?
- What’s the context in which your character will be used?
- What is the distribution of your character?
The latter is important in knowing what amount of detail should go into creating your designs.
There’s a reason why Cartoon Network characters are so simplified, while Disney characters are more complex. It’s not that Cartoon Network is lazy (other’s words, not ours!), it’s just the matter of a balance between what a character needs to represent, what level of detail the story medium affords, and how fast you can tell the story with as little resources as possible. When you have this equation in mind, Cartoon Network is doing a stellar job.
Commissioned work might be more restrictive, but it’s no less creative. On the contrary, it’s the way you execute within certain bounds that creativity comes into play.
The Importance of the Environment
We’re not saying you need to illustrate an entire world for your character. Unless that’s what the requirement asks for.
But you do need to envision this universe in your mind. Your character is not just a nice illustration to look at. It’s a person, living in their own world, and because of this world and the way they interact with it, they are who they are.
The environment in which your character lives in will further help cement believability in your creation.
The bigger question is: character or environment first?
That’s up to you. Some make up an entire universe before the character, some the other way around, while others do both at the same time. We’re not helping?
Well think of this: when you want to design a character, what’s the first thing that comes to your mind - a person, or a world? Go with your instinct when making your design decisions, just don’t forget to build both.
What’s Your Character's Backstory?
Or, how did your character interact with their environment up until the moment you drew them?
The meta of it all, right? But think about the fact that the character existed before you even created them. There needs to be a reason for why your characters are who they are.
Answer these questions:
- Out of the whole universe of your character, where specifically do they come from?
- What life-changing events happened in their past?
- How did these events change your character?
- Who are their friends and family?
- Where do they live now?
- What’s their heritage?
- What is their job?
You can get really granular here, even down to what they like to eat. Don't get too lost in the weeds, but as long as these questions help build your character and you’re having fun with it, there’s no harm done. However, try not to get tangled up in it. You might find that the backstory is more exciting than the character itself.
The answer to these questions will help solidify your character, and will affect your character’s personality. Which we’ll talk about in a bit.
Goals, Goals, Goals
They are the driving force behind your character’s traits and personality.
A lot of the time it’s about something that is missing. Privilege, money, love, Nemo. You can rely on some of the most classic conflicts to create a dramatic thrust behind the actions of your character.
Give Your Character a Fleshed-Out Personality
Your character’s personality is going to be an integral part of the story-telling, which ultimately will make your character memorable.
Don’t think that your advanced drawing techniques are going to be enough - although they help quite a lot! Because people connect to personalities even more than they connect to beautiful designs. A coherent personality that is reflected throughout your design will make people connect and relate to your character. And as a result, your character will matter to your viewers.
A lot of your character’s personality is revealed through their pose, their facial expressions, and the clothes they wear. Figuring this part out is going to help you tremendously during the following steps.
So make sure you understand your character’s traits before laying down your sketches. You should know your character so well, that if your character walks into a party, you’d recognize them immediately and you are able to anticipate their reactions.
the character design process is to give your characters a unique body shape that can be recognized instantly.
Anyone should be able to identify your character out of a lineup, even if it's just a black and white outline.
The simplest way to do that is to make use of exaggeration.
Try not to follow too closely to anatomical rules when creating your character. By exaggerating your character's outward appearance, their personality will immediately shine through. And you are that much closer to making your character larger than life.
Don’t be afraid that this will turn your character into a caricature. Depending on what your project requirements are, you can create exaggerations with varying degrees of intensity. But think of it this way; if your character is strong, like Mr. Incredible, then pump up those muscles and make their arms big.
Always consider shape theory!
Shape theory is a concept used in character design to communicate meaning based on shapes we are familiar with. Simple shapes can tell a story, show personality, and trigger an emotional response in your audience without using any words.
Circles and ovals, for example, are excellent for friendly characters. While square jaws, shoulders, and even hands give a feeling of strength, but also balance and discipline. Triangles are the sharpest of the basic shapes, and by exaggerating their angles you can end up with a menacing, or evil character.
But that does not mean that you cannot use angular shapes in positive characters either. Warriors, for example, can have spikes on their clothes for protection. Or angular hair or facial structure because they are intellectually sharp.
In the same vein, negative characters can be built of rounded shapes in an effort to mislead your audience about your the character's true intentions.
While you should use shape theory with a grain of salt, it still gives you valuable insight on where to start.
There is a lot of educational material out there that tells you how you should build your character. Did you know that Bugs Bunny was based on “Screwball” archetype? This archetype features an elongated head, exaggerated features, a bean shape body, low forehead, and skinny legs.
This archetype is one of many developed by Preston Blair, a Disney and MGM cartoonist veteran who literally wrote the cartoon character design bible in 1947. He used the characters that he created in his prolific career as references to exemplify how various archetypes, like the Screwball, the Cute Character, and the Goofy Character can be drawn.
But while Blair’s guide is a fantastic point of reference, there are not many hard-and-fast rules on how you should design your own characters.
There are certain types of characters that come up again and again, like a princess with flowing, golden locks. When you first sit and sketch your character, it’s likely that you’ll incorporate at least one cliche. Just push yourself to keep drawing and find more imaginative ways to communicate your character's personality.
Another great way to make your character distinct is by improving their pose.
A simple way to check a character's pose is by turning your actual character into a silhouette - so making it fully black - and then you can check if some gestures or shapes can be pushed further to make it more iconic.
What can you simplify? Are there any elements overlapping? Ask yourself these questions and be truly critical when analyzing the silhouette.
Even if you’re not creating an animated character, you need to give them facial expressions and a range of emotions that align with their personality and further emphasize their traits.
Depending on the latter, you need to choose between muted or wildly exaggerated expressions. Classic examples of exaggerated expressions can be found in the legendary cartoon SpongeBob SquarePants. Eyes popping out of the character’s heads; jaws dropping left and right. But there are also very subdued expressions like the those of Saitama in One Punch Man, whose entire persona is built around deadpan reactions.
Play around until you get what feels right. Do other character studies, but the quickest way to understand how a face moves in different situations, is by picking up a mirror. See how your muscles change the shape of your eyebrows, the corners of your mouth, the shape of your eyes. This is the golden trifecta of emotional signals.
Also observe that your face is not 100% symmetrical, so try to apply that into your design because that will make your character that much more believable.
Hair, Clothes, and Accessories
One of the most difficult things to draw digitally, and especially with vectors, is hair.
Professional visual artists profess to having hated drawing hair at the beginning of their careers, but now loving the process instead!
While you may think that you need to draw every single strand, think of hair more like a large, organic shape that moves with the character and the environment. So it’s a great way to show movement and energy in your piece. Treat hair like an important prop that tells the story.
It goes without saying, clothing and accessories will serve the same purpose.
Just the way you love to dress in a certain way, your character does too. The garments they wear are a reflection of their personality, and your stylistic choice here will make them believable and relatable.
If your character has a job, like Mario, he’s going to look the part by wearing a uniform. If your character is a "wannabe normal teenager" like Jocasta (Maddy's character), then she will wear clothing that will make her blend in. Yet notice that her hair is emerald green to hint at the fact that she is, in fact, special.
When designing clothes and accessories, think of the cultural background of your character as well as their age, affiliation, and status, to pull together the sense of who the character is.
Naturally, people associate dark colors with villains, but also mysterious types.
Light colors tend to be reserved for good guys, cute personalities, and pure intentions. However, don't be afraid to break these cliches.
When you think about it, some of the most famous characters are illustrated with the most minimal color palette. A well designed palette is recognizable from rectangular swatches alone. Talk about power! The combination of a good silhouette and a good palette is your ticket to designing an iconic character.
So be selective. Choose your main color, and add a limited palette to it that helps support it without competing.
Make sure your colors do not blend into each other, by ensuring that the difference in value between colors is high enough to be perceived as contrasting. You can do that by turning your character in greyscale - if your greys look very similar, you need to change the value of some of your colors. We have a full article on how to create unique color palettes and we detail this aspect in there as well.
Finally, your character does not live in a void. Even if your background is not done yet, make it a mid-tone grey in order to understand how your lights and darks look against it.
Your initial character design drawing should be a rough sketch outlining the general anatomy of your character.
As you continue sketching, you get a better feel for your character, which will allow you to create a more polished, final version.
Maddy likes using Procreate for this stage as it allows her a lot of freedom in sketching. This is where she also identifies the light source, and how it affects shadows and highlights.
Some artists also prefer to draw characters in thumbnail size, and do multiple variations on the same canvas focusing on the main shapes and gestures. Variety is what can help you make a decision in terms of what camera angle you are capturing and what tells the story best.
The point is to sketch out as many ideas as you can, without thinking too much or being too critical of your execution. Because this can be cleaned up in the final step!
After having laid all this ground work, we’re very close to the finish line.
The next step is finalizing all the details in your character. Your medium is going to vary depending on how you plan on using your character. A comic book artist might finalize their character with ink and colored pencils on paper.
But most designers today have turned to digital devices for their masterpieces. Vector-based programs like Vectornator are a favorite since your final piece will end up looking crisp and high quality no matter the medium on which it is displayed and indifferent of resolution.
The digitization process of your character will be easier with a well-elaborated sketch. So in this step, you can simply trace your sketch with vectors. After importing the sketch, Maddy prefers to use the Pencil Tool since it feels more like pen-on-paper and it’s easier to manipulate.
Once the outline is done, she moves to color, shading, light, highlights, and finally she adds the background, all on separate layers. Watch the full video series for the entire process.
Let’s do a full recap: character design is one of the most important artistic skills you can learn as an illustrator.
We’ve touched on so many principles that will help you become a better artist in general. While the process is similar to a lot of other disciplines (the ideation phase, the conception phase, the prototyping phase, and the testing phase until you get to the final design) what makes character design different is that it allows your imagination to run absolutely wild.
Vectornator is the perfect tool for creating your own original characters with strong vector shapes.
You can download Vectornator for free to get started. Practice with these character design tips and tag us on social when you bring your character to life!