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How to Design a Character in 3 Simple Steps

How to Design a Character in 3 Simple Steps

Creating a character in your mind is a fun and creative process. But the feeling you get when you see them actually brought to life is beyond amazing.

In this post, we will talk about easy and proven steps that help you create tons of original characters in no time.

You don’t need to be a master artist to conceive awesome characters!

Step 1: Research

Without any doubt, research is the most important part of the character design process. More often than not, the narrative designer hands characters’ descriptions to a 2d character designer. This includes the background, the setting, the purpose, the potential audience, etc.

However, many times the character description given to an artist is just made of a couple of short sentences. So, artists have to know how to fill in the blanks and flesh out a character But they need to hold off until they have done two types of research.

1. Thorough research on different aspects of the characters based on the story. Like their history, geography, anthropological aspects like gene make-up in terms of physical attributes, costumes, literature, society, and belief systems.

To get all the nuances and details rights is vital. It helps to both avoid irrelevancy and inaccuracies in design patterns and get inspired.

2. Research the existing list of characters and stereotypes, which are ample in number and variety. Sources of inspiration could be animation series and movies, commercials, video games, and all the aforementioned mediums.

You can make up a very original character by borrowing each of its’ aspects from one that already exists; the exaggerated lines from one, the bold colors from another, the comic, vivacious, and light-hearted gestures from a commercial jingle character, and the grave human emotion reflected in an epic or anime character.

In the video game Star Wars: Republic Commando, the Delta Squad who act as the main protagonists of the game, sport some impressive armors that easily distinguish them from the rest of the clones army.

Star Wars: republic commando Character Design - artwork
Can you discern the different sources of inspiration in designing these commandos?

Designer Michael Licht drew inspirations from roman gladiators, navy seals, and ninjas. The result is a character that radiates ferocious power like that of the gladiators, but also the cunning and the silent lethality of ninjas and seals.

Defining Character’s Personality

A big part of the character design is incorporating four aspects of their personality visually. A character designer reflects these personality traits in a blend of lines, shades, and colors that move.

Sometimes the character’s personality is pre-defined and you have to base the visual of the character on it. I recommend reading our article on the subject of game narrative to get a better grasp on how to develop a character’s backstory and personality.

But even if the personality is pre-defined, creating a well-crafted character with a personality that is clearly expressed in an artwork requires the character designer to have a grip on these four elements.

1. Background

Imagine that your character has Spanish heritage but was born and raised in the U.K. He is in his mid-20s, comes from an educated and wealthy family, and is a medical student, these are all big contributors to his personality and big chunks of his characters.

Knowing that background, you can infer that the character should have copper skin, probably wears glasses, and wears brand clothing. 

2. Role

It is a coming-of-age story about a young man that wants to forge his own destiny. So, the role of this character is to rebel against the norms of the well-off communities.

He has grown up in one, so he has bursts of outrage, a rebellious spirit, and a sense of determination. These should be visible in his appearance, expression, mannerisms, costumes, and so on.

3. Attitude

Since he comes from a well-to-do family, his attitude towards rebellion is peaceful protests at first. But after meeting with harsh opposition it turns into radical and revolutionary behavior. Whether he is violent or peaceful (or any other attitude) in his role should be discernible by how he looks.

4. Action

The appearance of a character should be telling how he/she acts or reacts, especially regarding the motion patterns. A violent, rebellious character is expected to have sharp, sudden movements that reflect his impatience toward what he has rebelled against.

Knowing this, designing colder colors or softer clothes for him would be counterproductive toward defining his character visually.

3 Great Sources of Inspiration & References for Character Design

Here at Pixune we find the research and brainstorming phases absolutely delightful, it provides a chance for everyone to come together and pour out their ideas and passion into the project.

We are going to share some very practical and useful tips with you; tips that are the extract of the accumulated experiences that we had during these years.

 1. Analyze Established Characters

Animated characters have a lot in common, and as a designer, you should be familiar with as many as possible.

When drawing inspiration from your selected sources, look for what stands out, what makes those characters especially appealing, and then single out those features, and start looking for possibilities to transform them into your own version of it.

To make it clear, you can take inspirations from how endearing the shape of pooh’s protruded belly is, how much of bug’s bunny’s charm comes from his bunny teeth, and how you can play with the direction, size, shape, and color to have big eyes reflect different characteristics like innocent playfulness, deliberate flirtatiousness, or clumsy goofiness.

Can you discern how having big eyes affects characters like Bart Simpson, Tweety, and Goofy?

2. Find Novelty in Old Concepts

It is extremely vital for a character designer to be able to look at old things like he/she is seeing them for the very first time, to go beyond the established definition of concepts that have been reinforced during a lifetime. This is arguably one of the hardest and most rewarding parts of the character designer profession.

One of the most popular characters in the world, Betty Boop was inspired by the singer Helen Kane

Neil Gaiman is one of the most fantastic and celebrated contemporary character designers. As primarily a writer, he is not a visual artist, he doesn’t draw or sketch his ideas. (at least not professionally, just enough to be able to show what’s on his mind to a collaborating artist).

However, the creative process behind every character creation is the same, and we are going to use one of his works as a great example of what it means to look at old concepts in a new light and reinvent them.

Example for Re-inventing Established Characters

Snow White is one of the most well-established folklore characters, the story has been told and retold for generations. She is a kind and beautiful maiden that goes into a coma after eating a poisoned apple.

She remains in a coma until she is kissed by a prince. However, Gaiman thought that a woman with black hair, pale skin, and cherry red lips could be a vampire.

What’s more, she slept in a coffin for a long time. From there, it was easy to add more bits and pieces to Snow White to turn her into a new vampire princess.

Another great example would come in the form of some of the immensely popular classic Disney characters like Cinderella, The Little Mermaid, Sleeping Beauty, Snow White, and Beauty And The Beasts.

Original tales written by the Grimm brothers were their source of inspiration, but with some quite radical changes.

At Disney, they had to make adjustments since Grimm’s version of the stories were quite grim, (pun intended), Disney 2d character design team reinvented them to be more cheerful, life-affirming, hopeful and colorful, which was far better in line with their target audience.

To sum up the research process: You observe and extract the concepts from various sources, you combine and convert them to reflect your own take, and you create an original character.

3. Draw from Personal Experiences

While you are researching both underlying concepts of the project and the ones created by your colleagues, don’t shy away from drawing from a little bit of your own personal observations in life.

That includes your own features and characteristics, and people you know, either personally or through a medium, like books, movies, folk tales, etc.

Notice how McShane has lined up these figures to give a better understanding of dimensions

Consider how Kevin McShane, a creative cartoonist, has drawn himself in 100 different 2d character design styles, which are all very remarkable, and with tons of inspiration opportunities.

It goes to show that personal experiences are a great and ready source of inspiration for your work, should you be willing to expose yourself.

Tip: Workout the Details

A key factor to success as a 2D character designer is paying attention to minute details; the slightest angle, direction, shade, and color difference can drastically change how the character is perceived; so don’t forget that being meticulous during the research stage is well worth the effort.

If you take the time to compare the model sheets depicting nuances of expression and poses that have been drawn for Sinbad’s character.

You will notice that a difference as minuscule as one-tenth of an inch in sketching the start line of a smile determines whether your character is smiling victoriously, smirking wickedly, or grinning disapprovingly.

So if you want to embolden any of these characteristics in your character, you need to be mindful of that one-tenth of an inch.

Step 2: Visualization and Concepts

By this phase, you should have enough fuel to fire your imagination. Heaps of different ideas, frames of reference, and facts make up that fuel. Now is the time to start visualizing the characters.

Start with anatomy, then in gestures and movements, actions and reaction, so on and so forth, to finally arrive at a solid character in your mind.

This is basically a creative warm-up between research and thumbnailing. You should think of your character in as many different situations, poses, and actions as possible.

In many studios and teams, the visualization process is done by discussing the various aspects of the character with the narrative designer or the creative director.

This takes some of the creative burdens off your shoulders and ensures that the final product is in line with the vision of the creative director. Two brains work better than one!

With this briefing, there’s often a series of suggested traits be they physical or emotional, and the 2d character designer uses those notes to start thumbnailing ideas. Rough thumbnails help to flesh out the many directions that the designer could take.

Silhouette it First

Many artists start the production of a 2D character design with Silhouettes. Silhouette is a black outlined shape of the character, much like a shadow with no detail. Silhouette thumbnails are among the most helpful and productive methods of the design process.

Especially when it’s necessary to produce a large number of variations of concepts within a short period of time. Not all artists use this method and it’s certainly not a necessity to design a creature or a character purely based on a silhouette shape.

That doesn’t mean that designers don’t subconsciously focus on shapes and designs that make a strong impact on the viewer.

Character Design Silhouettes
Silhouettes allow you to get a general feel of the characters’ appearance before fully committing yourself to one

One of the best ways to make sure your character is unique is to draw it in silhouettes first, this way the main lines, shades, and angles are clearly distinguishable from any other character that might have inspired you, you can make the necessary changes here, before it gets any more compromising.

Visit Mike Corriero’s blog post on the subject for more information: The use of Silhouettes in Concept Design.

Thumbnailing

A lot of cartoonists and many other artists use thumbnailing to find the best poses or general scenes that they want to incorporate within the illustration project.

Thumbnailing is a way to go about having a somewhat complete image but in a very rough and small form, it is just a really good way to save on time while quickly pumping out ideas.

Character Design Thumbnailing
 Each of these six thumbnail figures can be worked on to become the final original character

With thumbnailing, the aim is to make two aspects of a character clear. Anatomy and skeletal structure, and the way it generally looks on the outside, including clothing, accessories, facial expressions, etc.

Thumbnailing Anatomy

The very first step in thumbnailing is picturing and drawing the anatomy of the character, consisting of shapes for different parts, a circle for the torso, head, hips, bosom; and vertical lines indicating leg length, volume and shape.

Remember the earlier point that we made regarding using circular shapes in your designs.

Leonardo DaVinci is well-known as a legendary anatomist his works are truly peerless

Character designers must be intimately familiar with human anatomy through research or actual drawing of live models, even if they use highly exaggerated and cartoonish styles in his/her work. One must know the real-world dimensions to be able to exaggerate any bits of it purposefully.

If the artist wishes to be able to do the more difficult task of designing creatures, then studying animal anatomy is also a must.

Thumbnailing Poses, Expressions, and Accessories 

When the anatomy is set, the character designer proceeds to imagine the body in different poses, clothes, and accessories. Facial expressions are of utmost importance since they reflect feelings, inner thoughts, attitudes, and nuances. All of which illustrate different traits of the character’s personality.

To design a character, you need to know what their traits are, whether they are smart or dumb, mean or kind, brave or cowardly. The factors are all seen in the nuance of the lines, shapes, and colors.

Frozen Expression Sheet
 A Disney expression sheet showcasing Elsa’s with different facial expressions

Creating accessories for the character is often another team’s responsibility. The team of artists in charge of world-building is experts at this stuff. In smaller teams, however, an artist may have to do several types of tasks.

Should the responsibility fall on you as a character designer, you’ll need to put extra time into the research phase. You should know the world that your character lives in as thoroughly as you can. This is vital, as it will enable you to understand what kind of accessories you have to design.

Tip: Beware of Off-modeling During Thumbnailing Stage!

Avoid off-modeling when sketching, which can be a slight but noticeable deviation between the initial concepts of your character’s appearance. that can happen when drawing it in different poses, clothes, etc.

This can also happen during the process of Inbetweening or the tweening, which is a fundamental part of the animation; consisting of drawing the inter-frames between two images to create an illusion of movements when shown in a fast sequence.

Off-modeling will make your work look shoddy, and can even lead to lawsuits, based on the ensuing inadvertent similarities with trademarked characters you have drawn inspirations from.

A prime example of this is the famous MOBA game, League of Legends. Several companies sued Riot Games for the existing similarities of some of the skins that the development team made for the characters of the game.

The original depiction of the characters themselves was in the clear, but some iteration of them as skin were not.

Model Sheets

At this stage a team is tasked with creating model sheets, (also called turn/ orthographic, or Ortho sheets). These are pieces of drawing with the character drawn from multiple angles.

They usually include four to show the front, three-quarter front, side, and back. The team uses Model Sheets to have a first look at how the character would look from different angles. So they can draw it in different clothes, actions, and etc.

Character Design Character Sheet
Creating detailed model sheets goes a long way toward decreasing misinterpretations of your work.

Step 3: Final Design

With adequate research and visualization, the final design stage should be smooth sailing. In the previous stages, the team makes every effort to create an intriguing original character.

The type of background, role, attitude, and actions together make up a distinct personality. Which should be apparent in its looks to a degree.

By this stage, we should know their personality, gender, role, anatomy type, and the style we should use.

For example, if we were to design Popeye, by now we should know that he is a male human, hero, western army-type character with an appearance that exudes physical and mental strength, determination, and protectiveness. We know these and more thanks to the extensive pre-production run.

Remember to retain some measure of flexibility during the Final Design stage. No matter how thoroughly you went through previous stages and what you decided was a good idea back then.

You still have time to re-adjust some items. You can keep a checklist of all the ways that you can re-adjust the whole or part of a character to improve your own original one.

Team Discussions

When all the material is prepared to create a character storyboard, the team needs to get synced before continuing.

There are meetings between the three parties involved in the production: Character designer, motion designer, and the client. This is to get feedback, study the technical feasibility or possible glitches, and finalize different aspects, and settle on specifics.

Pencil Test

Now that the still version of the character in different poses and expressions are ready, you can show the photographed sheets in a fast sequence to create a rough version of an animated scene with the character to see how it will turn out. The team does this using digital animation or video cameras.

Animatic

Simply put, the animatic stage is where the team creates an animated storyboard. Boards are brought into an editing program and are cut together with the correct timing and pace of the film. They include basic sound effects, dialogue recordings, and scratch soundtrack.

Animatic sample
Example of how animatic looks like

After that there might be additional steps according to the nature of the project; for 3D movies and games, the character might go to 3D artists for modeling and rigging.

Or if the project is a 2D animation the 2d character design might go to storyboard artists for more work. It might also go to visual development artists who might create more details for the characters.

Fine-tune Your Character Design

First, make sure everything is up to standards. Afterward, you may review all the feedback and reevaluate the work accordingly, and add the final touches.

If there are to be any changes to the work at this stage, they are almost always minor. However, the feedback may be overwhelmingly negative.

Then it may be wise to postpone publication and go over some phases of the production stage again. A recent example of this is Sonic the Hedgehog movie. The studio canceled the initial release date to rework the entire character design of Sonic. That happened because fans slammed it on the internet for awful character design.

Adding Sound: Voiceover and Music

The team adds the soundtrack, sound effects, and sometimes voiceovers during the final edit. Then you can check if everything clicks together.

And if it didn’t, you will know what you need to do to make your character fit the theme. Like when you add voice to a delicate, coquettish female character.

During reviewing a scene you may decide that her voice is not flirtatious enough. In such an event, you need to make the required changes.

Get Feedback

Ask non-expert, casual observers on what their take of your animated character is. If their opinion conveys the targeted message, creates the desired feeling, and yields a favorable outcome.

Don’t shy away from making changes if necessary, but be mindful of the budget limits. Even if you can’t make further adjustments due to any reason, the feedback will be invaluable for your next project.

8 Golden Tips for Character Design Process

Congratulations! Now you know how to create awesome characters through carefully organized steps. But before you go, we wish to give you 8 golden tips that we gathered as a result of years of working in the field.

1. Keep it Unique

One thing that should be on your mind during through all the character design process is that the character you develop needs to be original, and completely unique, you can only borrow some aspects from the existing characters

However, you have to change your character to a degree so that no one can be too readily reminded of any existing original character.

This way no one can accuse you of copying another original character. They may, however,  guess that a particular character has been your source of inspiration, and admire your imagination and creativity to add your own signature to it.

You need to make your audience feel like the essence of the character you are trying to communicate is one of a kind and entirely new.

2. Work the Lines

One of the first and most versatile devices used in 2d character design is lines. You can play with the infinite ways that they may be manipulated, to create the niche that sets your character apart from others.

You can make them thicker or thinner, softer or sharper, more or less uneven, less round and more pointed and angular, or the other way around, more straight or more curved.

Different lines - drawing
Different lines have different effects on the viewer

The possibilities that playing with the lines present to create unique characters are plenty.

By working with the lines you can create a sense of cuteness, cruelty, roughness, softness, a sense of humor, surliness, seriousness, impishness, and a long list of nuanced characteristics that are enough to make it distinctive from other characters.

3. Add Nuance With Color

After you have created original silhouette shapes and facial features in the profile form, you may add nuances using color. This offers a world of possibilities to have your character stand out and reach a brand new identity.

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is p88gG_DEs0RSocrsbsSgDAw7ROACOnCbc8qCQftVSKZz2VMFlDiugnJpe60il6dv2n8IWAH4sGomKPhL1AbCx98rGiP1vJ38EpfXGPGk558O3yzkh47ZdnM53Lh7dG9JcQXh86AH
One of Pixune’s own original characters that was done for a game. Notice the different colors’ effect on how you perceive the same character.

Imagine a woman wearing a pink suit with purple hair. She is in direct contrast with another woman of similar shape but wearing a beige power suit with brunette hair. Such change may not be enough by itself to make the character completely unique. But it is a deciding step toward that end.

4. Exaggerate

One of the most effective ways to create new characters based on inspiration from others is to exaggerate certain features.

Imagine one of your sources of inspiration has a pointed nose indicating a lack of imagination and adventure in that character, you may exaggerate the length to add a level of insecurity and wariness to account for why they lack a sense of adventure.

Exaggeration used at the right place and in moderation can give your character highly pronounced traits and layers. It can make it a lot more fun and unique.

For example, Cinderella’s stepmother’s pointed chin and high arching eyebrow indicate cruelty and judgementalism. The exaggeration in the ugly’s sisters’ noses indicates intrusiveness and the plump build of The King expresses naivety and wealth.

Now let’s take a closer look at the Roadrunner, inspired by the real-life birds, but it’s somewhat drastically changed. The actual roadrunner is rather plump, short and with a relatively short neck, short bent legs, and short crew-cut crest.

However, after the character design process, it turns tall and slim, with a long neck, long fully-vertical legs, and along curling crest, an appearance which is in harmony with Road Runner’s character and role in that animation.

5. Think Outside the Box

One of the many advantages of working with animations rather than real images is pretty sweet. Although you use characters that look completely unrealistic, you communicate real-world feelings with the viewer just like a real person. Work that to your advantage.

Observe what particular feature is realistic, and think of what fun ways you can make them visually exaggerated. It still has to be completely in line with one important concept: The overall theme of the story.

Blind passion means trouble, a complicated concept visually simplified by the magic of 2D animation

For example, what if you want to show that too much kindness is a liability in the real world? You can make your character’s heart protrude far above the surface of his chest in a whimsically and exaggerated way.

So wherever he goes, the heart gets stuck in between doors, windows, tree lines, people’s body parts, etc. This conveys the message that when a heart is too big, it gets in the way of a normal life.

6. Pay Attention to Clients’ Ideas/Sketches

Make sure you factor in the client’s ideas in the team discussion stages. Otherwise convince him why you won’t, to avoid dissatisfaction and conflict after the production is finished.

7. Always Keep the Budget in Mind

There are many issues that the character designer and the client should be clear and on the same page with. The budget, which can affect how they approach the entire design, is the most important one.

So make sure the client knows what the end result will cost and how cost cuts will affect the result. It is equally important that the team have a clear idea about how much adding certain features cost. And choose styles and production methods that suit the project’s scope.

8. Create Model and Expression Sheets in Line-ups

When creating models or expression sheets, remember to put the characters together in line-ups. What this means is that characters that are shown in a sheet should be drawn with the same metric scale.

Mind that they should all be standing on a leveled platform. This has a huge impact on presenting an exact image of the character. It will give the viewer information about how big or small they actually are.

Drawing your character with line-ups makes the actual proportion of your characters clear for the viewer.

A Final Word for Character Designers

In character design, flexibility is a key factor to be a successful career. So, Don’t ever fall in love with your work. It’s important to remember that the things that the studio asks you to draw don’t necessarily belong to you.

That’s not to say that you can’t fall in love with your designs and enjoy the process. But you don’t get to decide which ones live and which ones get shelved! Being adaptable and open to critique or changes is a vital part of the job. And there will be times when your favorite design will get rejected.

Most folks here at Pixune root for Comix Zone and Oddworld series as the pinnacle of great 2d character design!


What characters made you fall in love? Geralt of Rivia? Maybe Master Chief? Let us know in the comments below.

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2 Comments

  1. Hi there!
    Do the same rules apply when we are designing a character for a commercial or as a brand mascot? For example, does “Uniqueness” matter as much?

    • Hi Rob, the short answer is yes 🙂
      Brand mascots should be as unique as possible so your customers/clients can memorize and distinguish them easily. While the same principles still apply, commercial characters are more “generic” in nature and their “uniqueness” doesn’t matter as much as let’s say, characters of feature-length animations.


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