Character Design 101

Heartless-Bowser's avatar
By Heartless-Bowser   |   
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When it comes to character design, there's more to it than just the appearance of a character. While the looks of a character can tell a lot about said character, we all know that looks can be deceiving!

A lot of people seem to think that designing the appearance of a character is a character design. It is, when it comes to visual design. But what is the character like?  

When people do give attention to that question, they'll often come up with characters that are either loved or hated by everyone, that have epic superpowers or superhuman abilities that no one (not even God) can ever hope to topple, and if they do somehow get beaten the shit out of them suddenly remember that there's an even greater power sleeping within them, which they will instantly activate no matter if they got just a scratch or are severely wounded. I'm not even going into the melodramatic background stories of them there.

So, what makes a good character design? What is the key to making a believable, likable character? How do you avoid making a too powerful character? I will answer those questions during this 'tutorial'!

The three categories of character designing.

There are 3 categories of character designing:

1. The Mental aspect
2. The Sociological aspect
3. The Appearance aspect

Now, people usually only give the last aspect attention. Or they use them in the wrong order. The first two steps always come before the appearance aspect!

The Mental aspect: the Character Diamond

A man named David Freeman once came up with a character design method known as the 'character diamond.' If the character diamond can be applied to a character, it means that the character design is good overall. It's a surefire to a well-balanced character!

The character diamond is a 4-point structure that describes the following things about your character:

Base Trait
This trait is the 'spine' of your character. It's the main trait of your character. It doesn't necessarily have to be a positive trait.
Supportive Trait
A somewhat less important trait, but still vital to the way a character thinks and acts. Or course, a character can have more supportive traits.
Fatal Trait
This is a trait that almost always brings your character in awkward or dangerous situations. Your character may deny that this trait exists, but it's there, no matter what. It's always a 'negative' trait, and a character's weakness.
Hidden Trait
A hidden trait is a trait that your character is often unaware of.

Now, I will give a more clear explanation about the character diamond.

For example, I'll take Walt Disney's Scrooge McDuck, and apply the character diamond.

Base Trait: Greedy
Scrooge McDuck is extremely greedy. Everyone who knows him is aware of this fact.
Supportive Trait: Intelligent
The most richest duck on Earth can't have and make so much money without knowing how to do business.
Fatal Trait: Quick Tempered
Scrooge has a quick temper, which often causes him to agree on risky bets or go on dangerous adventures just to prove he's better than his opponent.
Hidden Trait: 'A Small Heart'
Whenever Donald or the nephews are in trouble, he often lends them a hand. He may not look like it, but he cares about them.

The Sociological aspect: The background
Of course, there's more to a character than just a couple of traits. Where does this character live? What kind of species is this character? Below are a couple of questions you could ask yourself to get more insight in your character.

What's this character's natural habitat?
This is a very important question. The answer to this question always has something to do with the character's traits. I.E. If he's a nomad in the desert, he needs to have a strong will to survive. A desert nomad that is carefree is not believable. The same applies to an alien on a spaceship with zero knowledge about technology.

Does this character have a family and/or friends?
Maybe this character's adventurous spirit comes from the time he spent going on adventures with his best friend. Or maybe he learned to cook so great because his mother taught him how to cook?

Is this character a human, animal or perhaps an alien?
The answer to this question will affect the way your character looks.

What is this characters occupation?
This question may affect how your character is dressed. If he's a knight, he'll wear armor, if he's a priest, he'll wear a robe, etc. Take note that this doesn't need to be the case all the time.

What's this characters height and weight?
If you're putting your character in an environment, it's important to take the environment in consideration. Is your character a dragon that tramples castles under his feet? Or is it a ninja in the forest?
It's important to take the weight in consideration too. There's no way those thin branches of a tree are going to hold a 200 Lbs. ninja.

What are the character's strong and weak points?
This question is more or less answered if you apply the character diamond first, but it can't hurt to elaborate on these strong and weak points. It's always important to give a character at least one weak point. Every creature has strong and weak points, and so does your character.

What's this character's alignment?
Is this character a hero, or is this character a servant of the dark lord? Or does this character do whatever he pleases? The alignment of a character usually affects the facial expressions of your character. Evil characters always tend to look intimidating and angry, while good characters -usually- have a smile on their faces.

Is this character mean or social?
That your character is good doesn't mean he is social, and an evil person doesn't necessarily need to be mean to everyone.

Which enemies does this character have?
Everyone has enemies. Be it the king of a mighty country or the bully at school. No character can be liked and loved by everyone. It goes the other way around, too. There's always at least one person that likes the character that 'everybody hates'.

-Other questions you could ask-

- What kind of food does he like?
- What kind of music does he like?
- Is he in a relationship?
- Does he use a weapon?
- Does he have an illness?
- Is he smart or stupid?
- etc. etc.

Basically, the list of questions can be as long as you want. The more questions you ask, the more background information your character is going to get, and the more believable your character becomes.

The appearance aspect: giving a look

Now you've given your character a personality and a background, you're finally going to give a look to your character! I'm pretty confident that you know how that works, so have fun!  

I hope this will help story writers (be it for a film, comic or novel) to create believable characters people can live into. But also to people who like to design characters in general, I hope this is helpful!
© 2010 - 2020 Heartless-Bowser
I'm not saying everyone designs over-the-top, uberpowerful, Mary Sue/Stu, characters.

I'm just sharing tips and tricks that I learned during my Character Design and Game Theory classes at college. I hope some people will find it useful!

I don't reply to comments all that much, but I'm glad this is really helpful to people! Thanks for your kind comments! :D
Made by :iconheartless-bowser:
If you want more information about the appearance aspect, click the thumbnail below.
anonymous's avatar
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JubeiSpiegel's avatar
JubeiSpiegelHobbyist Digital Artist
This was of great help, thank you for putting this together back in the day!
Beginneratart's avatar
BeginneratartHobbyist General Artist
Thanks a bunch for this, it'll be really helpful for sorting personalities out and making sure they balance out! ^^
alalara's avatar
Thank you for sharing :D
ArchonW's avatar
ArchonWHobbyist General Artist
I just wanted to express my thankfulness, for trying to answer this questions regarding the character I created was surprisingly challenging.
Sketchevrywir's avatar
Thanks for this, it's really helpful!
DoodleyAwesome's avatar
DoodleyAwesomeHobbyist General Artist
I find that the best way to create interesting backstories is while I'm trying to fall asleep. It'd be creative(since my brain is slightly strange while falling asleep) and the personality follows after.
Dri-Bee's avatar
Dri-BeeHobbyist General Artist
This is very interesting! And super helpful. But, the thumbnail doesn't work. 
Notyrgrl's avatar
NotyrgrlStudent Writer
Thank you ! This will definitely help!
CrimsonScissorhands's avatar
CrimsonScissorhandsHobbyist Digital Artist
Ah thank you! This is helpful!
Zunachina's avatar
ZunachinaStudent General Artist
with my characters I put the social aspect first then the mental then the apperance (is this bad?)
0navyblue's avatar
0navyblueHobbyist Traditional Artist
thank you for taking the time out to write and share all this, it's encouraging and very much helpful :>
CrazyMouseInc's avatar
CrazyMouseInc Traditional Artist
Nice! I really like the Character Diamond. I never would have thought to call it that. Thanks for explaining it all so clearly. :+fav: I was reading for something "new", but Character Designing is still the same thing as what I thought, just explained and written down.

And when you think about it, can't the Base Trait be the Fatal Trait?
Eyecelphil's avatar
EyecelphilHobbyist Digital Artist
THIS. not those long sgjnduhtuh stories, but THIS. things made simple.
thank you!
BoboJo's avatar
BoboJoHobbyist General Artist
Ooooh! I love that personality diamond! I need to pay attention to those details like the fatal trait!
KatsuAshomi's avatar
KatsuAshomiHobbyist Writer
Creating a character isn't as easy as I thought it would be, although i'm a really great writer that just writes out of pure hobby, i still need some time to learn a lot of stuff about writing whether it is ranged from character design to story plots or story making. they're all really hard on the mental power so you have to somewhat train your self to endure all of that stress.

I wanna ask, would you check out my journal?
if so help me make a choice that id really HARD!
that would be awesome thanks <3
DrewSaga's avatar
DrewSagaHobbyist General Artist
This is actually useful for character development, I am going to put these factors into consideration.
WonHitWonder's avatar
WonHitWonderHobbyist General Artist
Thanks for this! I've never heard of that diamond technique, that'll definitely come in handy in my future character development.
TheAncientMasteress's avatar
TheAncientMasteressProfessional Traditional Artist
I would also say you have to become your character when designing them. You have to think and feel like them before you can attempt to design them. ^_^ It was helpful. I'm adding your tutorial to my list of resources. Thanks!
AkioAria26's avatar
AkioAria26Hobbyist General Artist
oh man this will be work as my writing skill,

thanks man ^^
themermaidchick's avatar
themermaidchickHobbyist General Artist
EXTREMELY helpful thanks very much! Gracias senior
sa-cha's avatar
wow alot of details!! O.o...generally my characters fit the descriptions, but i have a question, does the diamond thing only apply with personality traits? can it be with different factors?
Heartless-Bowser's avatar
Yes, the character diamond is specifically designed to apply to the personality traits of a character.

It depends what you mean when you say different factors. What factors are you talking about?
sa-cha's avatar
thnx for ur time! ( i seriously thought u weren't gonna reply XD) i mean outside factors, like something affected the character and his/her personality and without it he/she would be fine
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