A Few Words About Character Design

9 min read

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Ulario's avatar
I was originally planning on making this a FAQ, but I figured I would be better off just talking normally about it as myself.

Before I continue about talking about the actual appearances of characters, I feel like I need to say a few things first.

First of all, this is all just my opinion on how to make characters.  I do know quite a bit on the subject because of my background in design, but my solution isn't the only one.  Characters are a personal thing, so if you want to make your rainbow wolf taur with twelve pairs of wings, antibiotic saliva and a plug that goes into an outlet to charge them, then that is up to you.  Make whatever character will make you happy.  My guide is for making well balanced characters that people other than you and your group of friends will care about.

Secondly, I'm going to remind people that some people have character designs that have similar features to yours.  That does not mean that they copied off of you!  It is extremely rude to jump down the throat of someone who has never seen your work because they also have a white dragon with blue eyes.  It only succeeds in making you looks like a spoiled child.  Don't blow your top, write nasty comments and notes or (heaven forbid) threaten or sue them.  Don't be "that" person.

I know that everybody wants to make a character that is truly unique.  So much emphasis is put on a character's appearance that many people seem to forget that other aspects of the character, such as their personality, occupation, world that they live in, life experiences and friends are also what will make your character unique.  Don't invest so much in your character's appearance that you forget about everything else!

Okay... so on to designing a unique appearance.

Before You Begin...
It's a good idea to have a general idea of your character in mind before you begin designing their physical appearance.  You don't have to have everything fleshed out.  In fact, you may learn more about their personality while you're designing their appearance.  One thing that you may not have noticed about my Ultimarian characters is that even their eye colors are symbolic of aspects of their personality.

I just have a little rule of thumb that a character's entire physical appearance should reflect their personality.  This includes everything from your color choices, their stance and their build.  If you cannot hint at their personality with one aspect, make lots of efforts with others.  For example, if you need to draw a cute squirrel as a serious villain, give them a mean look in their eye and have them tote around automatic rifles.  However, there is a such thing as making them ironic-like for humor purposes.  In that case, it might be even funnier to go all out.  Make the squirrel pink with big, cute eyes!

K.I.S.S.  (Keep it Simple, Stupid!)
Yeah... you've probably heard that expression many times before, but there is truth and wisdom behind that anagram.
While it may be tempting to overload the character with all sorts of gadgets, bright colors and other nifty features there is a such thing as a character having too many bells and whistles.  Having loads upon loads of features makes too much for the eye to look at and just be a big jumble of chaotic mess.

A character's design shouldn't be confusing.  All of the aspects should work together in harmony.

Also, try to avoid tattoos or patterns that will be completely impossible to replicate.

Do The Unexpected....
There is no rule saying that your character needs to follow stereotypes.  You don't have to make your elf girl an archer or your cheetah man a fast runner.
While stereotypical characters can be fun, it can be very interesting to have a character that defies their stereotypes completely!

Color Choices
I usually have two basic rules with choosing colors for a character.
  1. Stick to a basic palate of 3-4 main colors.
  2. Try not to use a single color just once in a design.  For example, if I have a character with brilliant green eyes, I will often try to incorporate some of that green into the character's costume as well.

Try to create harmony with your colors by selecting colors that pair well with each other.  While you may be tempted to use the brightest hues possible, a lot of the time using less saturated colors will look best.  For example, while you may be tempted to color your dragon the same red as a stop light, he may actually look better in a deeper brick red.

If you're unfamiliar with how color relativity works, there are plenty of tutorials out there to help you!
Choosing Colours Tutorial by mintsteak  <da:thumb id="184642625"/>

You've probably heard of "same face syndrome", where the face of every character that an artist has looks exactly the same with a different hairstyle.  Or worse... suffering from what I call the "generic anime face" syndrome.  This is something that should be avoided.  Your character is an individual person just like we are all individual people.  Don't use the same features over and over again... even if you really like how they look.

You can easily make a character an individual by just making simple changes to the features.  Things you can play around with trying to vary are eyes (width, size and angle), nose, cheekbones, jawline, ears, mouth width, lip shape, neck thickness, forehead size and unique markings (birthmarks, scars, tattoos, etc). 

You can also play around with their height, build and weight. 

You should be able to tell your character by silhouette alone.  You should also be able to tell who they are even if they were naked and bald.  Your character is an individual.  Make them look like one!

If you are having trouble visualizing how your human character will look, play around with tools like MorphThing until you get something that you like!

Note on Female Characters
I know that sex sells, but one of the things that irks me the most is how female characters are sometimes designed.  So I'm just going to throw out some of the things that bother me.  I'm sometimes guilty of doing some of these things when designing character designs that I intend to sell since I know some people out there like these things, but when I design female characters for myself, I try to avoid them.

  • Impractical clothing and armor.  It's tempting to make your female warrior by giving them armor that shows off the body, but in reality some of those armors would be a death sentence.  Leaving the midriff exposed is bad.  The character is leaving their vital organs open to attack.  Boob cups on armor is also bad... if the character were to fall, those would be a direct weapon into the chest.  Impractical clothing may not be as dangerous, but it can still be nonsensical.  I'm looking at you, Sonya Blade with your military uniform that leaves your boobs hanging out for all the world to see!
  • Female characters don't need to be blonde bombshells with tiny waists, big boobs and button noses to be beautiful.  Body shapes and faces of all types can be beautiful.  Don't be afraid to give your female characters features that are not standard of society's views on beauty.  (My femme beastmaster, Tara has a strong chin and nose, face tattoos, is short and has small boobs, but I'm sure there are some out there whom some may find attractive).
  • The same goes for designing aliens or unique species.  They don't have to follow beauty standards.  If you don't want your non-mammals to have boobs, then don't add them simply because you don't think they'd look "feminine" enough.  Also, don't be afraid to draw the female of a species because you don't think they look feminine or pretty.  Ladies of species without big boobs and tiny waists can also be charming and beautiful.  Just look at Nyreen from the Mass Effect series.  www.gamedynamo.com/images/gall…
  • Don't get too hung up on trying to write "strong" female characters.  Just make interesting female characters!

A few random notes

  • We should be able to recognize the character just by looking at them.
  • Make your characters well balanced in their personality.  They don't have to be the messiah!  I generally try to give my characters one flaw for every three positive traits that they have.
  • Don't go overboard with powers or special abilities.  Your character should have weaknesses as well... and I'm not talking about being like Superman where you have to make up a glowing green rock in order for the character to have a weakness.  :/
  • Do look to nature, the real world and already existing characters as inspiration!
  • I know a lot of people have qualms about making characters look like real people.  Especially famous actors.  But there's nothing wring with basing your character's appearance off of somebody famous as long as they look unique enough.  I'd strongly suggest directly basing their appearance off of someone famous without changing anything if only because there is a chance you could get in trouble for using their likeness if it is ever published.
  • You don't need to rush a design. Some characters are all up in your face all the time while others need to be coaxed out of the darkest depths of your mind with candy.  Good character creation takes time.  Hell, it took seven years for me to get Shae's appearance to fit his personality.
  • Most importantly, create the characters that make you happy!  Don't get hung up on what others may think!

There you have it.  If there's something you want me to add or have any questions, just comment below.  I hope I've helped at least one person with this!  :)

© 2014 - 2021 Ulario
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TailOfDeath's avatar

This is very good advice! Very thorough and on point Espiclaly with the personality, appearence and misc notes. But do you have any advice for creating male characters specifically? I didn't see any advice about them here and I would like your input.

PixlPhantasy's avatar
Sound advice and good starting points :)