4 top character design secrets

Original concepts for game characters start with an imaginative back story, says illustrator Tony Foti.

Generate ideas for original game characters

There are countless ways you can design characters and their costumes, so your job is to decide which elements will best convey the story.

The key to a good character design is story. There are many ways to create variation, but every part you draw should tell the viewer more about who this person is. So it's important to know as much as possible about the people and world beforehand. Since we don’t have a game to work on, let’s throw together a basic story...

Rose Vermillion is the Captain of a Naval Space Research team sent to recover samples from a hostile alien world. When the ship’s engines are compromised during atmospheric entry, Rose must survive the crash, rescue her crew and discover who was behind the sabotage before their nefarious plans come to fruition.

Research is the key to creativity

This is a good time to list off some of the specifics of your character and the world they live in. Age, build, social class, current income, former income, family situation, previous jobs, upbringing, emotional maturity, strengths, weaknesses… anything you can think of. The more you understand about the character, the clearer your direction will be when creating costumes.

Research is the key to creativity, so look up as much as you can about historical customs and dress to get an idea of what direction you want to go in. Military uniforms, rank insignias, hair styles, fashion trends, old sci-fi movies, new sci-fi movies, avant-garde fashion designers (Jean Paul Gaultier is a great example) – soak it all up and prepare to design!

01. Silhouettes

Character design

Before diving into anything too complex, get the general idea down. Silhouettes enable you to grasp the feel of a character's design without wasting time on details.

While you draw, focus on how each shape feels like the person you're describing for the viewer. If you can tell what’s going on from an outline, you're on the right path to a clear design.

02. Sketching

Character design

Once you've collected several workable silhouettes, sketch them out. We're just focusing on costuming here, but you would basically use the same process for the model's physical appearance.

Rather than stressing out and overthinking it, try to have fun and let your subconscious fill in the details that are missing from the thumbnails.

03. Colour coordination

Character design

Now you have a costume that feels right, it's time to come up with a colour scheme. Copy and paste the chosen outfit a few times (I like to try out at least eight) around the canvas, create a layer below, and just start painting under the lines.

Figuring out what you like and don't like about each one will help you get closer to the right design.

04. Pipeline thinking

Character design

Taking care to paint the textures of different materials can be a great help to other people in the pipeline who'll be working with your design later on.

Artist secret

Character design

Flip the canvas periodically to give your brain something new to look at. The simple act of turning everything around will soon highlight any errors in the design that your eyes may have already become used to.

Words: Tony Foti

Tony Foti is a US freelance illustrator who contributes to D&D and Fantasy Flight Games' Star Wars and The Lord of the Rings lines. This article originally appeared in ImagineFX issue 99.