How to successfully create story-driven characters

Character artist Gavin Goulden has worked for major video game studios including Bioware, Capcom and Irrational Games. Here he shares his expert advice on creating stand-out characters.

01. Work with the software and tools you have

Stop spending time searching for inspiration or researching software choices. Take the tools and knowledge you have and create your first character. It will be awful, but then you create another, and another. With enough practice, you'll get to a hireable level.

02. Stay motivated and keep your skills relevant

Never forget what inspired you to become a character artist. I stay motivated professionally by being competitive. I always want to stay relevant and don't want to fall behind. I've worked incredibly hard to be where I am now, and if I didn't pay attention to the next great thing, it would be a disservice.

03. Make sure your work showcases your skills

Be marketable. Your work needs to show clear skills and the ability to do the job a team may need you to do. Speaking from experience, it's going to be hard to break into a top studio with a portfolio of only pixel art.

Your work needs to show clear skills and the ability to do the job a team may need you to do

04. Traditional anatomy skills are important

Learn anatomy. Do practical studies where you sculpt the human form; once you have a good grasp on human anatomy, you can then translate it to fantasy characters.

05. Broaden your skills outside of modelling

Don't rely on ZBrush alone. Today's character artists need to be able to do more than just sculpt pretty models. You need a technical understanding of assets that will work in a game on the shelf, as well as showing that you can paint textures.

06. Understand that less is usually more

Make big statements. When viewing your work, the eye needs somewhere to rest. A noisy character will become unappealing and hard to read. Choose a few different elements of your character to pop out and it will say more than a blanket of small details.

07. Give your character a consistent story

When creating a character, ask yourself why you are adding detail. What does this character do? Who are they? History isn't defined by adding wear and tear. Put some thought into your choices and make sure they all contribute to the personal story of your character.

Character artist Gavin Goulden draws on a huge range of inspiration and reference to create his characters

08. Learn how to show your model in the best light

When presenting your character, go the extra mile; pose the character out of its rigid bind pose, create a simple base for the character to stand on, set up a nice light rig, and render the image off into a final template labelled with your contact information.

09. Brush up on the history of fashion and textiles

Study fashion. Learn how different outfits are built and how clothing, makeup and style have changed over time. This will help you to make smarter choices when creating a new character without resorting to piling on attachments.

10. Find ways to stand out from the crowd

Break rules. When someone sees your work for the first time, they aren’t marvelling at low triangle counts or efficient textures - it's all about eye candy. Do what it takes to make the best piece possible that’s still considered reasonable for today's hardware.

Words: Gavin Goulden

This article orginally appeared in 3D World issue 177.