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27 top character design tips

18. Focus on facial expression

Character design: Droopy

Facial expression is key to a character's personality, as Tex Avery's Droopy demonstrates

Expressions showing a character's range of emotions and depicting its ups and downs will further flesh out your character. Depending on its personality, a figure's emotions might be muted and wry or explosive and wildly exaggerated.

"When you know the basics of drawing a face, play with the expression of the character," says Ørum. "Use a mirror to read your own face and notice the subtle changes. Push and pull the eyebrows to show emotion. Avoid giving the face symmetry. The mouth will always favours a side and it gives life to the drawing. And give the head a tilt to add nuance."

Classic examples of exaggerated expressions can be found in the work of the legendary Tex Avery: the eyes of his Wild Wolf character often pop out of its head when it's excited. Another example of how expressions communicate motions is deadpan Droopy, who barely registers any sort of emotion at all.

19. Give your character goals

The driving force behind a character's personality is what it wants to achieve. This missing 'something' – be it riches, a girlfriend or solving a mystery – can help to create the dramatic thrust behind the stories and adventures your character gets up to. Often the incompleteness or flaws in a character design are what make it interesting.

20. Build up a back story

A scene can help reveal the identity of your character  [image: Pernille Ørum]

If you're planning for your character design to exist within comics and animations, then developing its back story is important. Where it comes from, how it came to exist and any life-changing events it has experienced are going to help back up the solidity of, and subsequent belief in, your character. Sometimes the telling of a character's back story can be more interesting than the character's present adventures.

"If you’re experiencing problems when attempting to nail the essence of a character, try thinking of them in a certain situation," Ørum advises. "Use the story to think about your character’s emotions before tackling the design, and add the details afterwards. Setting the scene is the best help when staring at a blank piece of paper, and it makes the process more fun, too!"

21. Remember it's not all about the face

Yukai Du uses hands to covey emotion [image: Yukai Du]

Yukai Du is not what you'd call a typical character designer: none of her work features faces. Instead, her body part of choice is the hands. Having found she wasn't good at capturing specific emotions within a facial expression, she turned to a different body part: the hands. "Hands are very expressive. You can tell a lot of stories with hands, and do it in a very subtle way," she says. Hands became her way of telling stories. 

22. Make your character design flexible

Having decent software and materials to work with is useful, but not essential, when it comes to bringing your character to life. A lot of amazing characters were successfully designed years ago when no one had personal computers and Photoshop CC was just a dream.

If you character is really strong, you should be able to capture it with just a pen and paper. Or, as Sune Ehlers puts it: "The character should still be able to work with a stick dipped in mud and drawn on asphalt."

23. Get feedback from others

Show people your creations and ask them what they think. Don't just ask whether they like them or not. Instead, see if they can pick up the personalities and traits of your characters. Find who you think is the suitable or ideal audience for your work and get feedback specifically from them about it.

24. Make it honest

John Bond recently created a storybook based on his Mini Rabbit character [Image: John Bond]

"A lot of my commercial project come out of my personal work. That's why I try to make my personal work so honest to what I like. I think it comes through to the viewer that I'm not just ticking boxes," says John Bond. The illustrator recently launched his debut picture book, NOT LOST, based on his Mini Rabbit character design.

25. Create the right environment

In the same way that you create a history for your character, you need to create an environment for it to help further cement believability in your creation. The world in which the character lives and interacts should in some way make sense to who the character is and what it gets up to.

26. Fine-tune your figure

Question each element of your creation, especially things such as its facial features. The slightest alteration can have a great effect on how your character is perceived.

Illustrator Neil McFarland advises: "Think about the meaning of the word 'character'. You're supposed to breathe life into these things, make them appealing and give them the magic that will allow people to imagine what they're like to meet and how they might move."

27. Don't be afraid to make changes

Hilda character design

Hilda in 2012 (left) and 2016 (right) [Images: Luke Pearson/Flying Eye Books]

Hilda has changed over the years, from book to book, but Pearson explains that no one has pulled him up on it. "I like to think it means the design is strong enough to withstand being pulled in all these different directions," he says. 

This article contains content that was originally published in Computer Arts and ImagineFX magazine. Subscribe to our design magazines here.

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