25 top character design tips

16. 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.

17. Give your character goals and dreams

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.

18. Build up a back story

A distraught mermaid caught in a net

A scene can help reveal the identity of your character

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 (or not, in the case of the Star Wars prequels).

"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!"

19. Experiment!

Don't be afraid to experiment and ignore all the rules and tips about planning and crafting the look of your character design. Going against what is supposed to be the right way of doing something could create unexpected and exciting results.

20. Make your character design flexible

Having decent materials to work with is useful, but not essential, for the early planning of your character design. A lot of amazing characters were successfully designed years ago when no-one had personal computers and Photoshop CC was just a dream.

The drawings of your character should still work when rendered on paper with a simple pen or, as Sune Ehlers puts it: "The character should still be able to work with a stick dipped in mud and drawn on asphalt."

21. Swap a mouse for a pen

Ian of I Like Drawing generates some of his character designs away from both the computer and the sketchbook, allowing outside elements to influence his work. "I really like characters that interact with their surroundings," he says.

"The environment normally suggests an idea and then I let my strange mind do the rest. I prefer drawing in the real world with a pen instead of on the computer, because it feels good and odd things happen."

22. 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.

23. Hone, plan and polish your design

Character design: Scary Girl

Creator of Scary Girl, Nathan Jurevicius, does a lot of preparatory work as part of his character design process

Instead of just drawing or doodling without too much pre-planning, Jurevicius prefers to take a different approach. 

"I take a long time creating finished looking roughs and also thinking about how the character could be expanded beyond a 2D artwork, what the character will do in a specific world, and how it speaks and acts," he says.

24. 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.

25. 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. 

"I think it's strange how creating characters for the sake of it has become a distinct branch of graphic design."

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

Read more: