Great Character Design

by

Characters are the life of a story, and stories work because of something called theory of mind―the ability to put ourselves in the minds, and experience the subjective feelings of the characters. Here I’ve summarized five philosophies for character ideation that have influenced my production of White Elephant, and with reference to some of the best in the business of animation.

Think About the Audience

Break down core shapes and colors that identify the character and focus the whole design around select key features that visibly stand out and get people’s attention. Line quality and style also serve to describe the character. Heavy, rounded and soft strokes may suggest calm character whereas sharper, rougher lines may be indicative of more erratic behaviour. Consider how you want your audience to react to the character, and that its design will echo the approach that you take to create it.

© Dreamworks, Kung Fu Panda 2 (2011) | Po

Kung Fu Panda by Dreamworks is the first cartoon feature to see blockbuster success in China. The film is set in ancient China and highlights its culture, mythology and architecture. Chinese audiences have praised its colorful animation, from the martial arts scenes to its depiction of family expectations and how the ancients were believed to pass into the afterlife. Authenticity matters when reaching a targeted demographic―“to make something special you just have to believe it’s special, there is no secret ingredient.”

Exaggerate Characteristics

Exaggerating the defining features of a character design will help viewers to identify the key character traits that drive its role in the story. It can also help a character appear larger than life. Accessories, attire and alternate props can serve as extensions of character traits and can help to emphasize the character’s background.

© PIXAR, Inside Out (2015) | Fear, Sadness, Joy, Anger, Disgust

From director Pete Docter comes a film that explores a world we all know and has yet to be seen. Inside Out, slated for release in 2015, involves a story that takes place inside the mind of a young girl, where five emotions―Joy, Anger, Disgust, Fear and Sadness―try to lead the girl through her life. The characters, as Docter describes, “are created with this energy because we are trying to represent what emotions would look like. They are made up of particles that actually move. Instead of being skin and solid, it is a massive collection of energy.”

Amy Poehler was the very last one that they cast, remembers Docter, “mainly cause joy was a really hard to character to get our heads around.” Docter admitted, “I was pretty upfront with her at very key moments in terms of showing vulnerability, […] we went and said, ‘We believe a lot in this idea but we are struggling with joy as a character because…’” he allows the brief pause to flood the imagination with creative challenges, then continues, “and we were very specific about our issues, and what that did was invited her into the process, and allowed her to be part of the solution. In her case, very early on, she said, ‘I think I can help you guys, I can get away with saying things that other people can’t.’ She was aware of that character, and the pitfalls, largely because of Leslie Knope and other stuff that she’s done.”

Docter remembers one recording session, later in the process, where they were struggling with a sequence between joy and sadness, “it just wasn’t working, it wasn’t funny, it wasn’t entertaining, and yet we were also to the point where we needed to animate that scene, we needed something.”

So I knew I had one chance, and I pulled both of the actors aside, and said, ‘We’re struggling with this scene. What we need is blank, blank, blank; I don’t think we’re getting that yet. Can you help us?’ And it was really great, because Amy, as a writer, she immediately got what we were talking about and she offered great solutions. Now, you don’t want to go in front of everybody and go, ‘Iunno!?’, you know that’s not what I’m saying, but as long as you can articulate what the problem is and what it is you are trying to do, and allow them to be part of the solution, I think that’s a real key as a director.―Pete Docter

Research Character Design

It can be informative to deconstruct why certain character designs work and why others do not. Study art for why it catches your eye; decide what you like, and why. Acquire a mental and visceral image of what is good―for you, and over time. Find balance as you walk the line between originality and emulation.


© Glen Keane, Duet (2014) | Mia

Working in conjunction with Google’s Advanced Technology and Projects (ATAP), Glen Keane debuted his hand-drawn short, Duet, at Google I/O developer conference. The animated short is part of a collection of Spotlight Stories that are designed to explore the possibilities of interactive animation on mobile devices. Here, the animation is referenced as a reminder to picture what a finished frame may look like, and yet to keep character design rough during its visual development. Rougher sketches tend to look better, and mostly it has to do with the energy―you can feel the creativity, the person behind the drawing. As opposed to a tight sketch that has been cleaned up, for example a vector, that can make a pose seem sterile and can sacrifice organic qualities of a dynamic character.

The History of the Character

Character is a measurable journey. Create dependencies between the character and the story, and measure the character’s sacrifice at the end by a choice at the beginning. The driving force behind a character is what it wants to achieve, and character flaws are often what make them appealing. The discovery of incompleteness, or of goals, helps to create the dramatic thrust behind the adventures that the character will embark upon. In the same way that you explore the history of the character, you need to explore its environment to further crystallize your creation. Outline the world in which the character lives, where it comes from, and its life-changing experiences to help support the authenticity of, and subsequent belief in, the character.

© PIXAR, The Art of Up (2009) | Carl Fredricksen timeline

The story of Up, another by Pete Docter, has an exemplary character growth arc overlaid on its plot. The inner journey of Carl Fredricksen is layered within major plot points, and by hinging internal conflicts on external decisions its story forces the character to grow.

Give the Character Personality

Personality is expressed in how a character has been drawn and revealed through storyboards, comic strips and animations, where we see how it reacts to given situations. In dialogue, avoid having the character answer questions directly, and consider timing in its response. Have your character respond as only it would. Expressions showing a character’s range of emotions and depicting its ups and downs will further flesh out your design. Figure out what visceral passion drives the character’s goals. Consider making your character more selfish. We all have our own motivations, ambitions, wants, vulnerabilities, etc., and so too should your character. Lastly, we all tend to share traits with a character we’ve created―measure its differences against yourself.


© PIXAR, The Art of Cars (2006) | Cow-to-Tractor, Yellow Car

Concept artwork for Cars shows the early steps taken to infuse personality into machinelike characters―or characterlike machines. It has become hard to disconnect the imagined faces from everyday vehicles now that this character concept is mainstream. And while a cow, for example, is not a person, it has a developed relationship with people and, as a result, the animal is an anthropomorphic entity that can impart character traits to a character as well.

10 More Ideas for Creating Character

What is the character’s purpose in life?

What does the character want more than anything―how would the character react if that was threatened?

What is the character’s best and worst memory, and how does the character react when asked about them?

What is the character most afraid of, and what would the character do to prevent it?

How does age define the character?

How have the times shaped the character―what characteristic have been defined by the time?

How has family shaped the character―does being around them make the character more, or less true to oneself?

Who knows the character best―what do they know that no one else does?

If the character could live anywhere, where would it be―what does this place mean to the character?

What is the character’s favorite attire―is it important?

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