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How to Design a Character

Character design can be tough! It’s hard to organize your ideas to create an intriguing yet realistic or likeable individual. Character development is hard within writing and illustration, but we won’t be focusing on the writing portion today – just the drawing, also known as concept art! How do you make your characters physically appealing? Here are some tips to keep in mind when designing a character!

Not into reading? Don’t worry – here’s a quick and fun video tutorial all about how to design a character for your viewing pleasure!

What is Physical vs Written Character Design?

You can really simplify character design down into two categories – written and physical. Physical character design is how the character looks, whether it be their bodies, outfits or accessories. Written character design is the character’s traits, backstory, personality, etc. Written design is arguably harder than physical design, and it’s the first step for creating a great character. This can lead to lots of ideas for the physical design.

We won’t be focusing on written design today – instead, we’ll be focusing on physical design and concept drawing!

Get our character design worksheet to get a head start on the written character design that inspires your physical drawing!

1: What’s the setting?

There are a few things to consider while you’re thinking of your setting:

  • When and where is the story you’re coming up with taking place?

  • What’s the time period?

  • How advanced or rudimentary is the society your character lives in?

  • Is it grounded in reality or is it pure fiction?

You’ll need to make sure that your character matches the setting you’ve created – if they don’t match, they’ll feel out of place. For example, if your character lives in a medieval society, it’s safe to say that they’ll have a medieval design as well.

2: What’s the character’s role?

This can be broken down into a couple of things:

  • What kind of character are they in terms of their importance?

  • Are they a main, secondary, tertiary or background character?

Main character(s), or protagonists/antagonists, are your main focus of your story. These characters should have the most depth and the most thought placed into them.

Secondary characters can also be called deuteragonists, and they’re second place to the main characters, whether they’re the best friend(s), sidekick, family, rival, etc.

Tertiary characters are considered your characters that you might interact with sometimes or may pop up from time to time, but aren’t ultra important. Think shopkeepers, supporting characters, bosses, so on and so forth.

Background characters shouldn’t be thought of very much, if at all – they’ll be the characters you either speak to once or not at all. They can be literally in the background for context or to support the style and environment, like “extras” on a movie set! Knowing this will allow you to plan for how much time and effort you should put into their design.

The next step would be to determine:

  • What does this character do?

  • What’s their occupation?

  • How do they fit into the story or the universe?

  • Are they considered a protagonist or antagonist?

These will determine physical design tropes and visual storytelling. For example, a businessman will dress very differently than a magical girl.

3: Is the character literal or ironic?

Literal characters are characters that fit into their role as expected. A more stoic businessman, an eccentric artist or a macho boxer are considered literal characters. Some examples of this would be Iida from My Hero Academia, or Daruk from The Legend of Zelda.

Ironic characters are characters that don't appear to fit into their role, such as a meek bodybuilder or an aggressive/violent child. Examples of this would be Unikitty from the Lego Movies or Pride from Fullmetal Alchemist.

Most characters tend to be one or the other of this type of design, but can also be a blend of the two. Ironic characters can also be used to write plot twists, such as the shy and innocent character being the main antagonist all along. However, you need to be careful when writing these character types, since they tend to be rooted in stereotypes. A lighter example is writing a literal artist who only wears paint splattered clothing and is pretentious or dramatic. But there are much less lighthearted examples of this kind of design that have to do with more sensitive topics, so make sure you’re writing carefully.

4: Variety is key!

Variety using shape language with Aladdin characters!

No two people in real life are alike, so your characters shouldn’t be either! Add variety to your body types, character ages, class, race, so on and so forth. Even identical twins will have some small differences, so make sure to include those.

Even if your characters have variety, they should still have unity! Whether that’s a similar fashion sense due to the setting or the art style itself, they should still all look like they belong together. But as with all things that involve unity, you should have balance. Too much unity will make your characters feel static, but too much variety creates inconsistency. Be mindful of how you create your characters!

5: How detailed should your character be?

This might contradict the previous point a little, but an interesting character doesn’t need to be super detailed! Think about who and what you’re creating this character for – characters in comics and 2D animation will most likely benefit from being fairly simple because you’ll need to draw them over and over again. 3D character models for games and animations or one-time character designs for Dungeons and Dragons or novel covers can be more complex, since repetition isn't necessary.

But a simpler style, colour palette, single motif and simpler forms can still create very memorable and interesting characters. Think of some of the most iconic characters of all time – the most iconic Nintendo or Disney characters are all incredibly simple in concept and design, and yet you remember them all!

Character design isn’t something you’ll become amazing at instantly. Professionals might sketch hundreds of concept sketches and go through even more revisions until their characters are finished. In the video game world, a main character can take years to design! You’ll need to work with it a lot in order to get better, so make sure that you’re practicing and experimenting with different concepts and ideas! At the end of the day, the most important part of the process is having fun!

Character Design Resources

Teacher Resources

Handout: Creating a Style: Character Design Tips If you’re a teacher, more classroom resources like this one can be found on our art resources for teachers page.

Learn Character Design in a Virtual Art Class

If you'd like more guided and personalized feedback all about designing characters of your own, be sure to check out our virtual art classes. We explore character design in our cartooning and anime and art mentorship classes!

Membership for Art Teachers

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Video Resources

If you’d like to access free tutorials that teach more about character design and character illustration, be sure to subscribe to our YouTube channel that has video resources all about the elements of art, the principles of design, and more!

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