How long did it take for you to really get to know each other?
Hopes and fears, experiences and expectations, strengths and weaknesses, victories, failures, pet peeves and passions…
Whether he or she is your spouse, partner, close family member, colleague or high school BFF, the friendship has taught you that people are unique and endlessly complex.
The job of the professional character designer is to design characters.
…unique, complex people who seem no less unique or complex than your BFF.
In more than a decade of reviewing character design portfolios at art school Q&A sessions, comic cons and online, I have met many skilled artists.
…but I almost never meet an aspiring or pre-professional character designer who actually understands the job.
Typically, these artists rush into the design without getting to know the character.
So if you feel like your characters are flat or your designs are unoriginal, here are three ways you can add depth to your character design portfolio…
Generic-Gun-Guy Must Die:
Okay, let’s do the easy part first…
If you’re pumping out page after page of Generic-Gun-Guys or Sexy-Sword-Ladies, then you’re risking shallow character design.
Generic-Gun-Guy and Sexy-Sword-Lady are not characters, they’re tropes.
Sure, they hold potential for titillating design but they are inherently lacking in character.
So the best possible version of a trope is a cool design.
…and that’s only half the job of the character designer.
I enjoy a good geek-out as much as the next guy…
But true character design goes much deeper…
If you aren’t into Generic-Gun-Guys and Sexy-Sword-Ladies, that doesn’t mean you’re safe from shallow character design.
There’s also Cliché-Cartoon-Cat and Routine-Robot…
…and don’t even get me started on Mundane-Manga-Man…
If you want to design complex, surprising, believable characters and get someone to pay you to do it, you’re going to have to be consistently surprising.
Find Time For Yet Another Re-Design:
A Monster In Paris is one of my favorite animated films released in the past few years.
The music is buoyant and emotional.
The color keys painted by Aurelien Predal are some of the most gorgeous digital paintings I’ve ever seen.
…and the character designs by director Bibo Bergeron and Christophe “Zebe” Lourdelet are, in my opinion, some of the best CG animated character designs I’ve ever seen (along with Pixar’s Up, Dreamworks’ How To Train Your Dragon and Nickelodeon’s new Turtles).
Bibo says that the designs for most of the main cast developed quickly (note that, in animation, “quickly” could mean an entire year) but the design of the monster was more of a struggle.
The team went through many different monster revisions until Bibo had an epiphany (which I’ll explain in the next section).
My point is that though sometimes they come together quickly (and “quickly” is subjective), a good character design takes time.
Before you go using, Bibo’s story as justification to rush, keep in mind that he is a jedi master with several feature films under his belt…
Yes, I know, I know, “Deadlines, deadlines…”
If your character designs lack the entertaining complexity needed to get good, steady work, you won’t have any deadlines to worry about…
So until you’re a seasoned pro, slow down and don’t give up until it’s great.
If you’re happy with your design, re-design it.
You might surprise yourself and create something even better!
If you’re happy with what you have, you have nothing to lose by trying a different, more surprising version…
Connect The Internal And The External:
The difficult design process for THE ‘Monster In Paris’ was relieved by Bibo Bergeron’s epiphany that the monster’s name “Francoeur” means “pure heart.”
Look closely at the character’s face in the image above.
It’s a heart.
Bibo drew a connection between the internal character and the external design.
That simple idea unlocked a surprising, elegant, appealing character design.
The implicit lines in the design of the face flow through the character’s entire silhouette and the energy of those lines is detectable when you look at him from any angle. (I highly recommend an intense, freeze-frame-study of this gorgeous film).
Francoeur isn’t the only character whose exterior design is connected to his inner character.
Spongebob is SQUARE, for crying out loud!
How genius is that?!
Again, here we have a simple elegant, appealing design driven by a unique, complex character.
Now go try this!
Transcend shallow, unoriginal character designs by finding the essence of the character.
Oh, and if you want to try something a little trickier, do the same thing but with a list of opposites.
Start with the soul and then design the shape.
Dive Into The Deep End:
Whether your portfolio is filled with generic characters or you’re rushing your designs, you must keep in mind that your characters are people too.
You can’t spend as much time on a character design as you’ve spent getting to know your best friend, but odds are, you’re calling your designs “done” way too soon.
How will the perspective presented in this post affect your future character designs?
Please share in the comments below.
I can’t wait to hear your thoughts!