The principles of character design

Interesting characters are the core of any good narrative, and this is true also for animation movies and video games.

The task of a character designer consists of defining a fictional creature through his physical appearance; but what factors are necessary to building an appealing and consistent image?


First of all, the context

Whether our creature is a bloodthirsty warrior or a loving pet, its characterization depends on the target audience. From simple graphic shapes for pre-school children to very photo-realistic characters in movies, the design must be bold and inspiring to make it look attractive to a specific public.


The story is everything

Characters designers should be able to connect with the script to select those elements that can better illustrate the spirit of the character, searching for visual references through historical, artistic, and photographic material. The character’s personal history and background are also relevant because they reflect in actual appearance.


First impression matters

Don’t a book from its cover, they say. But we know that it is impossible. The first impression matters, especially for animated characters. Artists must design those specific features that define it at a glance. Is it good or evil? Gentle or fierce? Can we recognize it on a battlefield? Elements like shape, harmony, proportion, balance, and variety must be combined to provide the design with accuracy and emotion. Volumes and forms, together with lines, colors, and lights can be used to express the inner self of the character. Dark and cold colors are used to identify the villains while bright primary ones are for heroes, but artists can play with nuances and individual lights to create unique combinations for each character.


The character is in details

Add accessories to your character. They will help to figure out its personality and background story. Objects, weapons, heirlooms, or pieces of clothing can tell a lot about the social class and taste of a character. 


Gestures and poses

We mainly express our personality through poses, gestures, and facial expressions. That is why artists dedicate so much attention to the way characters walk, move, or express their feelings, in the process of imbuing them with life. 

Once the final drawing of the character is ready, artists need to create model sheets showing the character from multiple angles. In CG animation, that Orthographic sheet is used by the CG modeler to create the dimensional version of the character in the computer. Larger productions may require Expression or Posing sheets, showing the character in a wide range of emotions and poses for reference and licensing images. 

While this is a simplified version of what are the basic principles of character design, it is clear that this task involves connecting to the concept, understanding the story, good draftsmanship, and the capacity to conceive your work as a step in a hierarchy of production. Teamwork abilities and communication skills are always inescapable.