Characters are the most important element of any story. A well-designed character can leave a lasting impression, with some of the best personas remaining forever etched into our imaginations.
However, good character design does not happen by accident. It takes considerable time and effort to plan and create eye-catching, memorable drawings that expose a character’s unique personality and evoke a wide range of emotions.
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7 principles of good character design
What exactly is good character design? Let’s explore some of the key principles that will deliver an outstanding character for your next book, game, or animation.
Good character design principle #1: Simplicity
Simplicity is the essence of strong character design. When you embark on the creation of a new character it is easy to get caught up in complexity. A simple drawing is more easily identified and understood by an audience, not to mention more straightforward to animate throughout a story. Try to convey necessary features and information using lines and colours, without getting tangled in too much detail.
Snoopy, Peppa Pig and Johnny Brave some examples of good, simple character design.
Good character design principle #3: Moral ambiguity
It’s easy to fall into the trap of creating stereotypical characters. To elevate your story, you need to stretch beyond cliché characters – such as heroes and villains. The inclusion of a morally ambiguous or nuanced character can help develop other character relationships and will enrich and add depth to a narrative.
Take Stan from South Park, who often gets caught up in childish pranks and misadventures but just as often has a moment of redemption at the end.
Or even Snoopy. Isn’t it hard to tell how truly loyal he is to Charlie Brown?
Good character design principle #4: Clever use of color
Astute use of colour will help reflect and enhance a character's personality. It’s vital to identify an appropriate colour scheme for your character with shades that reflect the traits you are looking for. Rogue or villainous characters are often depicted with darker colours such as black or grey. Heroic characters tend to be represented with strong reds, blues, and yellow. Colours do not need to be realistic, with improbable colours contributing to an amusing and playful character.
SpongeBob SquarePants and Bart Simpson both feature unconventional bright yellow skin colours. Matt Groening has previously said he wanted The Simpsons to catch people’s eyes when they were flipping through channels, hence the yellow skin.
Outrageous proportions or exaggerated body parts are used in design to make a character appear larger than life. Quality designers can use these effects to emphasise key personality traits such as strength, intelligence, mischievousness, or sociability. Exaggeration of poses, gestures, and facial expressions are also employed to express the disposition of a character.
In the following examples, magnification of The Wolf’s facial expressions quickly and dynamically convey his emotions to viewers, whereas Goofy is exposed as dim-witted and clumsy through the use of long limbs and oversized body features.
Good character design principle #6: Uniqueness
To stand out from the crowd and grab the attention of the audience your character should be unique. Design variants such as distinctive skin colours, postures, facial features, distortions, height and weight, and abnormalities can ensure a character is instantly recognisable and visually appealing. The uniqueness of your character should not rely solely on hair or accessories, as these aspects can change over time.
If a martial-arts-trained turtle named after an Impressionist painter, or a diminutive blue gnome only three apples high aren’t unique, then we don’t know what is.
Good character design principle #7: Expressiveness
Viewers shouldn’t need to work too hard to understand the emotions of a character. Expressive character design effortlessly displays thoughts and feelings and makes the subject seem natural and believable. As with human emotions, the eyes are the most important facial feature when demonstrating a range of emotions.
Disney and Pixar do a good job creating expressive characters that children around the world adore.
More examples of good character design
Whether you are designing an animal, a human, or any other species, coming up with an appealing character is a tricky undertaking. Before you get stuck into your next design project, we suggest you spend some time exploring the subtleties of character design. Here are a few examples of good character design to inspire you on your creative journey.
Droopy the Dog
Droopy is an animated cartoon character created by Tex Avery in 1943 during the golden age of American animation. The last cartoon was released in 1958, however, the lethargic Basset Hound has stood the test of time with digitally restored versions of the classic cartoon released as recently as February 2020.
Key design principles include simplicity and exaggeration – both in his very droopy face and the speed of his movement. Droopy also presents a strong and recognisable silhouette.
Dungeons & Dragons
This design example is from a subreddit dedicated to the various iterations of Dungeons & Dragons.
A reddit user named TobyFoxArt has employed a clever use of color in developing these unique characters.
Popeye is one of the earliest icons of character design. Created in 1929 by E. C. Segar, the beloved cartoon continued to be produced until 1957 and was broadcast on television for many more years.
Key principles employed in the design of Popeye’s character include exaggeration of his facial features and strength - on downing a can of spinach.
The unique character features a simple design, strong silhouette, and expressive facial movements.
Get your character designed on Freelancer.com
Good character design is not as simple as picking up a pencil and starting drawing. Are you spending hour upon hour without getting the results you are after? Or do you need a character and are unsure where to start?
Why not join thousands of others who have turned to freelancer.com’s team of professional character designers? Here are a few recent examples of character design from freelancer.com’s expert artists.
Freelancer.com character example 1
This is the winning design from a contest on freelancer.com to create characters for a trading card series.
The brief was for a detailed, technical, and visually appealing image along the lines of StarCraft, Mass Effect, Dawn of War, Supreme Commander, and Halo Wars 2.
Clever use of colour, relatively simple design, and strong silhouette are some of the key principles used in developing this character.