I’ve been thinking a lot lately about what I wanted to say in my first blog post after the initial redesign of the main website. I jotted down a list of ideas and I decided that the topic of this post is really the meat and potatoes about who I am as an artist and therefore a great place for me to start.
I’d like to share a few of my thoughts about character design and some of the things that I’ve learned from my experiences in doing it over the years.
In this blog posting, I will talk about a few principles of character design that all good character designers and artists in general understand. This will be the first in a series of on-going character design articles that I write and I hope it is informative for anyone who needs help or guidance in designing characters. Let’s get to it!
Appeal is key. If your character lacks appeal, he (or she) is un-relatable, which means that your audience will not connect or care about him/her. Think of your favorite character from your favorite movie or TV show. What is it about that character that appeals to you?
For the purposes of this article, I would like to use one of my own characters as an example. I’ve selected the puffin character seen in my logo and star of my college senior thesis project titled “Puffin Stuff.”
Naturally, the first thing I did when designing my puffin character was… wait for it… research!
Research will help you make your character more appealing and get to know what makes your character tick. You above all else need to understand and connect with your character first, otherwise no one else will!
What makes a puffin a puffin? Why are they so dang cute? Just looking at the picture above, the distinguishing characteristics are primarily in its very vibrant coloring. They are somewhat penguin-like with the white belly and black feathers. They have very bright orange colors in their webbed feet and distinguishing stripes on their beaks. There is a large, white mask around their eye and they have a plump cheek. Puffins have the ability to fly and they live in rocky areas near the sea in the northern hemisphere around the arctic circle (unlike penguins, which are in the southern hemisphere, ranging from the equator all the way down to the south pole).
Wow, I sure know a lot about Puffins (because I did my research)! This is just one example of how you can use research to influence the appeal in your character design.
The next thing to consider after you do your research (or during) is your character’s back story and personality. Who is your character? Where are they from? What makes them tick? What are their strengths and weaknesses? Sometimes your research will impact your character’s personality or vice versa. You can use these to influence the design of the character as well.
The things I knew about my puffin based on my original story treatment (sounds like an idea for a future blog post!) was that he was very persistent and he would have to be a pretty smart puffin in order to solve the challenges he faced while he was visiting a beach where they do not allow animals.
Steal from the best. In this day in age, it’s a practical impossibility to come up with a completely 100% original idea. Everyone on the planet is taking inspiration from something, which was created by someone at some point or another. The difference is to innovate the original and change it to make it your own.
I learned this from Chuck Jones at an early age. When Chuck first started animating for Warner Bros., he was almost fired because his Sniffles the Mouse cartoons were too “cute” in comparison to the edgier cartoons that the other directors at the studio were creating. Chuck Jones later admitted to actually stealing his whole animation style from Disney because Disney was the only one at that time doing it successfully. He had no one else to turn to for inspiration back then, so he “stole from the best”. His words. Looking at it in retrospect, the Sniffles the Mouse cartoons from Chuck Jones were certainly more appealing and they stood the test of time more-so than the zany, goofy, rubber hose shorts did (this was pre-Bugs and Daffy). Chuck would eventually develop his own iconic style, but he used Disney as a jumping off point for his success.
When approaching your character, and in particular to appeal, look at what has been done before. What was appealing about what they did previously? What would you change? How does it relate to what you are doing now?
I asked myself all those questions when approaching my puffin character.
If you look at him now, he is essentially an amalgamation of several things that came before him, with a touch of my own flair. He has the wings of Iago (from Aladdin), the feet and line work of Daffy Duck, the beak of Foghorn Leghorn, and the blue eye color of Donald Duck. The rest of the design was inspired by an actual puffin and the spiffy Hawaiian shorts were added for additional appeal and helped make him more human-like (and besides, I LOVE Hawaiian prints as most people who know me will tell you).
In the case of the puffin, I needed to design him to work in a 3-dimensional world, while still maintaining his 2-dimensional appeal. This is true for all 3D artwork and sometimes 2-dimensional appeal does not translate itself so well to 3D, so changes are often made. Feasibility must be taken into consideration.
One of the challenges I had faced from the get go was how to approach is wings. Bird wings (feathers in particular) are difficult to emulate, especially for a solo artist creating a short film in college on limited resources. They also have inverse elbows and their wings work differently than human arms work. I looked at what had done before and used my personal favorite Disney character as inspiration to solve this problem. Iago from Aladdin.
You will note that Iago uses his arms similarly to how humans use theirs. He has modified feather fingers, which are also colored differently than the rest of his body on the tips to help them stand out better. I borrowed this feature for my puffin as well for the same reason. This allows you to read the character’s poses better, which again adds to the appeal.
Donald Duck’s blue eyes were also a key feature, which I borrowed to help with the puffin’s appeal. Disney made Donald’s eyes blue to help them stand out better in the plethora of white feathers that surround his giant egg-shaped eyes. My puffin had the same problem, so the trick Disney had used previously worked for my character too!
A few other things I used in my design was from the Looney Tunes arsenal. Check out Daffy’s feet and Foghorn Leghorn’s beak.
In addition to Daffy’s feet, I also borrowed another interesting feature of his – his line work. You’ll notice in the areas where you see black-on-black color, they switch the line art to white, and I made a conscious choice to do exactly that on my puffin’s design. This is a similar reason as to why I borrowed Iago’s features, to help his poses be more readable, which in turn would make him more appealing.
I believe the puffin from my thesis was a successful, appealing 3D character. I could probably recreate him now and make him even more appealing than he was then, as my skills as an artist have improved immensely over the past 10 years. In the end, it amounted to a lot of hard work and as you can see, a lot of thought (and love) was put into his design.
Appeal is the most important part of character design. All the other principles that I will talk about in this blog in regard to character design in the future will link back to some of the topics that I’ve talked about here and will directly affect the appeal of the character. The next topic that I will cover in this series will be about Line Quality.
I hope this article has been informative and gives some insight into what goes into making a successful character. In the comments below, I would love to hear some of your thoughts about your own designs. If you have ideas for a future article about art or character development, please let me know and I would be happy to consider it!