How to Get Better at Designing Characters
AKA Thoughts while drawing and pretending I'm an expert Vol. 1
I know what you’re thinking; a drawing reference app telling you to deviate wildly from your reference is ironic at best. But hear me out. References are a great starting point and are there to guide and inform the execution of your character. When it comes down to the drawing and actual design, don’t be scared to wild out and try weird and unusual things to result in a solid and interesting character.
This is one of those age-old tricks of the trade that still holds very true. If you can recognise a character solely by their silhouette and with no additional details, you probably have a keeper on your hands. Keep this in mind while you’re designing and aim for idiosyncrasy.
Some people get away with extraordinarily wild and outlandish designs. Think Tetsuya Nomura, Yoshitaka Amano or Digimon. These character designs go for broke and it just works. Generally, however, simplicity is a virtue when designing characters. Complex character, simple design. You don’t want your intricate and rich character mythos to go to waste in favour of them being received as a fashion plate or visual smorgasbord of colour and ruffles.
What? But I just said… Yes, and that still holds true, but finding certain elements to hone in on and accentuate is a key element to good character design. Think of Cloud’s relatively simple garb offset by a hulking sword the size of his person or Lara Croft’s long legs and daisy duke came shorts. It's a veritable spicing up of elements and development of emphasis that leads to key differentiating details and quirks. It's also about nailing down the right vibe and focusing on what works. I guess it’s about balance.
When you get to the thumbnailing and silhouetting process, the aim of the game is to crank out as many ideas as possible to refine and inform your final character design. Sometimes this can obscure the character that you set out to design in the first place. A handy way to negate this is to keep a character cheat sheet on hand that has some basic info and inspo scribbled on it to anchor your hand when you’re designing wildly.
Tall order, I know, but let me share something with you that I saw the other day that made CRINGE. So you know those Masterclass online courses where luminaries in their respective fields give you some insider tips on how to also become a luminary in your respective field?
Well, I saw a very famed television writer gush about how she always tells her writing teams to never do anything cliche or overused because that is just not her style. Bearing in mind, her whole shtick is mushy, cliched tropes taken for a contemporary spin. I found the lack of self-awareness of what her craft is and how it is received… disturbing.
People, if you want to make something and you have the energy and requisite gusto to do it, DO IT. But have some sense of awareness of what it is you’re making and why. It’s going to help the whole process be a lot more palatable and enjoyable in the editing stage and when you finally reveal it to the world. That aphorism of ‘do what you love, the rest will follow’ is a bit unrealistic in 2021. Know what you’re doing and why and have some direction. Being strategic is seldom a bad idea, and never a waste of time.