Compelling characters certainly aren’t rare! However, making them takes serious effort that not everyone’s ready to put in. Writers, directors, content creators, and even branding experts could learn to use character design and development.
The good news is that it’s a mainly creative (not technical) endeavor, so there are a thousand ways to go about everything it involves. We’ve already given you the bad news: it can be painstaking to get everything right! Devil’s advocate: why would you want to get it right?
We would say a great character isn’t just about a story or a brand. It’s something we all pursue our whole lives, every day. You strive for it, too! There’s also an epic chance that your role models or loved ones are all great characters.
So, you need thought-out character design and development for your creations. How? Let’s find out!
How Has Character Design & Development Changed?
We aren’t dealing with new concepts here, although they’ve certainly changed over time. “Character design” has always been about appearances, while “character development” has always dealt with evolution and psychology.
Some credit Walt Disney, in his infinite genius, for pioneering character design. He certainly popularized the concept by designing lovely, memorable characters, but he didn’t invent it. The question of “where did it come from?” goes all the way back to ancient mythology with all the descriptions and portrayals. Who wrote The Epic of Gilgamesh? Who painted in the Lascaux caves?
The origins of character development aren’t any easier to figure out, either! It’s safe to look for it in any ancient text exploring human character or even teachings that tell you how to be a better person. For example, we know the study of human character goes back to Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics in 350 BC, at the least. And, of course, our love of storytelling eventually brought the concept to fictional characters.
So, with that background, how do we create characters?
How to Brainstorm in Character Development?
Like in every other creative pursuit, creating a character could start with getting all the ideas out and on paper or in a Word document.
In most projects, people first come up with who the character is and what they do, then get down to how they look. But if you have a vision of your character’s appearance first, by all means, sketch away! After that, we advise you to use that vision to figure out your character’s role and psychology before going any further in any design.
Now, let’s go over some basics for characters in any story!
Defining Your Character’s Role
In other words, what does your character do for your story? Is it a protagonist you follow everywhere? Is it a villain with an evil plan? A saboteur that foils a plan? A normal person doing normal things and staying out of everyone’s way?
A character’s role is important for three reasons.
- It defines many of the character’s key characteristics.
- It outlines how much time and effort you’ll need for the character, and also how much screen time they will get.
- It’s also one of the first things that people will remember of your character, just like you remember people in your own life through their actions.
So, take some time now to clearly define each character’s role in their dedicated profile. Be as descriptive as you’d like, but avoid redundancy. Plus, keep reading for more pointers on how to complete that profile!
Flat vs. Round Characters Explained
The terms “flat” and “round” might go a long way in those character profiles, so let’s define them.
A flat character is one with limited psychological depth. That doesn’t mean they’re badly written. They just show less complexity in your story! Flat characters usually don’t have a secret agenda, don’t undergo major changes, and are perfect for supporting or minor roles. Many stereotypes (like the damsel in distress) are also flat. For more examples, look for characters that undergo little or no change in a story. Like the purely evil White Witch from Narnia!
A round character, on the other hand, is one with significant psychological depth. They’re usually the ones with deep internal conflicts or secrets. So, they normally have major or central roles and undergo major changes throughout the story. To find round characters, look for those changes. Like Frodo Baggins from The Lord of the Rings!
Note that you don’t have to use both types of characters; you can go all round. Still, writing round characters is more difficult. So, using flat characters occasionally might make your life easier and allow you to emphasize story themes or attributes in your round characters. The Lord of the Rings is a great example of a story with very few flat characters. Everyone goes or has undergone major changes in there, even the evil Sauron!
What are Character Archetypes?
If you delve into human psychology throughout the ages, you may find ancient patterns of behaviors that we all have. These are archetypes, and they’re relevant to our stories because they’re deeply relevant to ourselves. Your audience will likely find a bit of their own archetypes in your characters.
There are many models and archetypes out there, so they’re not clear-cut. Let’s review the archetypes in Carol S. Pearson’s popular book, The Hero Within: Six Archetypes We Live By.
- The Innocent is pure, good, and in search of simplicity or harmony.
- The Orphan is alone and vulnerable in the world, looking for community and belonging.
- The Altruist puts others first and is willing to sacrifice themselves for a greater cause.
- The Wanderer seeks exploration, adventure, freedom, and self-discovery.
- The Warrior is a strong, assertive character that meets every challenge head-on.
- The Magician is a wise, powerful character that seeks to create positive change.
Note that we or our characters aren’t just defined by one archetype. (That would be a stereotype, a shallow character!) We move through these archetypes as we move through periods of our lives. So, at any period, one of them is likely more pronounced. Which one are you right now? Which ones are your characters?
How Does Psychology Impact Character Development?
Now that we’re actively looking into our own souls and our characters’, let’s discuss some other deeper factors that affect human psychology and character development.
The items in this section all go together, so they really have no order. Feel free to go forward and back as you please!
The Past & Backstories
Our past undeniably influences how we live our lives today or how we plan our futures. In other words, what happened to us and what choices we made when those things happened are still with us. Your characters are the same. For better or worse, their pasts are part of their identities.
So, open a section in each character’s profile and write what they’ve gone through to become who they are. Get to know them! Given their past, how could they surprise their associates or even yourself?
Strengths, Flaws, & Idiosyncrasies
Each human being is unique in their own way, and you should write characters that reflect that. So, dedicate a section under each profile to that character’s strengths, flaws, and idiosyncrasies. Like with everything, you don’t need to start too big. Idiosyncrasies are easier to write, so you can begin with them in a handy bulleted list.
Then, go to strengths and flaws. Take a look at the character’s relationships as well. Did they partner up with someone because they complement them? Is it a dysfunctional relationship where the flaws are overcharged?
Motivations, Fears, & Inner Conflicts
You’re getting to know your characters now. What drives them? What scares the hell out of them? What struggles do they have with themselves?
Motivations, fears, and inner conflicts play powerful roles in our choices and behaviors. They’re also usually difficult to figure out. (What’s your own life goal?) Luckily, you’re the master of your own story, so you know where those characters have come from and where they’re going.
Character Arcs Explained
If you know what’s going to happen, you know what change each character’s going to go through. That change is called a character arc. Arcs have three types:
- Positive Arc, in which the character grows, reaches their goals or overcomes their struggles.
- Negative Arc, in which the character devolves and suffers a downfall.
- Flat Arc, in which the character remains consistent.
Note that a flat arc isn’t necessarily bad. A character with a flat arc could even be central to the plot. It could be a Magician that guided everyone else in their arcs!
How to Establish Character Voice & Write Dialogues?
As we’ve mentioned in our guide to animation pre-production, any script has two elements: dialogue and action. We’ve already covered some of the action, so let’s go over the fundamentals of dialogue.
Speech Patterns & Why They Matter
Every individual has their own manner of speech. (If you’re not sure, think of two friends of yours saying the same sentence!) Your characters are no different. They, too, need to be distinct and consistent in their speech. Here are some of the variations you can take into account while writing dialogue:
- Accent & Dialect: Where is your character from? Think of the differences between Manchester British English and Californian American English!
- Vocabulary, Choice of Words, & Cultural Influences: How does your character’s past reflect in their speech? Think about the words of a university professor and those of a mythical warrior.
- Grammatical Structures: Same as above, but with a twist of rules! Think of Ross in Friends (“whom”) and contrast him with Phoebe (“flupie”).
- Rhythm or Pace: Does your character think and talk fast, or do they weigh every word? Contrast Treebeard and Pippin from The Lord of the Rings to get a better idea!
- Tone: Who is your character talking to in each particular scene? Our tones differ depending on the people we’re talking to.
- Code-switching: It’s common human behavior to switch between the languages we can speak. How many languages does your character speak? Do they switch between them? Do they switch mid-sentence?
- Occupational Speech Patterns: What does your character do for a living? Does that affect how they speak? For example, compare a psychologist’s speech patterns to that of a police officer!
- Individual Personalization: We’ve saved the best for last! Each of us adds a little bit of ourselves to our language. Does your character have idiosyncrasies of this kind?
A Word About Effective Dialogues
Writing is the most important way to develop a deep understanding of your characters. That’s the reason we’re going into character voice here at all!
This section serves as a reminder that your characters aren’t alone. Unless your script features no dialogue whatsoever, you must put characters together and see how they act. Even the last survivor after an apocalypse will have things to say to themselves, the world, their past, etc.
Here are three writing tips proven to help with character development!
- Listen to Real Conversations: If you take in natural dialogue, you can write natural dialogue. You’ll also develop a sense of how real conversations go, which makes you a better editor of your work.
- Know Your Subtext: There are few tools as good as dialogue when you want to convey conflict or differing goals. So, keep character profiles in mind in every conversation and see what they would say.
- Show, Don’t Tell: When you have things to convey to the audience, don’t put them all into words! Pay special attention to characters’ actions, reactions, their feelings on the exterior, and how they choose to say or withhold things.
How Does Worldbuilding Influence Character Design?
If the past affects your characters, so does every single present moment. Inciting incidents and special occurrences aside, your world and everything that happens in it consistently influences everyone in your story.
So, what does that say about your character’s appearance and design?
The World’s Effect on Characters
The world plays a major role in both character development and design. First, the environments each character grows up and lives in affect them on a very basic level. You get different psychological effects in different settings. Think of our world today and this same world after an apocalypse. Maybe you’ll find joy in the world today, but is that the same joy after an apocalypse? That’s the world and character development.
People also look and dress differently in different worlds and societies. The environments are all there, from genetic makeup to accessories people carry! So, all of these factors go into character design.
World First or Characters First?
Per the post title, we’ve put character first so far and now we’re talking about the world. But there’s another paradigm! You can opt to create your world and environments first and then get to character design.
Both approaches have their merits and their shortcomings. Here’s a handy list!
In short, characters and the world are deeply intertwined. Make sure to choose one of them as your focus and then stay coherent.
How to Do Visual Design for Characters?
Finally, something we can see! You might have sketches and detailed appearance guides, but you still need visual design to finalize them. At this stage, concept artists and character designers will work on the digital illustrations in the style of the project while modelers, texture artists, and many more people focus on intricate final models.
Before going into all that, let’s take some time to acknowledge that while it’s not mandatory, it is much more personal if you take up a pen and draw your characters yourself! You could use AI art generators, but they still have their own frustrating flaws, and you’ll need great prompts for great results. Even then, those great results might not exactly be what you had in mind! So, drawing might just be simpler.
For this section, we’ll assume that you’re doing the preliminary drawings yourself. It’s fine if you’re not, but do outsource to a professional studio that values great design and open communications. (Hint, hint!) You can also skip this section to read a little about how we do visual design at Picotion. Otherwise, let’s draw!
Designing a Character’s Physical Appearance
Let’s think it’s the first time you’re drawing your character, or you want to refine the drawing that you have. First, make a list of all physical traits you’d like. (A list always helps!) Then, take a deep dive into your character profile and see if anything jumps out at you. For example, really bad past fights usually make their mark on people.
Remember how listening to real conversations helps you write a script? The same goes for drawings and looking at real people’s faces, gestures, and movements. So, make a point of watching real people for inspiration!
Once you have a clean drawing of your character, also draw them with different feelings. A minimum could be four additional drawings for when they’re happy, sad, scared, and angry. These should be enough for the animation’s technical crew.
Designing Clothes & Accessories
Most visual artists would tell you that it’s easier to design objects than it is to design people. Still, objects shouldn’t be treated as afterthoughts. Styles and accessories provide a very human insight into each character’s personality, even in the subtlest ways. The devil’s in the details, like always!
You could even get advice from professional costume or fashion designers. Pay special attention to the world and its exigencies, historical and cultural references, psychological traits, practicality vs. looks, and symbolism.
How Does a Studio Approach Character Design?
Suppose that you’d like to outsource to us at Picotion. You choose your animation style, brief us on your own progress, and then we’ll take it from there to deepen your concept development and bring it all to reality. Of course, your vision factors in the methods we use.
As a creative studio, we don’t have a set-in-stone number of people for every project. That’s why we’ve saved it for last because the teams are dynamic! The artists and specialists we assign to your project differ based on your preferences, namely your animation style. (For example, if you choose 2D, we’ll assign the people that we know are better at 2D.)
Let’s take a quick look at some tools and techniques we use in the studio. We prefer to use a game engine (mostly Unreal Engine) to replace many of them as things get more technical throughout the process, but we’ll name some other popular software here as well.
Character Concept Art
It all begins with the concept art, which you already know about. As we said, drawing by hand is great for non-professionals but not so much for us.
Our concept and character artists work almost 100% digitally, using software like Adobe Photoshop, Corel Painter, Infinite Painter, Blender, etc., as they see fit. There are hundreds of digital painting software out there, and each artist uses those that are compatible with their goals and devices.
3D Modeling in Character Design
For many artistic styles, next comes 3D modeling. Like the rest of the artists, modelers here use a variety of software and techniques to create those same characters in 3D. Some of the popular software here are Autodesk Maya, Blender, and ZBrush.
One of the most popular techniques used here is sculpting, where the artist starts with simple geometric forms and carves them. Modeling artists also leverage character templates and model sheets. These are simple guides on character proportions, facial expressions, and poses.
Texturing & Lighting Your Characters
At this stage, the models are accurate in 3D form but not in detail. That’s where texturing and lighting artists come in. First, texture artists take the models and add every texture, from little red spots on a character’s skin to the fabric of their designer clothes. Like the rest of the crew, they’re free to use as many tools as they’d like, including popular solutions like Substance Painter and Mari.
Then, lighting artists put those textured models under different lights, making them responsive. We have the storyboard here, so we know where characters and light sources are in each scene.
What are some current trends in character design? How does AI factor in? How about a deep dive into a well-known project?
We know you still have a ton of questions! So, ask us or leave a comment below, and we’ll answer them in future posts.