Advertisement
Techniques

Holistic Character Design

by

Cartoon characters are everywhere, from advertising to film, and the ones that stand the test of time all share something in common. They have substance over style. It's all well and good designing innovative, cool looking characters, but if they're only skin-deep, that's where they'll come unstuck. Great characters like 'SpongeBob Square Pants' have much more than just a unique look, they have several key elements that are instilled in the very core of their design. Over the course of this article, I'll show you what they are and how to use them to create your own lovable characters.

This Post is Day 6 of our Character Illustration Session. Creative Sessions

Introduction

In my opinion the key elements to creating irreverent, lovable characters are: Back Story, Character Traits, Audience, and last but not least, a design that draws from these. This is a holistic approach, where all elements work in tune and feed off each other, there is no rigid formula and so you can tailor the process to suit you or your brief.


Solid Foundations

We'll start where all good work should, in the sketchbook. In my opinion, a sketchbook makes for the best sounding board. In it, you can push ideas around, be as scruffy and as half-baked as you like. It's also the best place to gather inspiration. Many people take inspiration from observing real life, i.e. animals or people; this is called 'Reportage'.

Getting out and seeing the characters that surround us in everyday life, at the coffee shop, in the park, etc gives you a wealth of source material. I also get inspiration from watching films and listening to music. Wherever you position yourself, make sure you have pencil and paper in hand! I believe starting work on a computer makes for a sterile and antiseptic work environment - your characters need life so they should at least start off in the real world.

When you're sketching it's often the happy accidents that lead to a great character - go with it, don't filter or constrain yourself. Also, never tear out pages when things go a bit wrong. It may be very natural to want to cover things up, tidy and smarten up your sketchbook, but it's always good to reflect on your mistakes in order to learn. I've known people to glue pages together to cover up, what they deem to be, a mistake, but there's no need. A sketchbook is for you and your eyes only, it's your workings out and they're very valuable.

sketchbook

Your Audience

In most cases your character, like all illustration, has a job of work, and an audience it needs to speak to. You may be asking why I didn't start off with this, and go to work in the sketchbook with the audience in mind. I think it's important to get going with character design before a brief comes in or you're roped in by the confines of any rules. If your creative juices are already flowing, you'll find it much easier to apply yourself to a brief.

Designing for an audience means getting into your audiences head. If your creating a character to appeal to an age bracket of six to nine year old boys, you must first know what your typical six to nine year old boy is interested in, the sorts of things that make them laugh, the sorts of toys/food they like, etc. This information then feeds into your character to make it endearing and identifiable.

Good questions to ask yourself while you think are:

  • "Why do we care about the character?"
  • "What is it?"
  • "What does it do?"
  • "What does it like to eat?"
  • "What does it want?"

Then start thinking about character traits.


Character Traits

These are your identifiers - building blocks for your character, all the eccentricities, and things that make them unique. It can be literally what they are i.e. type of animal or it could be the clothes they wear, the food they eat and their personality traits, i.e. confident, irritating, etc. They need to permeate your design, because you're not putting a script in front of your audience, these traits need to be visual and visible. Use stereotypes, a particular thing's inherent characteristics as a tool.

If your character is bad tempered, consider them as a grumpy old man, or an ostrich. There's nothing wrong with stereotypes in my opinion, but be clever with them. If you want to draw attention and emphasize a particular trait, its a good idea to make it more prominent, bigger/brighter colored, and in contrast reduce its equivalent opposite to create a striking juxtaposition. For instance my character has small arms so in contrast he has really long legs.


Back Story

This moves us on nicely to the Back Story. If you were a person that's had a bad experience in the past, it would shape the person you are today. By the same token, if your character (e.g.) of an elderly goose was a substitute carrier pigeon in World War II, he may have aversion to loud noises, and often recount of his heraldry and major role in winning the war. It's this history, good or bad experiences, which makes your character come to life, goes towards its aesthetics and feeds back to answer some of the questions we asked in the Audience section.

backstory

Case Study

Here's my example character, 'Stubby Arms Fox.' He represents the application of all our elements.

case%20study

I've given him these character traits and back-story:

"A fox born with short stubby arms and in contrast very long legs. He has always thought his little arms were more like wings and he longs to be a butterfly and to be able to fly. He's quite timid, but determined and high spirited. He loves his big yellow Wellies, which he thinks are great for adventures and exploring."


Over to You

So hopefully this overview has given you some insight into the process of creating a great character design. By nature this is an organic and individual process, I designed this holistic method to give you just some pointers and maybe change the way you approach character design. Take it, expand upon it and really invest in your characters.


This Post is Day 6 of our Illustrative Lettering Session. Creative Sessions
Related Posts
  • Business
    Productivity
    How Start Every Day with a Productive Mindset5 preview daily productive mindset
    "Start as you intend to continue," the saying goes, and wisely so. Begin your day with a productive mindset, and you'll find your whole day pans out well. That's why how you start your day is so important. In this tutorial, I'll show you how you can set the ball rolling in the right direction.Read More…
  • Design & Illustration
    Drawing
    How to Draw Animals: FoxesHowtodrawfoxes preview
    Do you want to draw a certain fox or create your own fox species? Check it out!Read More…
  • Business
    Communication
    Writing Speeches That Grab Your Audience from the Opening Sentence6 preview writing speaches to grab your audience
    Writing a presentation is a daunting task. You wonder: Will anybody listen to me? Will anyone remember the ideas I share? Can my presentation really make a difference? The answer to these questions is yes, yes and yes. That is, as long as you've got to grips with basic presentation skills and you give your presentation a solid structure. Let's look at the structure you can use in your presentations to grab attention from your opening line.Read More…
  • Web Design
    Workflow
    Three Simple Steps to Higher Output and Greater CreativityMike thumb
    The beginning of a new year is filled with a massive amount of energy and resolve, people setting out to find new ways of thinking and working that can bring them closer in line with their goals. This post is going to give you, a web designer and developer, both practical steps and conceptual advice to help you reach a higher level of output and a more consistent flow of creativity.Read More…
  • Business
    Communication
    Deliver Engaging Presentations Like Steve Jobs4 preview present like steve jobs
    Steve Jobs is widely recognized as having been one of the greatest communicators of our time. Millions of people around the world would tune in to see his keynote presentations for Apple. His captivating presence oozed charisma. To a large extent, his engaging style wasn't something Jobs was born with. It was a skill he learned. With that in mind, what can we learn from the way Steve Jobs gave presentations?Read More…
  • Design & Illustration
    Illustration
    Cartoon Fundamentals: How to Create Movement and ActionCartoonmovements preview new 400x400b
    What is a cartoon without any kind of action? What is a cartoon, that doesn't tell us a story? You may have seen artistic studies of the human body, drawn from a live model for reference. They work very well for understanding how anatomy and muscles react when we suggest a move. But the sentiment behind this movement is not clear! It's just a reproduction of real life and nothing more. The way to express movement and action in a cartoon style drawing is quite different from real life. Therefore, beyond the necessary knowledge to build your character's body, mastering the techniques needed to add life to these forms is essential. And that's what we'll talk about in this tutorial!Read More…