Wouter Tulp: Thoughts on character design

Some things I think are important in character design.

This post is about  thoughts I have about character desing, not a ‘how to draw’ tutorial. Besides knowing how to draw a character, how to use perspective, how to draw expressions, there is also an internal process going on  when I design a character. I tried to write down some thoughts about designing characters, and I’d like to share them with you. I hope they can be of use for you. If you have comments or additions, please leave a message in the comments section. 

1.  Observation

I make a habit of constantly observing people. I found that for me to understand a character, I need a certain understanding of people, how they act, how they convey their emotions, why they wear certain clothes, how they use body language to emphasize or contradict what they are saying.  A man who just got robbed, will walk into a police station completely different than a man who was just called his stolen car has just been found. Someone who is genuinly happy for you  will smile at you differently than a salesman giving you his smiling talk.
I find it really useful to study actors, and the way they ‘get to know’ their character. How they use body language, facial expressions, clothing, make up etc. to define a character.  Some actors have really mastered the art of ‘becoming’ a character. They are very much aware of every gesture, how they move, talk and breathe. It can be really helpful to approach the desing of a character in a similar way
It is the task of a character designer to use his knowledge of how people and translate this into a design that is believable. 

2. Reading the script
I thoroughly read the script, speak with the writer in order to get as much information as possible about the character to create an  idea in your mind to understand  who this character is.  Designing a character is not just playing around with shapes; it really is finding and defining the character’s personality.
When I read the script I focus on: How does the character feel, but also how he uses subtext in his expressions; If he’s scared, does he show it, or does he hide it, how does he relate to his environment. If he’s big, does he feel big?
3. Documentation
There is more to the character than just how he feels. ‘personality’ can be added to the character by how he dresses, how he combs his hair. If I want the character to be believable and  convincing I need to use elements from the world we know, and use and alter them in my design. The choices I make are based on the script, and from this, I try to be creative, and come up with many different ‘solutions’ for what the character could look like.
Google is a very helpful tool in referencing clothes, and assecoiries, but going out and looking at the real stuff, and making sketches on location can be very important as well. When I need to find out what dress a dancer has to wear, it can sometimes be more useful to go to a dance club and speak with dancers, and understand what is important for a dance dress, than to randomly combine google images into one dress. Someone who knows all about dance dresses should also be convinced by my design...
I like to combine ‘direct’ documentation with associative documentation. For instance  when I need to design a certain dress, I look for dresses in real life (direct documentation) but also for things I associate with the mood it has to have, or the personality of the character, or something random that comes up when I think of the character. (associative documentation.) Combinig these two elements, often lead to believable, but also creative design.

4. Trial and error
It takes more than one drawing to come up with a final character design. Sketching often is no more than thinking visually. Some ideas are good, some are bad, but there’s always room for improvement.
Step 1, 2 and 3 are essential to come up with various ideas and concepts. A character designer comes up with many different ideas and approaches to the subject. Allowing myself to try things that don’t work, is essential to eventually come up with great ideas. Nobody likes to show their bad drawings, but in order to be creative, it is neccesary to explore many different directions.  I hate it when a drawing  or a concept doesn’t work, or when I make a bad drawing.  The alternative however, is not allowing myself to make any mistakes, wich would mean doing the same thing over and over again...that’s not an option for me.
The great thing in designig a character this way, is that  I ‘get to know’ the character during the process.  When a drawing doesn’t communicate what I want it to, it means it doesn’t portray the character.  Trying again differently makes me slowly but surely discover who this character actually is.
5. Technique
A lot of books are written on character design technique. As I mentioned, I won’t go into ‘how to draw a character’ in this post, but there are some things to be said about technique.
It is important to constantly keep on developing both my drawing skills, as well as my creative skills, which means being able to come up with creative and original ideas.
Because most characters are based on human characters – even when the character is a tree, a donut or a rock, it’s expression and the way it’ll communicate with as is by human gestures and emotions- it’s important to attend life drawing classes. In these classes I develop a better understanding of human anatomy, expressions, shapes, 3 dimensionality drawing skills, quick sketching skills and so on… 

When drawing from life,  making a caricature of what I see is very useful. Certain features of a model stand out, and emphasizing these features is like underlining an important remark in a notebook. I can go through my sketchbook and easily recognise what it is that stood out to me during a specific drawing session, and I can use this information in my character designs.

Within a charachter it’s all about proportions. About the relationship between the sizes of the different body parts, the sizes of the different volumes, textures, colors, etc.
In the end there has to be a relationship beteen all proportions that suits the character.  Wether it is balanced , for instance based on the golden ratio, or disbalanced; creating an off-balanced character.
It often helps me to think of contrasts. if a character has curly hair, I can juxtapose this by adding straight elements, for instace a sword, so they complement each other (fuzzy curly hair, soft vs. metal straight). Or a man who is very wise and knows a lot of things, may have a big head, so his body can be small to put emphasis on the head. Using contrasts is a useful tool to be very clear about what you want to express. If all is blue, then red stands out. When I have established that, I can look for the right balance between red and blue. So I first look for the big statements, and then refine them.


MJ said...

Thank you, this was really informative.I was reading an article earlier today on another blog about story/location. When designing a character how much influence does the location have on your design?

Wouter Tulp said...

It depends... If the character is affected by his environment, this influences his behaviour at that location. This emotion can help to find a direction for the character.

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a very nice read, indeed. thank you!

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