Top 11 Character Design Tips For Beginners

Here are 11 of the best character design tips. Following these guidelines will help improve your character design process.

As a freelance artist, I have designed dozens of characters and these are the best tips that I have learned along the way.

It can be difficult and daunting to start designing characters when you don’t know where to start. Hopefully, these will give you a starting point to create your character.

Let’s dive right into the tips!

1. Decide what kind of character you want to make

Characters designed by Sapo Lendário.

One of the first steps of character design is to figure out the big direction you want to take with your character. A good starting point is to think about what kind of universe they live in. Is it fictional or historical? You can also choose between a fantasy character with more fictional designs or a more functional character.

Another helpful tip is to list out keywords that describe your character. For example, a character may be cute, round, sleepy, and loves to eat. You can also build a story around your character so that you have a better idea of their personality and looks.

2. Figure out who the audience is

Collage of characters by Luigi Lucarelli.

Your character design should be based on who your audience is. If you’re drawing for kids, you might lean towards simple and readable designs. If you are drawing for adults, you might decide to make it more complex and detailed with little nuances. And, if you’re drawing for your clients, you should match what you draw with their needs. Effective character design is all about communicating the right message to your desired audience.

3. Research and find inspiration (references)

A nature goddess inspired by Vietnamese clothing/culture by Anh Dang.

Finding inspiration can help you further expand your character or even bring it to new, exciting directions. Like the artwork above, you can get inspiration from culture and history. Or, you can observe nature, watch movies, look at artworks, and search online for your inspiration.

In this process, try to gather references for your art. Even the best artists use references, so don’t be afraid to use them! On a side note, you can also try sketching a character before using any references to try to come up with fresher ideas.

4. Use archetypes or cliches

Superhero character designs by David Gagnon.

Archetypes are useful because it helps you choose the personality and characteristics of your character. Some common archetypes include the hero, magician, jester, outlaw, and warrior. It can also help to ask yourself if your character is good, evil, or neutral. Knowing this will let you design traits that match your character type. You can also use cliches like the goofy or the cute character to start your design process.

5. Start with the silhouette

Silhouettes of well-known characters like Spongebob and Popeye. Source.

Like in the picture above, memorable characters often can be recognized just by the silhouettes alone. We can often read the emotion or action the character is taking from a good silhouette. A bad design often has silhouettes that are hard to read and distinguish from a crowd. Be sure to make the gestures and features clear and easy to read. 

Start with the pose and the silhouette, then work your way down from there. This helps save you time and prevent you from having to start over because your silhouette is not readable.

6. Use simple shapes to construct your character

Stranger Things character design by Natalia ‘Verauko’ Trykowska.

All complex drawings are made up of simple shapes. Try to build up your character with shapes like circles, cylinders, squares, triangles, and rhombuses. This helps you create characters with good fundamentals that makes sense. It is always easier to start with shapes and then refine from there rather than drawing something directly.

7. Keep shape language in mind

Character sketches with different head shapes. Source.

Shapes have different meanings and can impact how people perceive your character. Generally, squares convey things like robustness, strength, and seriousness. Triangles can convey cunning, danger, evil, and speed. Circles can mean fun, cute, youth, and friendly. You can also combine shapes, but it is good to have one shape that is more dominant than the others.

8. Establish a key feature

Superman and batman both have memorable key features. Source.

Memorable and impactful characters like Superman and Batman have key features that stand out and make them unique. Superman has a big “S” on his chest. Batman also has a logo on the chest but can also be recognized by his sharp ears. Try to come up with a key feature for your character where if you remove it, it no longer feels like your character. You can also add some side features like the Batarang or the tool belt in Batman’s case.

9. Exaggerate, exaggerate, exaggerate!

Expression sheet for animation by TB Choi.

Exaggerating emotions, movements, and gestures make them easier to read and more lively. You can observe this in most animated films where facial expressions or movements are often exaggerated. Exaggerating your character can also make it more expressive and relatable. Without it, your character may seem dull and boring.

10. Add more details near the focal point

In this case, the focus is on the head and upper torso. Character design by Hue Tao.

Your character should have a main focus or point of attraction. This typically coincides with the main feature your character has. You can also choose to have the viewer focus on features like the face. Try to add more details near the focal point and remove details that are further away to avoid distracting the viewer. Ideally, your lines should also flow toward the focal point to attract the viewer to it.

11. Pick the right colors

Cyberpunk Ninja by San Sagaz.

Pick a color scheme that works well with your character. Personally, I like to use the tetradic or triadic color scheme as it allows a wide range of colors to choose from. Different colors also convey different emotions and meanings. For example, yellow may convey warmth and fun, but it can also convey sickness. Keep in mind what you want to convey and choose your colors accordingly. Check out our in-depth color theory guide for more tips and tricks.

What to do next

Be sure to keep these character design tips in mind when you are designing your next character. Check out our article on beginner drawing techniques.

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