Character design refers to the process of creating characters for animated films, comics, TV, toys, and publications. A character starts off as a concept: a collection of personality traits, behaviors, and physical attributes. Then, the designer sketches the character or uses design software to bring the character to life in print, on screen, or as a physical object.
So what makes a character interesting and memorable to an audience? What sets one character apart from others? Good character design starts with three important elements:
A silhouette shows the outline of a character’s shape and excludes interior details like facial features and colors. By using what’s called shape language, you can create meaning through the lines, curves, and angles that make up a character’s silhouette. These choices can mean the difference between a character that looks soft and cuddly and one that looks menacing and dangerous.
A color palette refers to the designer’s use of different colors to make a character unique. By using color theory, you can choose colors for characters effectively and evoke emotions in the audience. For example, red can convey a character’s passion or intensity, while green can convey a connection to nature or serenity.
Exaggeration refers to making some of a character’s features more prominent than others, such as by enlarging the eyes or having the character make dynamic gestures. Depending on what you exaggerate, you can make a character appear comical, beautiful, evil, heroic, and more.
Tip: Look for instances of good character design in the media you consume and note the silhouettes, use of color, and exaggeration. For example, the Disney character Mickey Mouse is known the world over for the size and shape of his ears, broad smile, and optimism in the cartoons in which he appears.
Character designers, sometimes called character animators, are responsible for choosing each detail of a character to communicate a personality, role in a storyline, relationship to other characters, and other essential aspects.
Here’s a list of specific duties and tasks you may be responsible for in a character designer role:
Exploring character concepts
Designing characters’ visual appearances
Developing characters’ personalities, behaviors, gestures, facial expressions, and body movements
Drawing upon psychology to explore a character’s psyche
Exploring different characters impacts on a story’s plot and themes
Collaborating with other creators on a team to create characters
Making sure characters match a given script
Using digital design or software to create visual representations of characters
Staying up to date with the latest animation and 3D design technologies
Read more: What Is 3D Design? And How to Get Started
Depending on your interests, you may want to focus on a particular area of character design, such as:
Anime character design: features exaggerated facial expressions and large and expressive eyes of human-like characters, while bodies are relatively proportional.
Fantasy character design: often features elves, witches, fairies, mermaids, or other supernatural creatures.
Cartoon character design: features characters that appear on a cartoon series or animated film and that are intended to look drawn, rather than true-to-life.
Tip: Consider exploring inclusive character design to connect with diverse audiences and represent the world around us. Areas of inclusion might include characters with different skin tones, cultural backgrounds, gender identities, age groups, occupations, body types, physical abilities, and clothing and hairstyles.
As of December 2022, career sites list open US positions as follows:
LinkedIn: 39 jobs
Indeed: 446 jobs
Glassdoor: 295 jobs
Industries include sports, gaming, entertainment, non-profit volunteer organizations, language learning, software development, IT, consulting, web design, faith and spirituality, and education. Companies that are hiring include Disney, Sony, Dreamworks, Squarespace, Deloitte, and Snapchat.
In general, career sites recommend that you earn a bachelor’s degree in fine arts, graphic design, animation, computer science, or a related field to apply for jobs in character design. According to Zippia’s resume data, 72 percent of character animators (designers) have a bachelor’s degree, while 8 percent have a master's, 10 percent have an associate’s, and 10 percent have a diploma or other degree. The most popular major among character animators is animation, with 42 percent of degree holders having studied this field .
Tip: To find out what skills, experience, education, and other qualifications employers are looking for in a character designer, scour job listings on career sites. You may find it useful to create accounts with various career sites and set yourself up to receive notifications about new character designer job listings.
According to Glassdoor, character designers in the US make, on average, $53,247 per year, as of December 2022. This number includes base salary plus additional pay such as profit sharing, tips, commissions, and cash bonuses.
In the table below, we explore the cost and features of five different character design software programs. Use this table as a starting point for finding the best software program for you:
|Character design software||Cost||Features|
|Autodesk Maya||$225/month||Polygon modeling, fast playback, graph editor, simulator, prebuilt graphs, interactive hair grooming, motion graphics|
|ZBrush||$29/month||Customizable brush, polygon modeling, remeshing options, flexible workflows, advanced painting and texturing|
|Blender||Free and open source||Rendering, modeling, sculpting, video editing, simulation, animation and rigging, Python API|
|Poser||$149.95 flat rate||Third-party digital content, rendering, animation, illustration, graphic card support, post effects, Python 3 support|
|SelfCAD||Starts free||Modeling, sculpting, rendering, animating, magic fix, file export and import, STL slicer|
If you’re ready to design your first character and see your ideas take shape, follow these steps:
The first step is to decide on the kind of character you want to create. Here are some prompts to guide and narrow your preparation:
What kind of story will the character be a part of?
What is the story about? Describe what happens and how the story ends.
Identify the genre, such as fantasy, comedy, mystery, etc.
What is the character’s role in the story?
The next step is to explore the character’s psyche and essence more deeply using character design prompts that spark your imagination.
What goals and motivations drive the character to act?
What personality traits set the character apart from others?
How will these traits correspond to the character’s most salient physical features?
Need more character design ideas to fuel more creative energy? Look online for pre-made resources by searching the following terms:
Character design generator: can be an app or internet tool for auto-generating ideas or even basic visual appearance for new characters.
Character design sheet: provides an overview of a character in multiple poses and details the character’s personality, psyche, and role in a story.
Character design template: can be a pre-drawn outline or sketch of a stock character. You can modify a template by changing or adding details as you fine-tune a new character.
Before you start sketching and designing your character’s physical appearance, you’ll need some visual examples and inspiration to serve as reference material. Consider creating a mood board on Pinterest or collecting posts on Instagram from other accounts. Examples of reference material you might need include:
Clothing or costumes
Body types and proportions
A thumbnail sketch is a visual mockup of the character you want to create. The sketch is an important step, even if you’re not a trained artist. When sketching, use your design templates and sheets to capture the basic shape of your character, proportions, the most salient physical features, and the colors. Next, you’ll fill in details, such as adding buttons to a costume or more volume to the hair.
Once you choose a character design software program, your final step is to turn the thumbnail sketch into a polished digital illustration. Familiarize yourself with the software program's features to get the most out of the final design work.
Repeat this process to complete more character designs. You might consider compiling a character design portfolio for a job search, taking on freelance projects, launching your own character design brand, and showcasing your work to family and friends.
Taking online courses can be a great way to formalize your foundational training in character design. Learn from professional character designers and observe them in action in the CalArts Character Design for Video Games course.
In this course you will explore concepts and approaches involved in creating successful character designs that can be applied to video games. Following a ...
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Zippia. “Character Animator Education Requirements, https://www.zippia.com/character-animator-jobs/education/.” Accessed December 14, 2022.
This content has been made available for informational purposes only. Learners are advised to conduct additional research to ensure that courses and other credentials pursued meet their personal, professional, and financial goals.