How to create fully realized characters


For this tutorial I’m going to share the process I go through when designing a character. I’ll discuss some general principles of character design and also go into more specific detail about my methods. I’m going to be bringing to life a character that I was inspired to create after listening to the song Widow’s Peak by Bat for Lashes.

girl with fire in robes


Creating a Backstory

When designing a character I always start by asking questions about them. Anything from “what’s their favorite color?” to “what are their life goals?” This helps me determine who they are and hopefully makes for a richer, more compelling final design. Because I’m taking inspiration from a song I can find answers to some of these questions not only the lyrics, but also the emotional tone of the music. It’s the story of a woman whose partner dies on their wedding day and her journey for answers. From this I know she’s grieving but also full of determination.

widow's peak lyrics

Character design isn’t just about drawing a cool looking character; they also need to be believable and fully realized beings

Be Inspired

Inspiration can come from anywhere, so I always keep a sketchbook and camera handy, but one of the best resources for gathering references is Pinterest. For me the song conjures a feeling of fantasy and adventure so I search for things in that vein. I take metaphors from the song like “his jacket on my back” and “dead man's shoes” and run with them literally. I imagine this is her first big journey of her own so she wears some of her partner’s clothes, partly because she doesn’t have the right equipment, but mainly to keep him close.

fashion moodboard

You can never do too much research, the more you do the more ideas you’ll have and the easier the following steps will be.

Sketching Out Ideas

Time to put pencil to paper (or stylus to screen.) Rather than going with your first idea, it’s important to explore lots of different possibilities to ensure you find the best one. I usually start by sketching general shapes to find a good pose and silhouette that works before adding in clothes. There are certain things from the song I’m keen to incorporate; the picture of her partner, a map, his boots, a jacket (or cloak.) I explore ideas like giving her thick socks to make the oversized boots fit, or a locket to hold the picture of her partner.

sketching girl with staff

Exploration helps you come up with interesting ideas you might not otherwise have thought of.

Roughing It Out

Once I’ve got several thumbnails I’m happy with, I take a step back and try to pick out the best parts. I then combine them into one really strong design that most represents the look and feel of the character I’m trying to create. At this point I start to push the composition of the design and consider the clothes as part of the silhouette, I look for ways I can create interesting contrast and mirroring in the shapes; like her hair and the cape.

rough sketch girl with torch

It’s best to stay loose at this stage, it helps you find happy little accidents which can become strong parts of the design.

Final Line Work

At this point I add more detail to her expression and refine the line, though I don’t want to be too neat. I keep the marks confident but rough, it doesn’t matter if they cross each other so long as it feels deliberate. I also mix up the weight of the lines to add visual tension and so the eye is drawn around the image. I tend to use a pencil brush for this because it adds to the feeling of texture.

girl with torch sketches

Avoid lines that intersect or connect from different parts of the character, in a 2D image this can confuse the eye.

Color Exploration

Now I’ve got a clear design it’s time to chose some colors. I use the line art as a guide and create simple thumbnails to explore different combinations. I look back at my references for inspiration, I look for colors that help accentuate the personality of the character and the story I’m trying to convey. In this case darker, more muted tones seem to be best; though I still want them to stand out.

girl with torch colour experimentation

Less is often more with color. It’s no coincidence that iconic characters like Mickey and Mario only use a few.

Blocking In

With a color palette chosen it’s time for me to start blocking in. As with the line art I try not to be too precise, I use a rough textured brush so it’s not perfect. I create a new layer for each part of the design so it’s easier to edit specific parts later without changing anything else.

girl holding map and torch

To save layers I group parts of the design that don’t connect, always thinking about which parts are in front.

Shadows and Highlights

I usually keep it simple when it comes to lighting as it suits my style, but for this design I’ve got a visible light source I want to incorporate. To sell the feeling of torch light I add shadows in places like under her brow and light reflected in certain places. For the shadows I create a clipping mask set to multiply and paint over in a warm gray, for highlights I have a mask set to overlay and use a lighter gray. Finally I add an orange glow on parts closest to the flame like the hair and hand.

girl holding map and torch

Shadows add volume and depth to a design, and can be useful in illustrating things such as folds in clothing.

Color the Line

When I’m happy with how my colors are looking I’ll add color to the line work. I create a clipping mask on the layer with my lines and paint over it with colors that match the parts of the image they’re associated with. In order for them to stand out I use darker shades for the lighter areas of the design and visa versa.

girl holding map and torch

I keep the line work part of my final design but soften it by coloring it to match the image.

Adding the Finishing Touches

All that’s left to do is add in some final details to really make the design stand out. I add markings to the map to convey she’s on a journey and add in a cast shadow on the floor to make her feel grounded. Finally I add decide on a background color that best suits the image.

girl holding map and torch art

A complimentary color used as a backdrop can enhance the mood of the design, but sometimes a white background is effective.

Drawing from life

The world’s full of all sorts of different people, with unique styles and mannerisms. People-watching is a great way not only to pick up ideas but also to practice your drawing skills. Trying to capture someone’s likeness quickly forces you to focus on the essential aspects like shapes and gesture.

profile picture daniel tarrent

Coffee shops are like gyms for artists, they’re great places to sit and draw lots of people, and drink coffee.

If you’ve enjoyed this tutorial you can find me on Instagram @danielptarrant and if you found my advise useful check out issue 9 of Character Design Quarterly, where I give advice on creating “otherworldly characters.”

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