How to design a compelling character that tells a story
In this tutorial I am going to share my thought process when creating compelling characters that tell a story through their design. I will explain how I brainstorm ideas about my character’s personality and I will walk you through every step from the initial rough sketches to the final design. We are going to talk about story, shape language, gesture and color.
1. Get to know your character
The very first step in my process is to come up with an idea about my character’s personality and think about who they are. All I need is a keyword - something to begin with. The first one that pops in my mind is ‘antisocial’. From there I start asking basic questions - Why is my character antisocial, how does that affect their life, how do they perceive the world?
Just like real people, imaginary characters should have both positive and negative traits. This makes them more believable and three-dimensional.
Answering the above questions, here is my character’s short description: Her name is Fey. She’s from a troubled family where she’s not feeling loved at all. As a result Fey closes off and pushes away everyone. In her heart she’s good and loving, though she’s afraid to show that and as a result she appears as a very negative person. Her way to cope with her loneliness is by listening to a lot of music.
2. Take inspiration
I open Pinterest and start searching for inspiration. I’m not trying to find a girl who looks exactly like Fey. Instead, I look for anything that reminds me of her - from someone’s outfit or face to a picture of a room or a music album.
It’s always a good idea to take inspiration from real people or movie characters - their personalities are always very rich and they could give you ideas that you may not think of otherwise.
Save all the images you like and put them together in a mood board.
3. Exploration sketches
It’s time to draw! In these very first drafts I am focusing on getting down the feeling and overall vibe of the character. I think of gesture, silhouette and attitude.
I’m not trying to get it right from the first try. Instead I am prepared to make at least five or six different sketches. I need to get the bad drawings out of my system first in order to get to the good ones.
To come up with an interesting pose I try to put my character in a situation. What does Fey often do, what is her body language? For my last sketch I decide she’s just about to play some music as a classmate interrupts her. This forces me to think how she would react to that.
When you finally come up with a drawing you like make at least one more to make sure you can’t do better! In this case I loved the sketch labeled 1, but the next ones proved to be better.
4. Rough drawing
In this step I can start thinking more about design, anatomy and expression, and for that I go back to the storytelling element once again. Fey is someone who’s learned to take care of herself and be independent from a young age so she should appear as stable and strong.
I am going to use shape language to convey that. I give her a square face and blocky fingers. Even the strands of hair around her face are rectangular. If I give her round features she will look cute and innocent while pointy shape language will give off an evil vibe and both of these won’t fit with our character traits.
Always draw the full body of your character and then put the clothing on top. This will make the character appear more three-dimensional and it will help you design better clothing folds.
5. Final line drawing
In this step I push my design further by cleaning up the drawing and adding more details. I’m not aiming for super smooth and perfect lines - I like preserving some of the looseness of my sketch in the final image.
Fey’s description gives off that she won’t be thrilled if someone tried to interrupt her favorite song so I make sure her face communicates that emotion clearly.
To add more depth to her expression I give it a hint of sadness. After all Fey isn’t angry just for the sake of it - rather her anger is provoked by a deeper emotion and pain.
To design more believable expressions look in the mirror and pretend to be your character for a moment. Don’t try to look like them but try to feel like them.
6. Color thumbnails
I always start with the skin tone when choosing colors. That’s not a rule by any means but it’s how I approach this step.
I try to picture the type of lighting conditions that my character’s in and I think about what the color of the skin would be. For white people I avoid the basic pale orange tone as it can easily lead to a less intriguing color palette.
I imagine my character being hit by weak cold / purplish light, so accordingly the skin tone will be colder, less saturated and darker. The next colors I tackle are black and white and I apply the same principle here. Always avoid using pure white and black in your paintings - these values don’t exist in the real world and can make your image appear flat. My ‘white’ will actually be a desaturated purple, while my ‘black’ will be a purplish gray.
If you’re having trouble wrapping your mind around that think of the white balance option on a camera - I’m doing the same thing in this step.
From here I choose a few other muted colors in the purple/red hues and two other colors for accent - desaturated yellow and bright cyan.
Make a new layer on top, fill it with black and set it to color mode to check your values. Good colors are nothing without a strong value structure!
7. Adding flat colors to my clean drawing
When designing my thumbnails above I kept in mind my character’s personality again. The first two color schemes look nice but they are a bit too colorful for Fey so I opt for the third, darker one.
I add details like patterns on her socks, makeup and nail polish to further portray the personality of my character. A nice little touch are the different socks - I imagine Fey doesn’t like spending much time at home so perhaps she was in a hurry to leave and she just put on the first thing she saw.
Just as she’s not a completely dark and negative character, I want her to visually have something positive about her too, so I give her this big fluffy yellow backpack to balance things out.
Note that the graphic on the t-shirt doesn’t have any outlines. Had I added those they’d bring too much attention and that’s not the focus of our drawing. Avoid adding contrast and detail where it isn’t needed.
8. Adding shadows and highlights
In this final step I make a couple of layers set to multiply or overlay and I add some shadows with warm grey tones. I darken the legs because I want them to have a bit less contrast - this way the attention will be shifted to her face. I don’t add any shadows to her face though as it will become too busy and way more detailed than anything else and the image will look inconsistent. Since the light is coming from her left side I add a highlight to the t-shirt there. I also add final touches and details like the scar on her eyebrow, piercings, some wispy hairs and the headphones cable.
When you draw a clothing pattern that goes over a fold keep that in mind and try to follow the volume of the fabric. This will give much more depth.
Top Tip: Check your values
Check your values frequently to make sure your character has enough contrast where you want the viewer to look. In my drawing the value of Fey’s eyes and that of the skin on her face are almost identical, however the hues are completely different so that creates the necessary contrast.
You can create contrast not only with values but with hues too!