When it comes to character design, there's more to it than just the appearance of a character. While the looks of a character can tell a lot about said character, we all know that looks can be deceiving!
A lot of people seem to think that designing the appearance of a character is a character design. It is, when it comes to visual design. But what is the character like?
When people do give attention to that question, they'll often come up with characters that are either loved or hated by everyone, that have epic superpowers or superhuman abilities that no one (not even God) can ever hope to topple, and if they do somehow get beaten the shit out of them suddenly remember that there's an even greater power sleeping within them, which they will instantly activate no matter if they got just a scratch or are severely wounded. I'm not even going into the melodramatic background stories of them there.
So, what makes a good character design? What is the key to making a believable, likable character? How do you avoid making a too powerful character? I will answer those questions during this 'tutorial'!
The three categories of character designing.
There are 3 categories of character designing:
1. The Mental aspect
2. The Sociological aspect
3. The Appearance aspect
Now, people usually only give the last aspect attention. Or they use them in the wrong order. The first two steps always come before the appearance aspect!
The Mental aspect: the Character Diamond
A man named David Freeman once came up with a character design method known as the 'character diamond.' If the character diamond can be applied to a character, it means that the character design is good overall. It's a surefire to a well-balanced character!
The character diamond is a 4-point structure that describes the following things about your character:
This trait is the 'spine' of your character. It's the main trait of your character. It doesn't necessarily have to be a positive trait.
A somewhat less important trait, but still vital to the way a character thinks and acts. Or course, a character can have more supportive traits.
This is a trait that almost always brings your character in awkward or dangerous situations. Your character may deny that this trait exists, but it's there, no matter what. It's always a 'negative' trait, and a character's weakness.
A hidden trait is a trait that your character is often unaware of.
Now, I will give a more clear explanation about the character diamond.
For example, I'll take Walt Disney's Scrooge McDuck, and apply the character diamond.
Base Trait: Greedy
Scrooge McDuck is extremely greedy. Everyone who knows him is aware of this fact.
Supportive Trait: Intelligent
The most richest duck on Earth can't have and make so much money without knowing how to do business.
Fatal Trait: Quick Tempered
Scrooge has a quick temper, which often causes him to agree on risky bets or go on dangerous adventures just to prove he's better than his opponent.
Hidden Trait: 'A Small Heart'
Whenever Donald or the nephews are in trouble, he often lends them a hand. He may not look like it, but he cares about them.
The Sociological aspect: The background
Of course, there's more to a character than just a couple of traits. Where does this character live? What kind of species is this character? Below are a couple of questions you could ask yourself to get more insight in your character.
What's this character's natural habitat?
This is a very important question. The answer to this question always has something to do with the character's traits. I.E. If he's a nomad in the desert, he needs to have a strong will to survive. A desert nomad that is carefree is not believable. The same applies to an alien on a spaceship with zero knowledge about technology.
Does this character have a family and/or friends?
Maybe this character's adventurous spirit comes from the time he spent going on adventures with his best friend. Or maybe he learned to cook so great because his mother taught him how to cook?
Is this character a human, animal or perhaps an alien?
The answer to this question will affect the way your character looks.
What is this characters occupation?
This question may affect how your character is dressed. If he's a knight, he'll wear armor, if he's a priest, he'll wear a robe, etc. Take note that this doesn't need to be the case all the time.
What's this characters height and weight?
If you're putting your character in an environment, it's important to take the environment in consideration. Is your character a dragon that tramples castles under his feet? Or is it a ninja in the forest?
It's important to take the weight in consideration too. There's no way those thin branches of a tree are going to hold a 200 Lbs. ninja.
What are the character's strong and weak points?
This question is more or less answered if you apply the character diamond first, but it can't hurt to elaborate on these strong and weak points. It's always important to give a character at least one weak point. Every creature has strong and weak points, and so does your character.
What's this character's alignment?
Is this character a hero, or is this character a servant of the dark lord? Or does this character do whatever he pleases? The alignment of a character usually affects the facial expressions of your character. Evil characters always tend to look intimidating and angry, while good characters -usually- have a smile on their faces.
Is this character mean or social?
That your character is good doesn't mean he is social, and an evil person doesn't necessarily need to be mean to everyone.
Which enemies does this character have?
Everyone has enemies. Be it the king of a mighty country or the bully at school. No character can be liked and loved by everyone. It goes the other way around, too. There's always at least one person that likes the character that 'everybody hates'.
-Other questions you could ask-
- What kind of food does he like?
- What kind of music does he like?
- Is he in a relationship?
- Does he use a weapon?
- Does he have an illness?
- Is he smart or stupid?
- etc. etc.
Basically, the list of questions can be as long as you want. The more questions you ask, the more background information your character is going to get, and the more believable your character becomes.
The appearance aspect: giving a look
Now you've given your character a personality and a background, you're finally going to give a look to your character! I'm pretty confident that you know how that works, so have fun!
I hope this will help story writers (be it for a film, comic or novel) to create believable characters people can live into. But also to people who like to design characters in general, I hope this is helpful!