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FIVE Tips To Make Your Character Designs More Dynamic & Believable with acompanying “cheat sheet”

FIVE Tips To Make Your Character Designs More Dynamic & Believable


acompanying “cheat sheet” notes from PWP Episode 9

Your personal project, whether it’s an animated short film, a web comic, a picture book or any other type of visual story, will have a strong dramatic and/ or comedic effect on your audience when it features highly-realized characters who have been designed from the inside-out.

In the previous episode, “Ten Questions To Ask Your Characters To Make Them More Dynamic & Believable,” we shared a questionnaire that will help you go deep with your characters, to excavate their internal lives (emotions & thoughts) so they come to life on the page or screen in front of you.

Below are some of our tips that will help you to design characters whose external lives surprise

and engage your audience

and you.

Enjoy this. Explore. Discover. Fly high. This is REALLY fun stuff.

1. Surprise Me:

- Put an unexpected spin on it and maybe use the “opposites” brainstorming technique.

- The “opposites” brainstorming technique:

- Draw 2 columns

- In the left column, Write out a list of words that come to mind when you think of this character.

- Then fill the right column with words that are “opposites” or almost-opposite to the words in the left column.

- This can spark surprising ideas for character designs.

Example: A character is really strong, but he’s also really small.

-Incorporate a contrast: either conceptual or visual contrast. Ex: Professor X is the most powerful mutant in the world

2. A Strong Silhouette Is Everything:

and he’s paralyzed

- Use a variety of shapes and sizes and become a master of the visual cues necessary for that type of character.

- Spongebob Vs. Batman

- Black out your favorite character designs and see if they are still recognizable.

- Variety of shapes: Small, Medium and Large.

- “Appeal is found through a variety of shapes.” - Stephen Silver

- Appeal is a whole crazy, abstract thing but shape-variation is one way to think about it and it’s definitely true for Character Design.

- Gather reference and draw a lot of things that are “like” this character. ex. Draw a lot of real giraffes if you’re designing a giraffe character.

- Learn how to draw all its muscles, skeleton, etc. so that you your hand

instinctively knows all the visual cues it has to include (muscle memory)

to make this read believably as “giraffe.”

- What are visual cues necessary to this character, or type of character?

- Distill things into shapes

- Don’t add too many details. Just enough for the style within which you are working.

- More real world examples (like The Dreamer).

-What “props” are associated with your characters job/role?

ex. Fables: Flycatcher in his janitor’s uniform & frog hat. He’s always hunched over his broom. -Think about how Batman’s silhouette is different from Spiderman’s and how they’re both different from Superman’s. -Stance, body type, posture all play into it.

- Bruce Timm’s Superheroes have GREAT silhouettes.

- Look at his “Batman: The Animated Series” Season 4 designs. Even

the more “normal” characters have really interesting silhouettes. (Also,

his Superman


3.) Don’t Waste Your Time With Turnarounds:

- Draw poses that capture your character’s essence, as well as their clothing.

- Turnarounds, a.k.a. “Orhtos” or “Orthographics” don’t usually accomplish

ANYTHING that a page of good, expressive, acting drawings can’t accomplish.

- They often have no personality and are lifeless. - Instead, draw the character in a pose that says something about him - that captures the character’s essence. Try a pose that won’t work with someone else on your cast. They all need their own body language, unique to them.

-You don’t need to draw the sole of his shoe before you can draw the comic. Just draw the bottom of his shoe if/when you need to and reference it from there! (Animation is a bit different, esp. CG where you need everything mapped out but that stuff still only happens near the end of the design phase.)

- “PLANES” is an exception because the characters are mechanical.

4.) Get Rid Of Your Cable:

- Avoid character cliches and arbitrary accessories that distract instead of enhance.

- Of course, we are referring to the Marvel Comics character known as “Cable.”

- Don’t try SO hard to be unique (or edgy), that you actually become cliche.

- Arbitrary scars or tattoos on "tough guys" vs. Jack Shepherd's tattoo--unexpected, and character driven.

- Zany colored hair on the 'wild girl' or too much leather & and arbitrary straps that lead nowhere and hold nothing on.

5.) Find the “Power Center”:

- “Power Centers” concept is from ‘Acting For Animators’ by Ed Hooks

- Identify the element in your design with the most gravitational force and use it to your advantage.

- The Power Center is a Gravitational Force that draws all gestures, acting, body parts, posture etc. toward it.

- Woody Allen’s is his Forehead

- Charlie Chaplin’s is floats down around his knees.


You’re an artist. You’re a thinker, a feeler, a dreamer

and dreams that are constantly filling your head and heart are revealed in the external. Your

clothes, your hair, your piercings or tattoos, your posture, your gestures


those thoughts and feelings

Even when you think

you’re disguising your thoughts and feelings, they still find their way out.

Think about all the times you’ve tried NOT to look embarrassed

This is the inside. The thought life. The emotional life. And it always affects the outside. The external. The physical.

Every character you design should have a thought life and an emotional life that propels the visual. This is what Lora and I mean when we talk about designing the character “from the inside out.”

So there’s the challenge. You can return to the last episode for some great questions to ask that will help you get inside your character’s thoughts and feelings. And if you can find that in every character you design, your characters will be stronger and your project more dramatic, funny or both.

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To higher art and truer stories!

Thanks for listening!

Chris Oatley & Lora Innes host the Paper Wings Podcast which can be found on iTunes or at and

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