4 Steps to Forging Your Character
And Why Character Design is like Blacksmithing
Let’s say you have an idea for a character and just want to draw them immediately, as I often do. Not so fast. There’s a lot more involved in designing a good character. Substance, content and personality come way before you even conjure up a few awesome designs.
I’d liken the character design process to blacksmithing because they both take serious patience and skill to craft, shape and form the desired final creation. I’ve never made a blade, but I’m familiar with the process thanks to several fantasy games and MAN AT ARMS: REFORGED on Youtube. So here’s my four cents on how to forge the blade that is your character design.
1. The Concept: What should your sword do; slay dragons or chop bush?
Early on in The Adventures of Kam Kam project, I was given a mission:
“We have to have the cutest fish.”
I had helped to develop the big, lovable curly-haired head of ‘Kam Kam,’ but now I was granted full reign over her trusty sidekick, GlowJuice the Fish. I didn’t have to think too intensely on what or who this adorable fish was, as that was already determined in a brainstorm session.
Character design at any level should start with brainstorming to define 1) who is this character and 2) what’s their purpose. Sometimes, this process is extremely deep and needs a thorough series of meetings. But for GlowJuice, we quickly determined that we needed a sidekick that was playful, stretchy, could survive space and was the cutest.
Figuring out early on if your character has a short term purpose or an epic role is important in embedding the right dose of personality in your design.
2. References: Gather raw materials.
When building a sword, you need to have the right metals necessary to forge the magnificent blade that you so desire. How does that relate here? I’m glad you asked! — even if you didn’t.
Your references significantly influence what your character is made of. The more references you have, the more ideas you can generate and extract to guide your character’s final aesthetic. I often create a visual/mood board that keeps all my references in a central location and helps guide me instead of having many images scattered all over my desktop.
3. Sketches & Variations: Pound out those blades until your hands fall off!
Your first drawing is rarely your best. So just as the blacksmith strikes and expands the metal with applied heat over and over again, you’ll need to draw and test out different shape languages, poses and overall variations of the character here. Even blacksmiths break blades in the process and have to start over, so don’t get too discouraged if you have to restart or adjust your approach.
It was only after several drafts of GlowJuice that I decided to use a ball for his overall shape language, which in the end, turned out to be exactly what I needed (circles and curves often communicate soft, cute and more feminine qualities, thereby helping me to produce “the cutest fish”). So be cognizant of your design choices. Get strategic about them.
Quick tip: doing silhouettes also help to derive some unique shape language so try them out as well!
4. Render: Refine and sharpen that pristine blade!
Now, you’ve got your 10-foot tall double-edged buster blade ready to sever the head of any dragon brave enough to breathe in their own lair. The only thing is, it’s a blunt tang, with no handle for grip and it’s not really attractive. So you need a whetstone to sharpen/clean your blade, a golden handle and an engraving that says something valiant and terrifying in Latin like capite obtruncato.
All I’m sayin’ is, your character needs a few more things to be complete. A line clean up, vibrant colors and a polish can make that render gorgeous. Just as you approached your sketches with variation, it’s good to test several color combinations before you settle on one color set. Afterwards, figure out your render style. This could be cel-shaded, painterly or anything you find appealing and suitable. So, always make sure to clean up, color and polish for that #davincifinish.
This was contributed by Patrick Meikle. He is pretty passionate about character design. So give a👏 👏 if you’re thinking about this stuff, and share it with others who do too.
Patrick is a character designer and animator at ListenMi, an animation preproduction and design studio for culture based content. Find more of his work on his instagram page @patrick_meikle , ListenMi’s instagram @listenmi and ListenMi.com.