An adventure can be fiction or nonfiction, but no matter what, a good story is always based on good characters. Before we get into developing a story idea of our own, I feel it’s important to spend some time understanding “character.” Character is defined as “one of the attributes or features that make up and distinguish an individual.” In other words, personality.
As a designer, your goal would be to make the character have an aesthetic that matches his or her personality. Now remember, a character needn’t be a living thing; it could be a talking candle, a dancing phone, or even a singing bush.
Whatever it is, your main character needs to exude personality. Since there are so many factors that go into creating that character from scratch, like attitude, gender, artistic style, physical stature, costuming, back story, etc., it takes a methodical process called character development to define the aesthetic nature and narrative of any given character. Once defined, those qualities are used to influence our character’s actions during the character animation phase.
Some liken character animation and scientific animations to acting, and I would agree. Most character animators have a mirror next to their computer, not to comb their hair but to work out facial expressions. I’ve even seen animators film themselves walking around like the character, just to be used for reference during the animation phase. No matter what, it all boils down to character development. A good example would be if your character is defined as a bounty hunter who used to be in a motorcycle gang.
On the visual side, you would have a lot to work with. I’m sure we all picture a bearded, burly, leather wearin’, brass knuckles havin’, tattooed biker dude who is as mean as can be and gets pissed when criminals make him drop his cigar. If we were to draw this guy, his character or personality would be apparent in our sketches.
Creating a compelling unique character from scratch is incredibly complicated. In fact, that’s a whole other book, but for us, just knowing that a character’s outward appearance should match our character’s personality should be enough for you to start. To take that kind of thinking to the next level, let’s examine a couple of known characters in order to further enhance our design choices. One of the best examples of great character development is that of Darth Vader. Darth Vader’s role within the Star Wars universe was that of the villain.
His character created tremendous conflict within the storyline because he was so evil and so unyielding in his commitment to bring the universe to the dark side; you almost couldn’t wait to see what he was going to do next. His character was that compelling. Not only did he act evil, but he looked evil. A towering, black-helmeted, half man/half machine, with an ominous voice and an even more ominous presence, Darth Vader’s aesthetics matched his evil ways and even today, the name Darth Vader will bring an instant vision of evil… he’s unforgettable. It is with this goal in mind that we strive to create animated characters that leave an unforgettable impression on those who watch our stories.
The following is a good example of two characters that have had equal screen time but completely different recognition. If I bring up the name Dr. Aki Ross, I bet that less than 10% of you know that Dr. Aki Ross was the central character in a hugely anticipated big budget feature titled Final Fantasy, The Spirits Within.
I also bet that if I use the name Mr. Incredible, nearly 98% of those reading this post know of his character without giving it a second thought. This kind of strong character recognition can only come from a combination of great design, great acting, and great story. Final Fantasy, albeit a beautiful movie, unfortunately suffered from an unclear, complex storyline and stiff character animation. Seeing some of the production design artwork, you’d be convinced that the creators had an amazing movie in their grasp. The visuals were wonderful and ground- breaking, yet the characters weren’t convincing enough in animation and story to leave our central character, Dr. Aki Ross, emblazoned into our psyche forever. In complete contrast, The Incredibles created such a rich and encompassing vision that it was hard to take your eyes off the screen. The story was brilliant, the character animation was amazing, and the production design was in perfect tune with the fantastic world they inhabited. Each character was as good as the next, with a great range of emotion and movement. I bet if you were to look at the original character sketches of Mr. Incredible, you would see an awe-inspiring pose and a magnetic personality that just radiates off the page.
As a superhero, his body is sleek and majestic, with a square jaw and inviting grin, his eyes are stern with conviction, and yet he looks friendly and humorous. An inspiring sketch like that embodies the spirit, soul, and story within a well-developed character. Whether it be in the written word or from a beautiful sketch, we all have a lot to learn from those who’ve made a success out of the characters they’ve created.