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Creating Distinctive Characters (Visual Design)

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An article, to accompany this prompt about character design. 

Why is it important that characters be distinctive?

Generally as an artist, you want your audience to sympathize with your characters, grow attached to them, and get to know them. Recognizing each character is step number one in that battle. If everyone looks the same, a piece such as a comic can get very dull very fast- readers won’t be emotionally invested if they can’t keep track of who’s who at all. (Even live action movies can make it hard to differentiate the character’s designs, which can be a recipe for apathetic viewers).  
When working in visual mediums, audiences will usually be remembering characters based on their faces, and learning names later. A distinctive face is a memorable face- and memorable is good. 

What makes a character distinctive looking?

When I say distinctive, I mean that if I, within the context of talking about a work, said ‘sideburns guy’, everyone would know exactly who I meant without elaboration. ‘Distinctive looking’ means that their character design does not (or would only intentionally) overlap with the other characters. Within the group they stand out, and if you made a ‘cast on bleachers’ picture, followers of your work could label them all off without too much trouble (if you’ve read or watched Fullmetal Alchemist, take a look at the picture up top, and see who you can name. FMA is a great example of a large, varied, and recognizable cast). 

What keeps characters from looking distinctive? 

Usually, when someone learns to draw, say, a nose, they learn to draw it one way, and that becomes ‘how to draw a nose’. Additionally, artists often end up drawing characters that look to some degree like themselves. It’s not usually out of vanity- it’s just that your own face is familiar, and easily available whenever a reference is needed, as long as there is a mirror/photobooth/side of a kettle on hand. Sometimes, this can result in all their drawings resembling themselves, which doesn’t make for a very distinctive cast. The best way to remedy this is to study different people’s looks, by looking at varied images, drawing from models, and to practice drawing the different looks. Make yourself some ‘features banks’ that you have down, to draw from when creating new characters. If you notice that two characters are a little similar, make a side-by-side comparison chart, highlighting their differences (and adding some, if you need to). 

Purposeful Resemblances:

There are times when you are going to want certain characters to resemble each other. For example, you might want a family to have similar facial structure, or maybe you want a new character to remind someone of a person that they used to know. This is much, much easier if the rest of the cast is varied. Two people with the same eyes are noticeable in real life and in works with varied casts. It will be ignored if one or two eye shapes are the norm throughout the cast. If the resemblance is clearly deliberate, it will be picked up on by the audience. 
It’s also possible that you have Important Artistic Motives behind why your cast lacks variation- again, as long as it’s very intentional, you’re fine.  

Challenges In Distinctive Features

You may want to pick your battles with varied features, based on your media. For example, if you are writing a comic, having leads that are 5’0” and 6’4”, respectively, could pose a problem- they won’t fit in frames together. Therefore, certain similarities are definitely allowable if practicality demands it. Likewise, if you have to draw a character repeatedly, intricate tattoos or very complicated patterns will result in you weeping rivers of tears after four pages. Decide what is best for how you’ll be working.

A few ways in which characters are typically differentiated:

  • Hair style or color: While people will naturally categorize things by color, color of hair often isn’t quite enough to differentiate people if they have similar faces (especially if a viewer can’t see the full spectrum). Additionally, there are only a few basic hair colors that humans have without the aid of dye. And if you work grayscale… you have black, white, and tone. Style can help, but you should still have different faces for your characters. Basically, hair has a lot of options for variants- so use that for all it’s worth, but mix up other traits too. 
  • Eye color: Again, color only gets you so far. Eye shape on the other hand will alter the whole look of the face, and can be seen from a greater distance. 
  • Accessories: If something is worn perpetually, it can be a big help- glasses, for example. Piercings can set someone apart a bit. As a general rule, though: Don’t rely on it if it comes off.  
  • Clothing: If someone has a permacoat, or always wears a hat, it can really mark them out, particularly if you work in color. If they will only wear one outfit, go ahead and make those really distinctive. If the clothes will ever change, run the Shaved And Uniformed test. 
  • Body Type: Why is body type not used more? My guess is the artists haven’t seen enough naked people. Go check out different body types. There are more shapes out there than you might think. ‘Muscly’ does not mean only one look. ‘Curvy’ does not mean only one look. Have some height variation, have some weight variation. Having differing body types will help you so much. 
  • Facial Structure: I’m talking eye shapes, noses, mouths, the shape of the head and face. There are fourteen kinds of nose, there’s no excuse for everyone in your cast to wear exactly the same one unless it’s An Important Stylistic Decision.
  • Expression: Facial expressions can be a big part of character! Try putting a sappily cheerful grin on a habitually grim character- the effect is unsettling, isn’t it? In addition to the ‘resting’ face structure, your characters probably have a few default facial expressions- one is more prone to scowl, one is more prone to smile. People’s faces move differently, based on their structure- someone with a naturally downturned mouth won’t smile the same as someone with one that goes up, and expressions are often colored by the defaults. 
  • Ethnicity: If you have a large cast, and no reason why they need to be of the same ethnicity, I don’t know why you wouldn’t vary your cast’s ethnicity.
  • Body language: Similar to expression and posture- what sorts of gestures are typical of your characters? Maybe one moves their hands a lot when they speak? Maybe they nod a lot. Habitual gestures can be used as markers for particular characters. 
  • Posture/lines of action: Does your character slouch, or stand up military straight? Are they floppy or rigid in their movements? Are their lines of action angular or curved? Try reducing the character to a stick figure, and check out how they stand and move. 

Ways to test your cast’s distinctiveness:

  • Draw them with shaved heads and in similar outfits/naked. Can you still tell them apart?
  • Draw your cast as silhouettes- can you still tell them apart? Is each character recognizable from a silhouette alone? 
  • Get other people to review your character designs, and find out how easy it is for them to recognize characters. This will vary based on how good your subjects are with faces (some people aren’t good with them at all), but it will remove the familiarity that you have with your cast. 
  • If you work in color, put everything in black and white. 
  • If you work in color or grayscale, I hereby reduce you to outlines. Can you still tell them apart?

-This has been Evvy, at FYCD

Further reading:

TV Tropes: Cast of Snowflakes   

^ (Where I retrieved the image used as an illustration at the top).

TV Tropes: Only Six Faces

Character Design Tips

Different Body Types- Drawing Reference

Face Shapes

The Fourteen Nose Shapes 

A Bit of Eye Reference

A Posture Chart

Palmistry For Hand Shapes: Weirdly Drawn But You Get The Point 

Artist’s Guide to Human Features

Practicing Expressions/The Classic 25 Challenge (each character should have a somewhat different 25!)

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