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Great Character Design? What's That!?

I love designing characters.

I love everything that's involved in the act of brainstorming, creation, backstory writing and visual design of said characters.

I love looking at other people's designs, analyzing them and picking them apart, piece by piece, and if possible nicking one of those pieces for a rainy day to use on one of my own characters.

And so I can already hear some of you asking me (probably because I wrote said question in the title):

So can you get on with it and tell us what counts for good character design, already!? God...

Alright, simmer down, I'll get to it, first of all, let's define what actually needs to be designed before we actually judge whether or not it's actually good.

To me, a good character is usually comprised of three parts, for the sake of simplicity, let's call them The Heart of a character, The Mind and, last but not least, The Body, so let's get to it:

A) The Heart

when we try to define a character's heart, we mostly go about defining their nature, and the best way to actually start defining that is to answer one question in one sentence:

What's he like?

Imagine, if you will, that you're trying to describe a friend of yours to someone who just asked you that question, you're not going to tell them what they look like, you'll tell them about their characteristics, their attitude and general behavior, this usually involves the use of adjectives to describe them.

Let's look at an example here, we'll use Zidane from Final Fantasy IX:

Zidane, not at all a rip-off of Son Goku!

Now let's try and see what can we say about Zidane in one sentence:

He's a playboy, impulsive, care-free, sneaky and sly, but ultimately kind and thoughtful, especially to his family and friends.

There, one sentence that describes Zidane quite well, this piece of information is very important, not only as a starting point, but also to help us perceive his reactions to any given situation that he might run into in the course of the story, such as the moment when he first bumps into princess Garnet, reading the sentence above, you can understand how his reaction is to that is to immediately toss a pickup line or two at her.

Now of course, one sentence is hardly enough to describe a complex character, we might be able to make do with it for a while, but sooner or later we have to branch out and go deeper into the character.

In comes the backstory!

Now, depending on you, you could start with either the backstory or the one sentence description, but I find it easier to build the backstory after you decide what kind of character you're making, either way, we're going to look into the cause and effect relation between these two subjects, let's keep going with the Zidane example:


Now when we look back at our descriptor above, let's try to guess why he is what he is, naturally, when making a character of your own, you'll have to do it on your own, here though, we have the fortune of having a preexisting backstory.

The Zidane that we know started out as an amnesiac before being found by his band of theater performers, he traveled with them until they were asked by Lindblum's regent, Cid to retrieve the princess from the clutches of her evil mother!

That right there is the catalyst for most of Zidane's Heart; the traveling troupe, it's nature and its life-style show us the source of his care-free spirit, his playfulness and, according to popular belief, his womanizing ways. Add to that the fact that he's performing acrobatic feats to people and the nature of theater, and his sneakiness fits like a glove.

Finally, his caring and kind nature that eventually shines through comes from none other than his companions in the troupe, who are nothing if not a surrogate family who decided to more or less adopt Zidane.

That right there is a good start when looking at the heart of a character, you could always add more, and you probably will, but for now, this is a good start.

B) The Mind

Now you might be asking yourselves what else do we have to cover, you say "Well gee, gosh willikers, we already have a pretty detailed character, what else is there?" like your average little kid in a 60's instructional video.

Well, first of all, nobody says "gee, gosh willikers" anymore, this isn't the 60's, and when that's out of the way, I'd tell you that what we have to define the higher functions and complexities of our characters, A.K.A. his goals and motivations, what drives and inspires him to continue in his journey, and just as important, what his wants and needs are.

Now since we've come this far, let's continue with Zidane and take a look at his goals and motivations, we'll run into something interesting here; at first, Zidane has no higher purpose in the story other than survival and maintaining the status quo, he effectively has no drive in his life, he simply enjoys being with his family and for all we know, he has no intention of changing that.

His motivation after that, when he is tasked with returning the princess to Lindblum, is not far removed from his original goal, he either has the immediate goal of survival, or the long-term goal of finishing the mission and returning with his troupe to their old way of life.

What interests us is what happens after they complete that mission, and the kingdom of Alexandria begins to launch its own take on World War III, that our hero begins to manifest something of a goal; to protect his home, friends and family from the menace that is Queen Brahne.

Queen Brahne, giving King Hippo a run for his money!

That right there gives us his goals, his wants, but what about his needs?

Well, after the work we've done, it's quite easy to come to an answer to that question; Zidane here needs his family and friends, as they are the most valued thing he possesses, if you're wondering exactly on what a characters' needs are (beyond the most basic needs such as food or shelter), just think of the things that would make this one character behave irrationally considering what we've mentioned before.

Another good place to start with a characters' needs is the Maslow hierarchy of needs, check it out:

The need to poop is naturally paramount!

What you're looking for here is whatever lies in the top three tiers of this hierarchy, in other words the Love/Belonging tier, Esteem tier and self-actualization tier, you can almost always tie your characters' needs to one of the concepts present in these three tiers.

Well, that was a long-winded explanation, let's move on to the final part of character-design:

C) The Body

You've probably guessed what this part stands for, and if you've guessed the actual, physical attributes and appearance of a character, then you've guessed correctly.

Now you might be inclined to believe that this part is the least important of a character, or one deserving of less contemplation than the other two, on this account, you're absolutely wrong!

Believe me when I tell you that this area of the design is just as intertwined with the other two aspects as they are with each other, as we will rely heavily on those two aspects to analyze (on your own, it will be to come up with) the visual design of our character, on to Zidane:

posting this image here to spare your scrolling finger!

Now let's consider what we've learned about our character so far, he's basically an acrobat, we know him to be mischievous and playful, being the creation of a Japanese mind, his appearance stemming from their folklore is not a surprise, you though I was kidding about him being a rip-off of Son-Goku up there, didn't you? Well, these characteristics are as synonymous with the character from the tales as Jesus is to forgiveness and compassion, or Ghandi to pacifism, or Hitler to pants-shitting evil and racism.

We also know that he grew up as a wandering performer with his troupe, indicated by his festive yet still nonrestrictive attire (seriously, just look at those cuffs and that necktie).

Finally, him being a thief gives the final touch, yet still some of the more fundamental aspects of his appearance; the height and weight, his smallish build and prehensile monkey tail, even his weapon of choice, the daggers, convey his role in the mechanics of the game.

contrast those physical attributes with Steiner, whose relatively hulking size and armored attire are fitting to his knight persona, same with Vivi, with his tiny size and waddling movements, extremely appropriate for his squishy mage persuasion.

If there's a lesson to take from the entire Body section, it's that the appearance and visuals of a character are just as deserving of your time as the other two, so always try to consider your characters' traits when you decide on the looks.

and that's about it, we've got ourselves the makings of a great and complex character, of course, this isn't the end all be all of character building articles, we're really only scratching the surface, but it's a start.

I may come back to this subject later on, and if you have any points you want me to touch on in those later posts, please go ahead and tell me on the comments down there.
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About Viredaeone of us since 11:51 AM on 10.13.2011

(sung to the tune of Jonathan Coulton's "Code Monkey")

Viredae get up get coffee. Viredae go to job. Viredae have boring meeting, with boring manager Rob. Rob say: "Viredae very diligent, but his output stinks. His designs not functional or elegant, what do Viredae think?"

Viredae think maybe goddamn manager wanna draw UML himself. Viredae not say it out loud. Viredae not crazy, just proud. Viredae like Wiimotes, Viredae like gamepads and keyboards too. Viredae very simple man, with big, full, precious memory cards. Viredae thinks games are real cool!
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