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How to Design Fantastic Characters

Updated on May 10, 2015

What Is Character Design?

Designing a character is not just about flashy weapons and intricate details. Even if the actual illustration is perfect, the character isn't memorable and doesn't bring you closer to that character. It only looks nice.

Good character design is deeper than this. It hooks your reader to the story. Some would argue the story isn't complete without the characters. Bad design can turn off a whole audience completely. It can kill an entire story in one fell swoop. So character design is of the utmost importance.

The question is: how?

This all depends on what you want to use your character for. Designing a comic book character is different from designing a video game character. Yet, the basics are the same.

Good character design depends on two things: how well you know your story, and how unique your character is.

Here are some story elements you need to know before diving into character design:

Know Your Plot

You need to have some idea of what the plot of your story is going to be. What is the function of your character in the story? What do they need to perform this function? Why?

The answers to these questions are essential. This is because these questions will impact the design of your character, no matter the plot.

Your character's design must be event-specific. As your character grows and develops, their design needs to reflect this. Always consider:

  • What is happening during the plot?
  • Is this causing my character to undergo some change?
  • Can I reflect this change through their current design?

If you can, try to. This symbolizes the change your character is going through, adding an extra layer of complexity to your narrative.


Know Your Setting

If your story takes place in 18th century England, having a character dressed as a 12th century Japanese samurai doesn't make sense, unless it's relevant to the plot. In other words, make sure you research your time period, and make sure that your design is somewhat relevant. To do this:

  • Be aware of any fashion choices they made during your time period,
  • Be aware of the common interests of the people during your time period
  • Be aware of any conflicts between groups of people during your time period

The fashion of the time period will impact their design. Unless your story involves heavy use of time travel, your character will probably dress similarly to the people around them. You don't have to strictly draw them in these clothes, of course. Use these clothes as inspiration for your design.

The common interests and conflicts between groups of people will affect how people perceive your character. This will impact your character's personality. Generally, a person's differences or flaws make them outcasts, whereas similarities make them more accepted. This will heavily influence the decisions your character makes.

For example:

  • A spiky-haired, tattoo-clad 20-year-old woman in modern times would be accepted in many growing circles.
  • Yet, if you placed this same woman in 17th century colonial America, she would be hunted down and burned at the stake!

This fact would impact her decisions. Unless she had a death wish, this woman would be very careful around the other townsfolk. Her character design would be much softer than her personality and her attire would revolve around hiding her tattoos.

Always take your setting into account when looking at design. The design of your character will influence how other characters treat them.


Know Your Character's Story

How we dress is how people see who we are. Therefore, the personality of the character should always be taken into account. A passionate, fiery personality will have certain characteristics rather than a calm, cool spirit. You can also play with preconceived notions to twist with our perceptions and stereotypes as well.

Now, delve a little bit deeper into your character. What's their personal story? How did they end up in your story's plot in the first place? What drives them to stay in your story's plot? How do they react to the situations they encounter?

These questions will answer a lot about the character's personality. Your character's personality will heavily influence what they wear.

  • A sentimental character might have a memento of something they found important in their lives.
  • A character who tackles problems head-on will have a fiery personality. They will be more bold with their clothing. Perhaps their clothing is a little risqué for the time period.
  • An anxious character who was thrown into the story's circumstances quickly will likely have clothes that reflect this sudden shift. They could keep their former clothes, even if it doesn't match their function in the story.

You could always play around with people's assumptions with how people dress. A character who dresses revealingly may, in reality, be a quiet, shy person. Or, a person who wears dark clothes may actually have a bright and bubbly personality. This can be used as a subtle, but effective, plot twist in your story.

Doing this not only adds another layer of depth to your story, but adds another layer of depth to your character's design.


Elements of Character Design

After considering all facts about your story, you get to actually design your character. The fundamental elements of character design comes down to three things:

  • Size
  • Shape
  • Color

By mixing and matching these three elements, you can create unique characters for your story.


Humans come in all different shapes and sizes. To have a memorable character, they must have something unique about them physically. What makes them unique, of course, depends on your narrative. Here are some things to consider:

  • Know how big your character is, height-wise and weight-wise, relative to other characters. An easy way to give your character uniqueness is to give them an abnormal height or an abnormal weight for your story-line. In the realms of fantasy, for example, having a dwarf who is 6 feet tall, or an overweight elf is almost unheard of. But having an overweight elf and a tall dwarf would give your story a unique twist.
  • Look at the proportions of your characters. Proportions are what make two characters identical in height and weight look different. One person may have longer arms, the other may have wider hips. If your character still looks pretty "standard", think about changing their proportions a bit. Maybe give them wider shoulders, or longer legs, or a pointier nose.
  • Also, consider giving your character a physical disability. Disabilities can give your characters a unique back-story. But, don't let your character's personality be ruled by their physical appearance. Let their inner personality shine through because of their appearance.

All these things help give your character uniqueness, even with a change of clothes.


You also have to consider the shapes you use for your character. This is seen most often in cartooning, where the shapes of the actual character symbolizes their purpose.

  • Circles mean innocence and softness. Traditionally, women and children have more triangle shapes to them.
  • Squares mean strength and solidity. Many superheros are shaped like squares.
  • Triangles are associated with anarchy and witches. Evil villains also have a lot of triangle-shaped elements inside their design.

Using these ideas, you can mix and match these shapes to fit your character's personality.


Color schemes reflect what the person wants to show the world. This can be used to show a fake identity or someone's authentic self. When designing characters, always try to keep the psychology of colors in mind. Here is a short list of what each common color may mean:

  • Black represents authority, power, and evilness.
  • White symbolizes innocence, purity, and sterility.
  • Red is an intense color often associated with anger and rebellion. Red also symbolizes love.
  • Blue often associated with tranquility and peace, but also cold and depression.
  • Green is a natural color, often representing relaxation, health, and calmness.
  • Yellow, an attention-grabbing color, is associated with optimism and happiness.
  • Purple is commonly associated with luxury, power, and sophistication.

Color can also show the person's function in the story. This may or may not outwardly show the character's personality. For example, let's say your character is a military general with a flamboyant personality. He can't show very much of his personality while in uniform. In this case, his physical characteristics will have to reveal his personality.



Details are the final finishing touches, after outlining your basic character ideas. Yet, this can be the hardest part if you don't have any ideas in mind.

  • Be inspired by books and movies. Look at books and movies for symbolism. Examine how they incorporate these symbols in the narrative, and see how you can squeeze it into your design. For example, the skulls of goats are often associated with the Devil and Hell. Use goat skulls in your design for a more evil character.
  • Go to a museum. Museums have curated lost ideas from older civilizations, and placed them out on display. Feel free to use these ideas in your design projects for a unique twist in your design.
  • Another way to use shapes in your designs is to adapt from nature. Some comic book artists have taken simple animals, like ants and wolverines, and created character designs based on their unique traits. Simply find a unique animal and use their traits in your next design.
  • In other words, find inspiration in places you wouldn't ordinarily expect. Your design will be better for it.

Also keep in mind that details are optional. Some of the most memorable characters of all time have simple designs. Take a look at Pluto, Mickey Mouse's loyal companion. The only details he has outside of being a yellow dog is his blue collar. Yet, he still remains one of the most recognizable symbols of our time. All you need is one or two major ideas in your design to resonate with your audience.

Other Things to Consider

After learning what makes a good design, there other things you can do to set your character apart. These concepts are non-essential, but can add the finishing touch to a great design.


The simplicity of your character's design matters just as much the details do.

Animators live by this idea. If their character can't be drawn quickly, they will miss deadlines in their project. Icons like Mickey Mouse and the Flintstones all have simple, yet unique designs because of this fact.

The animator's approach works well for any other artistic medium. You will be drawing your character a lot, so make sure your character is easy to draw. If you are a more skilled artist, you can get away with drawing more details. If you are just getting started, try to keep it simple for yourself.


Draw Multiple Designs

When experimenting with designs, it's never wise to only draw your potential character once. Try drawing this character many times to see which design you like the best. To do this, draw as many potential character designs as you can on one page. This will force you to draw these designs smaller than you would usually.

This is called thumbnail sketching.

The point of thumbnail sketching is to get your thoughts out on paper quickly. Then, after you are done, you can pick the design you like, and save the other designs for later.


Once you think you've come up with great design, try this experiment to see if the design is unique:

  • Draw your character out, details and all, in a regular standing pose.
  • Draw a regular person next to them, also in a standing pose.
  • Now, take a black marker, and color over all these details. Color over everything until just the outline of your character shows.
  • Do the same with the regular person.
  • Can you tell the difference between these characters? Or is it hard to tell?

If you can tell the difference easily, then your character has a good design. If you can't tell the difference easily, your design still needs some work.

The outline of your character is called its silhouette. A bad silhouette that looks like other characters and needs to be adjusted for unique designs. Try adjusting the character's, hair, and body proportions until your character's silhouette is unique! If the design still not unique, you may need to go over the fundamentals of character design again.

Developing simple, unique characters is key to having a memorable story. They draw your reader closer to the plot. With these simple tips, you will be able to draw fantastic characters in no time at all. Now, go out there and draw!

How many original characters do you have?

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    • profile image


      3 years ago

      Very useful, cool topic! :D

      I'm currently trying to create own characters, their oufits and their storylines and it's totally interesting!

      When illustrating the characters, I like listening to natural sounds like rain/ocean or something like that:

      Then I draw my character like he/she is just there, the wind in the face, struggling to keep the eyes open.

      Thats helping me to make it look more realistic, in my opinion.

      Do you have similar techniques?

    • Nicole Grizzle profile imageAUTHOR

      Nicole Grizzle 

      4 years ago from Georgia

      @Amanda6868 Sometimes, what you draw isn't how you imagined it. And that's alright! You just need a little knowledge, patience, and a lot of practice. Thanks for the comment.

    • Amanda6868 profile image

      Amanda M 

      4 years ago from Unknown

      I've never been able to successfully draw a character before. I've tried but it never ends up how I want it. This hub will surely help me and those with the same problems. Thank you.

    • Nicole Grizzle profile imageAUTHOR

      Nicole Grizzle 

      4 years ago from Georgia

      @Michaela Webber Thank you for reading!

    • Michaela Webber profile image

      Michaela Webber 

      4 years ago

      So awesome!!!! Thank you!

    • Nicole Grizzle profile imageAUTHOR

      Nicole Grizzle 

      4 years ago from Georgia

      @jlpark I'm both an artist and a writer. So whatever skills and tricks I learn from one hobby, I try to apply to the other (even if it can get a little abstract). I'm glad you could use some of this information to help your writing! Thanks for the comment!

      @Venkatachari M. Thank you very much!

    • jlpark profile image


      4 years ago from New Zealand

      Whilst it may be about quite literally drawing the characters - this hub is also useful for those writing - I've got a lot to think on, and I won't be drawing any characters any time soon! Thanks for sharing it!

    • SouradipSinha profile image

      Souradip Sinha 

      4 years ago from Calcutta

      welcome :)

    • Nicole Grizzle profile imageAUTHOR

      Nicole Grizzle 

      4 years ago from Georgia

      @SouradipSinha Thank you very much!

    • SouradipSinha profile image

      Souradip Sinha 

      4 years ago from Calcutta

      Very interesting indeed. Greatly explained. :)

    • Venkatachari M profile image

      Venkatachari M 

      4 years ago from Hyderabad, India

      Nicole, it is awesome!!! You have so much great inspirations about your characters. Your descriptions are very interesting.

      Voted up and awesome.

    • Nicole Grizzle profile imageAUTHOR

      Nicole Grizzle 

      4 years ago from Georgia

      @B. Leekley I'm glad your nephew thinks my information is valuable. I tried to cover as much as I could on the topic and I'm glad it provides value.

      @Susan Deppner Thanks for the kind words!

    • SusanDeppner profile image

      Susan Deppner 

      4 years ago from Arkansas USA

      Very cool hub! Congratulations on your April Editor's Choice award!

    • B. Leekley profile image

      Brian Leekley 

      4 years ago from Bainbridge Island, Washington, USA

      Postscript: My nephew the animator responded about this hub: "This is a great primer on character design for all kinds of mediums."

    • Nicole Grizzle profile imageAUTHOR

      Nicole Grizzle 

      4 years ago from Georgia

      Thank you B. Leekley for the advice. I've begun writing a similar hub on character development for those interested in writing (I've been experimenting with different methods to see which ones work the best for me). But in the mean time, I might change the title of this hub, so I don't mislead people. Development and design mean different things in my head, but this may not be the case for others.

      The artists you described have a really good grasp on illustration and design. The focus on the design's simplicity, instead of complexity, which I think is a lost art nowadays. People fail to recognize that a unique character can still be simple. I recognized Milo Winter's work immediately, for example, from Aesop's Fables.

      Thanks for the share! I'll put your advice to good use.

    • B. Leekley profile image

      Brian Leekley 

      4 years ago from Bainbridge Island, Washington, USA

      Up, Useful, and Interesting. It took me a little while to understand that this hub is about illustrating a story with drawings of its characters. From the title, I had thought it might be about how to create interesting characters when writing a story. Once I grasped that the hub is about drawing characters to illustrate a story, it all made good sense. This hub is very well organized, laid out, and written. I would like to see a follow-up hub in which you demonstrate the process of designing graphic images of characters using your own drawings and own original characters.

      My own avocation is creative writing. During my years as an antiquarian bookseller, I learned to admire such great illustrators as Harry Clarke, Kate Greenaway, Kay Nielsen, Arthur Rackham, Milo Winter, N. C. Wyeth, and others. Use Google Images to see what you think of their works. I expect that they all followed your principles of character design.

      I shared this hub with a nephew who is a professional animator.


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