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Sketching the Silhouette: Using Visuals in Character Building

Updated on October 13, 2015

When it comes to creating a character, sometimes inspiration comes from a very specific source; altogether separate from the ones we have already discussed. Sometimes you just get an idea of how you want the character to look first before all of the other pieces come together; and this is perfectly okay. As I have stated in other articles, whatever gets you started and even provides enough mojo to keep going until you have completed the character, all the better. So without too much more preamble, let’s get into discussing designing a character based on appearance.


The most basic framework from which to design a character is the silhouette. A silhouette is literally just an outline of a character; their shadow projected against a backdrop or blank canvas. With so little to work from inherently, the silhouette can evoke all manner of feelings and inspire all types of ideas. It also serves well as a solid foundation from which you can build upon.

The distinct shapes and forms that are visible help to define noticeable characteristics. Clothing such as hats or capes can help set a certain tone for the character and even provide a hint of clue as to their profession or other vocation. Equipment can lend itself to similar logic conclusions/designs; for example, any weapons like guns, swords, or staves can tell a story of not only what the character possesses, but also the kind of adventure/story they may be part of or be ready for. When looking at a silhouette, your eye will be drawn to any obvious physical features that stand out, such as wings, horns, or claws. Those will naturally direct your character design to incorporate those elements; but again, it is your character and you can decide how their story is told with those features.

The real challenge (and fun) comes in when attempting to put all of the separate (and possibly disparaging) elements together into a cohesive design. You can end up with something altogether different and unexpected from your initial impressions. And remember, this is just your starting point; your character can and should evolve during the course of the campaign/story.

Iconic Imagery

With a silhouette, you get a general idea of a person and their story; but if you want something less abstract to work from, then you are going to want to look for iconography for inspiration and description. Iconic images provide a more concrete visual to build characters from, than silhouettes. However, the difference between the two is the creative “take or leave it” dilemma; in other words, you end up using what you want of the icons before just going with your own thing. As a result, you don’t always need to use the whole image; just part of it can suffice.

While using the whole picture tells you pretty much exactly how the character is going to look, the “thousands words” that it says are still yours; you can make the picture tell the story you want and how you want. After all, you are using the picture/portrait as a jumping off point to tell your character’s story; have fun with it.

You can also use portions of an iconic portrait to help shape your character’s design and story. You can choose specific elements and piece them together to form a cohesive whole. You can add distinct physical features from one picture to make your character as heroic or villainous in appearance as you want; and then add other features from other images to compliment or contrast the nascent character portrait. Besides physical features, you can also add on clothing from specific time periods or other images for the same idea. And lastly, any equipment, weapons or other items are up for grabs to help shape the visual design of your character. Remember, it is your character; have fun!

Portraits & Sketches

For the artistically confident, the next logical step in crafting your character (after getting the image in your head) is to draft that character out. The advantage of having a character portrait is now you have a physical image to work with for further inspiration and design. Plus you can show it off to your fellow players as well as friends and family; in the case of the former, now they have a distinct image of what your character looks like.

There are numerous methods and media to which you can capture the proper visual of your character. If you have the programs and the skills, you can use Photoshop to create your character portrait from any of the image(s) you may have used for your initial inspiration; then blend all of the elements together so it looks as much or as little Frankenstein as you want. Most players that I have meant, who make portraits, will typically sketch out the character and then clean it up a squotch; otherwise, they tend to leave it as a pencil sketch piece. I have seen a couple players outline the character sketch in ink; this helps convey a more comic book style as well as make the picture less vulnerable to smudging or other wear on a pencil sketch. Taking it further, you can then color in the picture to help really give it life and personality.

Any medium is usable for making your character portrait. Each can help convey a certain vibe or tone. For example, the comic book style with hard ink lines tends to invoke the tones and tropes of the comic book genre; superheroes specifically come to mind. Clever use of a charcoal could help bring to mind a gritty and monochromatic viewpoint of the world; while still being well detailed and visually appealing.

Movies & Television

An extension of drawing inspiration from iconic images, players can look to film and television for visual cues as to how they envision their characters. Again, the idea is to take what works for you and apply it to your character. I know of one group in particular that loves to “cast” certain actors in roles for their games; although typically, it is the gamemaster casting for their non-player characters rather than the players for their characters. Still, some actors are just a perfect fit for that character that you have in mind.


Another avenue of inspiration for players is the use of miniatures. Miniatures, painted or unpainted, provide another physical representation of a character other than a portrait. In fact, one advantage to using miniatures is that they are three-dimensional and allow for a tactile observation in comparison to most portraits. The challenge is that store-bought miniatures do not necessarily have the variety in sculpture and details that you may be looking for; there are ways around that, but those require time, skill and extra materials. Another decisive advantage to using miniatures is that most groups often utilize miniatures during game sessions for combat and other positional purposes; so you will be set for that already. In any case, you can use the miniature in the same way with other visuals for your character: as a baseline or foundation from which you can tell their story.

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Personal Note

Personally, I don’t often use visuals as a launching point in character design. Sometimes I like to use iconic images specific to the setting to get me started, but I like to carry myself the rest of the way. When I get stuck, I start working with my group to craft a character that will be fun and useful. But I know that some people like to start with how their character looks and work from there. And let me state this explicitly: there is nothing wrong with this approach. It is simply another tool for players to use to make their characters and tell stories. If it works for you, glad we could talk and add this to your repertoire; if this hasn’t been as helpful, then don’t sweat it. Move on to something else and don’t let this hang you up.


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    • Larry Rankin profile image

      Larry Rankin 2 years ago from Oklahoma

      I am very much a novice at art and find your articles very helpful.