In film and games, a well-designed character compels their audience to feel invested in the unfolding story. These are often memorable characters who are instantly recognizable by their clothing, how they enter a room, and their subtle quirks and idiosyncrasies. Character design can include everything from how a character looks and dresses to how they move and the emotions they exhibit.
Here’s what you need to know about the creative world of character design.
What is character design?
Character design in film and games is a form of concept art and involves visually defining a character’s physical appearance, personality, behavior, and aesthetic. It's more than just a drawing. Characters play an essential role in telling a story or conveying a message, and as a character designer, you will bring characters to life with attributes that align with the story and creative direction of the film or game.
Character design is used as a reference point throughout many stages of a project’s development.
Witch character design by CGS Advanced Concept Art Course student Polina Scherba
What is good character design?
Good character design starts with a character's personality, which may come from a writer or creative director in the form of a brief or script. As a character designer, you’re responsible for visualizing the description or idea of a character, often for the first time.
Good character design is about clarity and includes the following:
Style/Tone: Does your character match the style of the production? For example, if it's a Disney character, you wouldn't draw them in an Anime style.
Costume: Does the character dress in a way that is authentic with their characteristics and story? Does it work with their environment?
Posture: Is how they hold themselves in alignment with their personality and demeanor?
Story: What role does the character play in the storyline or scene?
Silhouette: When all details have been removed, does the character's silhouette still quickly identify them? (As an example, think about Mickey Mouse's simple but highly recognizable silhouette.)
Here are some examples of aligning your character design authentically:
If you’re developing a game where the character is expected to scale steep mountain cliffs, you’re not likely to design them with a walking cane or high-heeled shoes.
If the protagonist’s character traits include a lack of confidence and self-esteem, your character design will likely include a slouching, inward posture.
If a game takes place in Outerspace, you'll need to consider appropriate attire such as a helmet, oxygen supply, and a spacesuit.
A good character will not only be realistic (or believable) but one that has something unique about them, whether it be part of their personality, movement, or in their physical appearance.
3 examples of good character design
Here are three examples of good character design in characters you’ve likely seen in film and games:
Grogu Grogu has become a popular character in the Star Wars universe—a sign of good character design. Grogu's baby-like features and slow, awkward movements make us want to love and nurture him. As he resembles another beloved Star Wars character (Master Yoda), we resonate with him better than if the character designer conceived a brand new alien species for his role.
Pikachu Pokémon's Pikachu is an iconic character beloved by generations. Part of Pikachu's clever character design is that his color matches his skill (lighting and yellow), making him easier to remember, and his cuteness, reflected in his voice and facial expressions, makes him extremely likable.
GlaDOS (Portal) If you’ve ever played Portal, you will be familiar with GlaDOS and her extreme measures to keep you in the research facility, resorting to lies and deception. Players are put on edge by her black and white mechanical design and one simple lighted watchful “eye,” which helps to make her character design memorable and evocative.
How to create a character design
Here’s the process to start conceptualizing and designing your character based on a client brief, or similar:
Step 1: Research
Become an expert in the world of the characters you’re creating. Do your research before you put pen to paper (or stylus to tablet!). A well-known example is the 1994 animated feature The Lion King. Character designers and animators studied real-life African savanna animals to better understand how they looked, their movements, and their demeanor to ensure the iconic characters they designed were true to form.
Step 2: Collect reference images
As part of your research, collecting reference images for inspiration is essential, even if your character is based on fantasy. If you’re designing a character who lives in a forest, for example, collect imagery of rainforest scenes and animals to help set the right tone. Or, say your character is a sports car enthusiast, collect photos of hotrods and racing circuits. You may find elements (colors, patterns, textures) from these reference images that you can incorporate into your character's design.
Step 3: Know your audience
Everyone views the world through their unique lens. Knowing what lens your target audience might be looking through can help you better design a character that will resonate with them. When you design a character, your audience will often be included in your brief.
Step 4: Define the characters' non-visual characteristics
Based on information from your character design brief, develop a personality and background story for the character. Perhaps they got in a bar fight last year and now have a large scar across their face. Go as deep as you need to develop a character with layers, both physical and emotional. Characters with multiple layers are more believable and indelible.
Also, delve into a character's background and ancestry. If your character grew up in the Wild West, you could include elements common to those living in that era (like a cowboy hat and chaps). If your character has Norse ancestry, you can build their aesthetics with Norse-like features (like paler hair and eyes) while being careful not to fall into stereotypes.
Some other aspects to include in your character design include:
At least one positive or redeeming characteristic
A fundamental flaw
Your character motivation (or their “why”)
Step 5: Conceptualization
When you have enough information about the character, start doing some rough concept sketches. Focus on key areas regarding physical features (like posture or unique attributes the character will have).
Include one primary color and a palette of supporting colors for the character. For most characters, simpler color palettes are best (like our Pikachu example above). Here’s a great video explaining color theory that you can apply to your character designs:
Step 7: Begin drawing
Once you have the approval to move forward, begin creating more detailed sketches of your character in the style they’ll appear in the final production, perhaps even working with some key actions/poses and dialog. You'll need to draw them from multiple angles and often include relevant props and costumes.
How character design is used in film and games
In film and games, the depiction and articulations of a character drawn by a character artist will first be used in the 3D modeling process, then later during the animation stage. In a 2D animation, character design will be used as reference points from which to animate, and storyboard artists will refer to character design to express the story.
Character design in 3D modeling 3D modelers digitally build, sculpt, and detail 3D characters based on a brief and the art created by a character designer. Because character design is usually executed as a "flat" 2D digital painting (although concept artists can also work in the 3D space, creating 3D maquettes of their characters), a 3D modeler has the ability to take the character design even further, adding more detail, personality, realism, and emotion.
The look and functionality of a 3D-modelled character will then inform how an animator (or video game player) can and will animate them, impacting how they move.
Battle Chasers Alumon character design by Joe Madureira (left) and 3d character model by CGS alum Benjamin Oman (right)
Character design in animation Animators manipulate characters to move through and interact with their 2D, 3D (digital), or live-action environment according to the actions laid out in a script and/or storyboard. They will use the character design concept to inform their animation.
Because character design is static, animators can breathe additional life into a character by producing their motions, gestures, and expressions.
Want to see your character designs brought to life in films and games?
Build up your skills as a character designer by studying CG Spectrum's expert-led concept art courses. Gain hands-on experience creating character art from scratch, working from a client brief, and gain a solid understanding of how physical attributes affect design choices by learning perspective drawing and anatomy.
Becoming a concept artist—specializing in character design—is a great way to use your diverse artistic skills to help visualize and bring to life characters for movies and games that people will remember for generations to come!
Established in 2011, CG Spectrum is a global top-ranked training provider offering specialized programs in real-time 3D, game development, animation, VFX, digital painting, and visualization. CG Spectrum inspires and trains creators through a unique online learning model and personalized mentorship from industry professionals. CG Spectrum is an Unreal Authorized Training Center, Unreal Academic Partner, SideFX Certified Training Provider, and Toon Boom Authorized Training Center delivering programs worldwide. Learn more at cgspectrum.com.