GENERAL ISSUES ABOUT CHARACTER DESIGN
[New section!] Over-mirroring aka sticking too much in patterns of the original series!
INTRODUCTION: DESIGN OF CHARACTER'S LOOKS: WHAT IS ITS ROLE IN THE WHOLE CHARACTER DESIGN?
At first: No costume can save a badly made character. Your Average Joe/Jane character won't become any more interesting even if you make him/her to wear turquoise hair and odd-colored neon-color eyes. What makes character interesting is his/her INNER SIDE: his/her personality, history, skills, behavior pattern, odd traits, running gags, simply WHAT (S)HE IS. A rye bread doesn't become into a cream cake even if you put on it whipped cream and strawberries.
However, a good design may help the reader/viewer to notice, tell apart and remember the character more easily. That's why all Naruto characters are not sporting black hair and wearing those green tactical vests: if all character seemed almost similar, it would be pain for the reader to tell who of them is who. A design that is easy to remember is especially important in comics and other visual art, but it's also good in written art: the reader wants a picture of the character into his/her head.
You may think that the best way to poke viewer's eye is to make the character as shocking-looking as possible: neon colors, smexy outfits, cool band shirts and NOW YOU STOP HERE! You also have to remember that each series are their own realms with their own fashions and laws of nature. A good design is not just something that grabs attention but also something that SUITS for the series.
But alongside eye-poking, the outer design of the character has another duty: Hinting the inner side of the character to the reader. We'll talk about this later.
BUT WHY TO MAKE MY OWN DESIGN? ISN'T HERE READY PICTURES IN THE NET? WHY CAN'T I USE THEM?
I've seen in RPG forums that people like to pick a picture from Google and use it to portray their character. For example, a person used a picture of Haruhi Suzumiya as to show the looks of her Naruto OC. I've also seen pictures of game characters and miscellaneous anime character as pictures of OCs.
This is something I've never totally understood. Technically, it's legally not really bad to borrow someone's picture and use it as the looks of your character, if you are not going to earn money with your OC and you don't claim that the picture is yours. Also, the looks of the character doesn't depend on your drawing/literary skills. However, copycatting has many drawbacks.
* You can't design the costume of your OC independently: it's up to the pictures of the Internet what your character looks like.
* If the viewer of the picture knows the character you use as the looks of your OC, it may be really difficult to him/her to think your OC as your OC and not as the character of the original picture.
* Many artists doesn't like that you use their pictures without permission, even if you say that the design is not yours.
* Not too many pictures in the internet are already faithful to series you're putting your OC. Or is Haruhi's school uniform something you think as ninja clothing?
Also, as many people has said: taking a shot of from a random anime + messing it with Paint + claiming it is your very own character design = doomed to fail. Just don't do it. Re-coloring is not art.
So, no Internet pictures or their modifications? What to do, then? There are a few options:
1) Just try to draw your own picture. An original drawing no matter how bad it is is always far better than copycatting. If you still feel uncomfortable to draw human anatomy, you can use pixel bases as help.
2) Ask another person do draw. Don't be too shy, many artists like to have requests!
3) Describe him/her by text. Usually, this is enough if you are making a forum RPC or an OC for a fan fiction.
Be brave enough to show people your own artistic skills. You still can use Internet pictures as REFERENCE, but not as copying base. Also, if you are mainly using him/her in text format (forum RPG, fan fiction), you have to be capable to describe him/her with words!
So, ready to grab a pen into your hands? Let's go!
THE OUTER SIDE ACCOMPANYING THE INNER SIDE
You may be often told that people are never something that they look like, but the truth is that usually the outlook may give hints of the inner self of the person. Of course the looks don't tell all: all big and angry-looking guys are not violent, and all people wearing glasses are not nerds. But sometimes we can make analysis of the outer look of the person at least in certain level.
For example, let's say we see middle of hot summer a young female wearing long trousers, windjammer and sneakers. Not very comfortable, womanly or cool, but she still does it. Why? Maybe she doesn't want that people look at her bare skin, or she simply doesn't care what she wears. Or she hates shaving her legs, and that's why she is using covering trousers to save herself from too much shaving. Thus we can determine that she probably isn't the type that likes to take big care of her looks, and say that the looks are not important to her and she has more important things to think about. Or she may be shy and doesn't want to gather attention. Also it's somewhat probable that she has burnt her skin in sun and tries to protect her skin with her jacket.
And vice versa: let's say you are a young man that likes to flirt with girls. What would you like to wear to succeed with the lady hunt? Something that gathers girls' attention, and windjammer and sneakers are not something for the task, not talking about sweaty, dirty and smelly shirts. You'd probably try to find quite tidy and cool clothes, something that make the girls find you among all the men. Maybe something different compared to what men usually wear, but something that still suits for the environment you're living? Something fine? Maybe a gentleman blouse and dark trousers, if you're going to the city? You'd also spend time to take care of your hair and have a shower and antiperspirant often enough.
To put short: How you take care of your looks is not ruled by just your genes or environment, but also by your needs, personality and goals. Even if we can't say anything with 100 percent probability about the character's personality just by looking at them, it's the fact that that the inner side ALWAYS affect to what the person looks like, except if the clothes/hairdo/other stuff are ruled by other people (like, infants can't tell their mothers what they want to wear or how they want to cut their hair, or in Japanese schools you have use the school uniform).
Usually the first thing that the viewer sees in your character is his/her looks. It's the first hint to the viewer what kind of personality (s)he might be. You can also lure the viewer to think opposite about the character to make them to surprise (like making an action gal to wear pretty dress at first before shocking the viewers), but if that is not your goal, tell openly about the character's inner self via his/her looks. It can make the viewer get interested in the character if (s)he gets known about something else than what the character looks like. Of course no person can help all aspects in his/her looks (like his/her genetics), but we humans still can do a lot to either polish our looks, ruin it, or ignore it.
Next issue: general stuff about good character design.
GOOD AND CLEAR CHARACTER DESIGN
I try to tell something about good character design creation. There are also other tutorials about the issue, but I try to say at least something. Let's go
CHECK OUT THE COSTUME AND THE LOOKS EVEN SUIT FOR THE SERIES!!! Check out the clothing culture of the series to avoid silly mistakes. For example, NO CHARACTER in Full Metal Alchemist uses Gothic Lolita clothing, because FMA characters live in the world with similar the era between the World Wars and not the 21th century. Be careful. (This tutorial was born as an extra when I was creating a guide to make believable Naruto character designs. You can find it via the link below.)
Remember the realism. A ninja can't use high-heeled shoes if (s)he is going to jump from a tree to tree in forests, and a student that is always struggling with his/her money issues can't buy a new cool fashion shirt always they'd like. No proper woman used shorter dresses than ankle-length in Europe in Medieval Times, and people in Feudal Japan didn't know zippers or sneakers. Just use your common sense and make enough research about the setting you're placing your character.
If you're going to make a fan character, AVOID trying to make him/her notably more eye-poking than the most of the main canon characters are! For example, in Harry Potter fan fiction, it's not a good idea to make the character even more special scars than Harry has, and/or have even odder clothes than Luna Lovegood has. The issue is different if the Big Thing of the character is his/her weird clothing compared to other characters
but use that with just a good taste. Don't ruin the sense of 'normality' of the series with your OCs. Usually a character that is about as eye-poking as most of characters in the main cast (but still has original design) is good, if (s)he is a main character of your fan story. If (s)he is a supporting character, move your eyes to the background.
If you are creating many characters for the same story setting, make them different enough. People with bad memory (like me) really approve if it is easy to tell apart who character is who. For example, I didn't like Les Bijoux, because all pretty-looking characters had similar faces and long hair, so it was pain for me to tell apart who was who, and in Alice 19th, I happily mistook two young blond boys to each others, even if one of them had straight hair and one had curly. Swapping clothes or hairdo is not enough: make different eyes, different noses, different head shapes, different mouths, different hair textures, different body builts... Studying real people anatomy helps a lot when inventing different looks. Try also make characters with notably different heights. To sum up, make sure that people can tell apart your characters just by glimpse!
Hint! In some series, artist gives a certain color (or color combination) theme to each character of certain group. The color can be used in the clothes/eyes/hair/etc. of the character, and the artist can also code the characters or stuff to relating to them with their code colors (like, bordering their speech bubbles to help the reader tell apart who is talking in each bubble). For example, in One Piece each Straw Hat Pirate has own color that is quite often used in their clothes: Luffy's is red, Zoro's green, Nami's orange, Usopp's yellow/brown, Sanji's is blue, Chopper's is pink, Robin's is purple, Franky's is teal and Brook's is black&white. Also Team 7 in original Naruto series is color-coded: Naruto's color is orange, Sakura's is red/pink and Sasuke's is dark blue (I'm not sure what to label as Kakashi's color). Code colors are more usual in series with super hero theme, like in Super Sentai and Tokyo Mew Mew, but they are handy in more "normal" series, too. But take case of that the characters look notably different by their shapes, too! Leave re-coloring to people that can't use their imagination.
Avoid rainbow cocktails, stick on max A FEW (1-4) main colors and their variations. Keeping color palette simple eases the viewer to see the character design as wholeness and not just as a collection of details. Putting too much different colors makes viewer's eyes to concentrate on too many places in the design and tires him/her easily. But using those a few main colors doesn't mean you have to use ONLY them. For example, the main colors of Naruto's Pre-Shippuuden costume are orange, navy blue and some white, but here are also some minor color areas, like red spiral in his back, green necklace from Tsunade, and blond hair (though it plays with the orange). Still those three colors rule his attire. Also, the main colors of Sakura's Shippuuden costume are red/pink, black and white, though she has green eyes and metallic forehead protector plate.
Remember to use those main colors in several parts of the costume instead of stuffing one color to one area! For example, it'd be rather boring if Naruto wore plain orange jacket and blue trousers, but making the costume orange and adding here blue areas here and there makes the costume a lot more interesting. You don't have to mix them into homogeneous mass, but just repeat the colors many times enough here and there.
Hint! Bright opposite colors are very energetic combinations, like green-red, blue-orange and purple-yellow! And using more peaceful not-so opposite colors (like pastel blue and purple) makes the color palette more peaceful. Go ahead with colors; here is no wrong color palette!
Avoid palette swaps, make the character be recognizable just by the shapes. The character design should be look interesting enough even if it was all gray and at least not to look similar to other characters (were they the canon characters or your other OCs). Another good test is to take a silhouette of the character and check out if you (or your friend) can still recognize the character just by the shape.
Take care of the wholeness. Make sure all parts (or at least most parts) of the character design belong to each others. For example, it's confusing to see a girl wearing a cute neon pink cat-themed hat, tight black gothic leather corset, peaceful elf-like leaf-themed skirt, flip-flops and such. Particularly in the colors this is important. For example, a Vocaloid called Gumi (google it) has otherwise rather good (though a little pervert IMO) costume (she uses as main colors orange, pale yellow and green/turquoise, also some white), but her boots break the wholeness they are too simple compared to other costume, and they are almost all-white! They may be in connection with her white wrist clothing, but still
Remember also that the complicatedness of the costume must be in balance!
Talking about complicatedness...
Complicatedness =/= Goodness Simple character designs are faster and easier to draw that complicated ones, and that's why they suit better for comics. It's also ridiculous to write paragraphs after paragraphs about certain character's looks, though complicated design is more tolerable in written media since you don't have to describe it again and again.
Of course sometimes complicated designs are good (particularly when designing impressive and wealthy characters), but if you are a comic artist
the more lines the design contain, the more lines you have to draw in future. And if you make your comic with fast pace, the lines are crucial. For example, originally Masashi Kishimoto wanted to add a necklace to Sasuke, but he threw the idea to a bin because it meant more lines to draw (plus, Sasuke is still rather difficult character to draw for Kishimoto, so no more difficulties for him!).
Also: too detailed costume may seem messy in the reader's eyes. If you give too much stuff to look at, the reader tires and feels uncomfortable at looking at your character. If you want to make it complicated, keep the wholeness simple and easy to perceive: For example, it's usually better to make a detailed but simply-structured cylinder-shaped bracelet instead of heaps of small and detailed bracelets, scarves and armlets as uncontrolled mass on the character's arms. A piece of advice I've seen about this issue is that you should be able to sketch your character with ten pen strokes or less and still be able to recognize him/her (those strokes are not enough for all details, but at least for the shapes).
Make some research. If you haven't enough ideas, google pictures about issues that may connect to your character. For example, if you want to make a character with exotic atmosphere, maybe some kind of research about exotic culture (Indians, Indonesians, Caribbeans...) may help you If you want to make a cool tribal tattoo, but you are not sure what kind of tattoo it exactly is, you can google other tribal tattoos to get inspiration. If you want to make cat-like character, google cats and try to find out why they are so... well, cat-like, and why dogs, horses, monkeys etc are not cat-like. Also, if you are drawing clothes that base on something real piece of clothing, make careful research about how that clothing really works! I've seen horrible kimono drawings in which the artist had no idea what a real kimono looks like...
Doodle many sketches enough, the first one doesn't have to be the final one! The reader doesn't know how many doodles you've done about your character design before publishing it. So you can make as many as you want. Make a sketch, have a proper break, and draw another sketch without looking at the first one. Compare them, try to find the best sides, dump the worst ones. Repeat as many times as needed, until you feel it's ready. You can also make many sketches in line, like, 'Okay, now I drew one, but I'm not satisfied with that hair. I try a braid in the next version.' After that, have a break, and then draw & look at again.
If making a comic or long written series, make a reference sheet about the character. Even if you made a simple character design, it's good to keep write - or draw - down all notes about the character to remember all details about his/her looks. For example, you may forget easily how many stripes his/her arm band has, or how long the jacket is compared to his/her torso. A reference sheet eases a lot when trying to keep the character look similar from a panel or a chapter to another!
If your character changes his/her clothes in any point, develop for him/her his/her own fashion sense. In other words, tell what kind of clothes/hair styles/other stuff the character likes to wear generally, and develop the contains of his/her wardrobe according that. You can also give a theme for her style. Make some basic rules for his/her clothes and follow them. That gives some logic to the character's looks. Example: Tomoko's style can be described to be summer-like, easy-going and wavy. She prefers flaring skirts over trousers, but she hates thick frills and lace. She likes floral or Asian patterns, and some kind of Hawaii shirts are her favorites. Often, she sports flowers or flower-themed accessories. She doesn't like to reveal her shoulders... etc...
Poses, facial expressions and body language tell lot, too. Character design is not just in the costumes, hairdos, faces, body built or eye colors. All people don't have similar posture, facial expressions or body language: a university student with lack of sleep is often more slouched than a representative powerful queen that has to show her inner might in political issues. Often a character that is disguised to another one is easiest to tell apart by looking at how they express their bodies.
For example, in Bleach Kon uses totally different facial expressions than Ichigo when the first one is in the latter one's body. He even complains about how Ichigo can always keep his brows knitted when Kon has to act as Ichigo more believably. Kon also makes more alert stances than Ichigo in everyday situations (like sitting crouched on his toes), whereas Ichigo usually tends to have relaxed or even bored stances. Thus, Kon in Ichigo's body and Ichigo himself are able to tell apart, even if they seem similar.
Usually poses and expressions are ruled by the personality of the character, and the viewer trust most on the body language when trying to say what kind of personality the character is; Even if the character is wearing bright colors with happy designs but is slouched and frowning, the viewer trust more on the body and facial expressions than the clothes. It applies almost every case; If the character is shown standing still with hands behind his/her back and making an empty smile, the viewer hardly can say (s)he is interesting. Even in text it's wise to imply about the atmosphere that the character is creating with her body language.
Go see also other design tutorials in dA! Use as search words 'character design'.
[NEW SECTION!] SOME WORDS ABOUT OVER-MIRRORING
In Vocaloid fandom, there is a phenomenom named Miku Formula (click). Using Miku Formula means that you model the basic structure of your female OC's (or, here, fan Vocaloid's) design according to the most famous Vocaloid, Hatsune Miku (click). Often, these designs include several typical details from Miku's outfit, including over-knee footwear, twin ponytails, detachable long sleeves, short skirt, tie, triangle-patterned belts and so on - usually several of these traits together. Many official Vocaloids are blamed for using Miku Formula, and several Vocaloid OCs here in dA (click) are culprits of this, too. However, as most Vocaloids prove, few Vocaloid's outfits resemble Miku's one (click), even if most of them follow some loose rules (bright colors, futuristic clothes and hairdos, often references to musical themes etc.).
Miku Formula is a sub category of a phenomenom that I call over-mirroring in this tutorial. Over-mirroring is visible in several fandoms: costumes of many female OCs in Naruto share resemblance of Sakura's qipao or medic-nin outfits, and not too many Chobits OCs go too far away from Chii's design. In less serious cases, many World of Warcraft OCs use only hairdos that appear ingame (those you meet when you create your playable character). At worst, over-mirroring appears in form of redrawings and not-too-much altered bases.
Over-mirroring can be regarded as an exaggerration of the "stick on the rules of the universe of series" rule I mentioned earlier. Usually, over-mirrorers pick traits from best-known characters of the universe of the series, not because they think those traits are cool, but because those traits are canon and thus they can rely on that they are logical in this universe. This often results to outfits that aren't very original: the viewer of the design can recognize the old design under your character's design, subconsciously thinking, "Meh, I have already seen this."
In many cases, however, over-mirroring happens even if the artist doesn't even think actively about the "copied" character in question. That has happened often to me: I create a design, then I notice that "OOPS, several guys / a notable guy in the series use(s) that stuff already! I didn't even think about that character when doing this design, yet he was in my subconscious!"
Personally, I feel that over-mirroring is something that is hard to get rid of. Luckily, in small level, mirroring isn't a fatal disease: if you happen to copy a not-so-unique detail, it rarely roars to the viewer "NOW THERE IS A REFERENCE TO A CHARACTER XXX!!!" And, the fact is, it is impossible to come up with something perfectly original. However, over-mirroring can limit greatly your imagination and prevent you from creating outfits that really stand out.
This trick might help you with over-mirroring: Try to see as many otfits of the series (or genre if you are working on your original series) as possible. Pay special attention to characters that are not in spotlight, like supporting characters, foreign cultures and so on. Try to figure out what are absolutely mandatory or typical issues to remember in the designs: For example, many Naruto characters use relatively simple but practical clothes, and almost all of them use ninja sandals and forehead-protectors. Fishnets and bandages are hot, and their clothers are SELDOM something you would see in your school!
As you have figured out the basic lines... everything else is free for use!
SOME WORDS ABOUT MARY SUE LOOK
No, don't understand the title wrong. A Mary Sue can look normal, and a good non-Mary-Sue OC can be extraordinary sexy and pretty. However, you can decrease your character's Sueness by choosing him/her right looks.
Let's start by the physical looks, hair and stuff. Don't get blinded about special-looking cases in the series you're writing about, like, in Naruto, Sakura the Natural Pink Hair or Neji the Natural White Eyes: most, VERY MOST of the Naruto characters possess just normal hair and eye colors. If you make every of your dozens of OCs to have freaky hair and eyes in series where they are relatively rare, there is something wrong. Using unusual colors is okay sometimes, but not always. Treat the special color palettes as hot spices that are not allowed to use too much without making the food taste terrible.
And about the body built: Be careful. You may want to make him/her super sexy and maybe extraordinary curvy or muscular with no flaws in their bodies. However, the top model look gives really easily "Sue!" tag onto your character especially if the character is lacking major weaknesses in other areas and if super sexy characters are not hyper usual in the series. Ultimately good looks are very big strength for a character: it often raises his/her self-confidence and helps them interact with people, and good looks can also attract people.
As balance, you should balance your super good-looking character by making a super him/her to be super bad in something else
and I mean REALLY bad. Not like little clumsiness or fear of spiders. What if (s)he would be a terrible person or real idiot, in the blond joke fashion? But this goes to non-clothing issues, so let's move forward. If you don't want to dumb her big weaknesses, at least limit her skills to a sane area. And most importantly, give her interesting personality!
Now we get to the clothes. An important note: We are making OCs, not characters whose sole purpose is to be like 'we want to shock all grannies and make characters like fled from a bad pop music video'! Honestly, in most fandoms, making character's costume too revealing and 'sexy' causes really big danger to make the reader think him/her just as an attention beggar. At least take care of that the costume even suits to his/her personality! AVOID using sexiness as the only hook!
This doesn't mean that you're not allowed to make a big-busted character or a character wearing sexy clothes at all. In fact, sexy outlook may suit for some adult, careless characters with great self-confidence. Neither all real life women wearing mini skirts and tube tops are prostitutes, just people liking to wear those clothes and being brave enough to use them! But note that sexiness is not suitable for ALL personalities: some of them may feel uncomfortable if they are put into too sexy costume. You just have to use the outlook to show the inner personality of the character, not as a cheap hooker to attract the audience, so remember the character's personality when creating the clothes!
Think the outlooks as an advertisement: an advertisement tells about a certain product, and if the advertisement is great but the product is not something that the advertisement told, the viewer gets badly upset.
Character outlook design is not the most important part in the in the whole character creation process, like designing a bottle for a new coke brand is not the most important part in selling the new drink. The customer's won't buy the coke again if it tastes terrible, no matter how cool bottle it has. So it is with characters: no matter how cool the character design is, his/her concept has to work, or the reader gets bored with him/her.
But to 'sell' your character to the bigger audience, his/her looks have to be okay. I'm rather sure that if Coca-Cola hadn't that original bottle or weren't advertised that much, it wouldn't be as popular drink. People bought it because they know that Coca-Cola might be something good. It grabbed their attention, and they became curious.
At the best, the design can support the character and make more people to get interested in him/her. That's why character design is still something you should pay attention, if you want that people come to look at your character, especially if the character is shown in visual media. But what truly makes the character interesting is his/her inner side.
Have fun with future character creations! And if you have something to say about this tutorial, I'm glad to hear