Samuel Berry rounds up his 10 favorite character designs and gets into what makes them so good...
10 Character Designs I Love and Why
With all the media thrown at us today, a solid character design is key to making an audience pay attention. Today, we're going to go through ten characters that stick out to me. Some are recent and some are older, it's a pretty mixed bag. A lot of things make for a compelling design. From symbolism to how well they lend themselves to animation, we'll go through the reason why I like these particular character designs so much. But be warned, there are spoilers ahead; either in the images I use or the things I'll say.
Hexadecimal from Reboot
After all these years, Reboot
is still one of my favorite shows. It has so many smart design ideas much of which was a product of the limitations of the technology back then. Hexadecimal and her masks are one of those ideas and largely why I like her design. From a practical point of view, having her expressions be masks saves time by not having to animate it all, but it also contributes to her design as a character. She deals in extremes, jumping from one emotion to the other, leaving little room for anything in between. It doubles down on how theatrical she can be. As a side effect, almost all of her scenes are incredibly dynamic; on account of having to move her and the camera in ways so that her face can seamlessly change. Despite her human appearance, they've made it very obvious that she is equivalent to a monster in the world of Reboot
Megabyte from Reboot
Doing these two back to back seems like the most sensible thing to do. Megabyte's design is an interesting one. I love how his design perfectly conveys that he is a civilized beast/virus. He has strong human features and even wears a crown of sorts and has throne. But despite that he has serrated teeth, claws and a green skull on his torso. He brings death along with him, despite his civilized demeanor. On a more lore side of things, I like that he and Hexadecimal share a similar color palette, albeit inverted. It's a nice nod to them being siblings and even if that wasn't intentional, I like that the viruses in Reboot
are designated a specific set of colors. Megabyte was probably one of the better animated characters in the show because of his "ball and socket” design. When a kid's action figure based off it, as the sort of mobility you could do stop motion animation with, you know it's a good design.
Tesler from Tron: Uprising
I remember being blown away at his first appearance. A lot of what I like about him is that he looks very different compared to all the other characters in the show. Tesler stands out in a crowd and does so and with absolute authority. I like how they use his cape to amplify this even further, in a show where everyone looks fairly organic having a walking rectangle in your screen commands your attention. They even made his facial features very different than other characters; they're more cartoonish and help convey his expressions with clarity which is important as the main antagonist. And now let's talk about his arms, one of the coolest "weapons” I've seen in a show or game in a long time. They extend and chase everything down, there's no escape, just like how his rule is absolute. Not to mention, they move like the snake in that snake game. It all comes together to make a very compelling antagonist solely by design, without even knowing anything about him. Everything about him communicates authority.
The Traveler from Journey
The Traveler is possibly one of the most elegant character designs I've seen, both in terms of aesthetic and game design. Its simplicity is key; it's a blank slate for the player to project themselves onto. That same simplicity makes every time the robes change due to something happening in the game more impactful. The design is built to give you game information, removing the need for a cluttered HUD. I love the gestural nature of the design, it lacks arms yet convinces you otherwise while it's moving around, and sometimes it seems to be just cloth in the wind. I don't have much else to say about it and that's the beauty of it. The amount of thought that went into refining this design to this state is something I will always appreciate no matter what. It's elegant in its simplicity.
Garnet from Steven Universe
As someone who studied animation, I love Garnet's design. The geometry involved in building her lends itself fantastically to animation. Circles and squares make the bulk of her design which are easy to key along paths of motion. Now let's get into the symbolism involved in this design. Her color scheme is nothing but contrast (the good kind) which fits the theme of Garnet being two opposites (ruby/sapphire, red/blue) forming a unified whole. The colors, hair and outfit have multiple variations, each being a different time in her life; representing how comfortable she is as herself. As you come closer to the present she becomes more than just red and blue and has her own colors, showing how she has become her own experience. It's nice to see such a powerful design with emotional nuances which become apparent once you watch the show. I could argue that's an issue with the design, but the discovery is part of the fun.
Genie from Aladdin
Full disclosure, Aladdin
is the first film I saw in theatres as a kid so I'm extremely biased towards Genie.
But, with age I've come to appreciate Genie for a lot of reasons besides being funny. One of them is line quality. If you pay close attention, you'll notice that each line tapers at each end and swells at the center. It gives a great sense of volume and keeps the genie from looking like a blue blob. Allowing him to be extremely malleable, making the squash and stretch potential virtually limitless; in turn allowing easier transformations. Being able to be any size and being blue are amazing tools when it comes to balancing color in scenes. The size of his mouth relative to his eyes makes it easy to form expressions. Genie is one of those very simple character designs that pull a lot of weight. The artist in me loves him as much as the kid in me.
Manolo from The Book of Life
It was hard to pick a single character from this film because the wooden/bone puppet design is amazing. It drives the fairy tale aspect straight home and I love it, but in the end, I chose Manolo because of how well his design represents his journey and inner conflict. Despite not wanting to be a bullfighter, Manolo still carries his swords on his back because they represent his family's heritage. Meanwhile, his guitar is his true self and weapon that he uses to surmount the obstacle he faces. Carrying both together represent how he wants to appease both himself and his family. There are a few other details that really like about his design as well. Such as how his black and red color scheme allow him to stand out no matter how busy the scene gets. And also how Manolo and his family all share a similar outfit but with slight variations representing the time they were alive. Although that's not specifically about Manolo, it's a connection to his family.
Steiner from Final Fantasy IX
Another case of having a hard time picking a single character, Final Fantasy IX
's aesthetic and designs are by far my favorite of the franchise (don't tell FFVII
.) I picked Steiner for a lot of reasons. A knight is all about devotion and Steiner is the very extreme of that, to the point of his armor looking like a caricature of real life armor. You instantly know that he's a very serious man, who will probably not be taken seriously - by you or the game's characters, despite being the straight man (because of course someone with a face like that will be the straight man.) His face is Steiner's best feature and it's why I love his design so much. It's so perfectly suited for expressions. The dark outline around the eyes and giant mouth amplify everything he does with his face. It makes me think of how great (or maybe how terrifying) it would be if we had this sort of design in a modern game.
Eclipsa from Star vs. The Forces of Evil
The first thing that stood out for me was how her costume was influenced by mid-1910s fashion. It automatically made her stand out from the rest of the cast. It shows that she's from a time before theirs or at least with attitudes very different than most of the cast. Her design is flexible, with multiple variations of the same outfit/theme. What I really enjoyed is how they used her design and outfits to reinforce her moods. The more serious and formal the scene the more dressed up she is. The more relax and silly she is the more casually she dresses. This makes sense to anyone, really, but it's an important detail when the majority of the cast wear the same clothes almost every episode. Another cool design element is her spells, or rather, how she casts them. They're very subdued and quiet, she whispers them and they are devastating. It's a bit of a cheat to include that, but sometimes I like to consider things like magic as a prop or piece of clothing, especially when it's so unique to the character.
WALL-E from WALL-E
I have a soft spot for robots, especially those who are sentient and show emotions. I honestly blame the movie Short Circuit
for that and also as to why I like WALL-E. Putting that aside, design-wise WALL-E is extremely human looking. He has two big eyes, two arms with hands and two feet, which is funny because he's almost nothing but hard edges. A stark contrast to the blob like humans aboard the ship he ends up on. The whole theme of the film is communicated through this design element. How something clearly robotic, acts the most human and teaches others to be more human. It's what allowed the film to be silent for the most part. Because WALL-E as a design communicates his message so loudly that it's hard to miss it. I also have to add that I like the functional design of him. Ignoring the fact that some people have built their own WALL-E; I like that his design is something feasible in this world in contrast to the more sci-fi and abstract shapes of the other robots and ship.
And we're done. Again, I have to say it was interesting to go through what I liked with a fine tooth comb. It allowed me to zero in on what works and what works less for me and why. If I had any advice to give when it comes to designing characters it would be to make sure that each element contributes towards visually describing your character's personality to your audience. Not everything should have a hundred percent symbolism behind it, but everything should at least give one or two percent to add up to a hundred.
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