An article, to accompany this prompt about character design.
Why is it important that characters be distinctive?
Generally as an artist, you want your audience to sympathize with your characters, grow attached to them, and get to know them. Recognizing each character is step number one in that battle. If everyone looks the same, a piece such as a comic can get very dull very fast- readers won’t be emotionally invested if they can’t keep track of who’s who at all. (Even live action movies can make it hard to differentiate the character’s designs, which can be a recipe for apathetic viewers).
When working in visual mediums, audiences will usually be remembering characters based on their faces, and learning names later. A distinctive face is a memorable face- and memorable is good.
What makes a character distinctive looking?
When I say distinctive, I mean that if I, within the context of talking about a work, said ‘sideburns guy’, everyone would know exactly who I meant without elaboration. ‘Distinctive looking’ means that their character design does not (or would only intentionally) overlap with the other characters. Within the group they stand out, and if you made a ‘cast on bleachers’ picture, followers of your work could label them all off without too much trouble (if you’ve read or watched Fullmetal Alchemist, take a look at the picture up top, and see who you can name. FMA is a great example of a large, varied, and recognizable cast).
What keeps characters from looking distinctive?
Usually, when someone learns to draw, say, a nose, they learn to draw it one way, and that becomes ‘how to draw a nose’. Additionally, artists often end up drawing characters that look to some degree like themselves. It’s not usually out of vanity- it’s just that your own face is familiar, and easily available whenever a reference is needed, as long as there is a mirror/photobooth/side of a kettle on hand. Sometimes, this can result in all their drawings resembling themselves, which doesn’t make for a very distinctive cast. The best way to remedy this is to study different people’s looks, by looking at varied images, drawing from models, and to practice drawing the different looks. Make yourself some ‘features banks’ that you have down, to draw from when creating new characters. If you notice that two characters are a little similar, make a side-by-side comparison chart, highlighting their differences (and adding some, if you need to).
There are times when you are going to want certain characters to resemble each other. For example, you might want a family to have similar facial structure, or maybe you want a new character to remind someone of a person that they used to know. This is much, much easier if the rest of the cast is varied. Two people with the same eyes are noticeable in real life and in works with varied casts. It will be ignored if one or two eye shapes are the norm throughout the cast. If the resemblance is clearly deliberate, it will be picked up on by the audience.
It’s also possible that you have Important Artistic Motives behind why your cast lacks variation- again, as long as it’s very intentional, you’re fine.
Challenges In Distinctive Features
You may want to pick your battles with varied features, based on your media. For example, if you are writing a comic, having leads that are 5’0” and 6’4”, respectively, could pose a problem- they won’t fit in frames together. Therefore, certain similarities are definitely allowable if practicality demands it. Likewise, if you have to draw a character repeatedly, intricate tattoos or very complicated patterns will result in you weeping rivers of tears after four pages. Decide what is best for how you’ll be working.
A few ways in which characters are typically differentiated:
- Hair style or color: While people will naturally categorize things by color, color of hair often isn’t quite enough to differentiate people if they have similar faces (especially if a viewer can’t see the full spectrum). Additionally, there are only a few basic hair colors that humans have without the aid of dye. And if you work grayscale… you have black, white, and tone. Style can help, but you should still have different faces for your characters. Basically, hair has a lot of options for variants- so use that for all it’s worth, but mix up other traits too.
- Eye color: Again, color only gets you so far. Eye shape on the other hand will alter the whole look of the face, and can be seen from a greater distance.
- Accessories: If something is worn perpetually, it can be a big help- glasses, for example. Piercings can set someone apart a bit. As a general rule, though: Don’t rely on it if it comes off.
- Clothing: If someone has a permacoat, or always wears a hat, it can really mark them out, particularly if you work in color. If they will only wear one outfit, go ahead and make those really distinctive. If the clothes will ever change, run the Shaved And Uniformed test.
- Body Type: Why is body type not used more? My guess is the artists haven’t seen enough naked people. Go check out different body types. There are more shapes out there than you might think. ‘Muscly’ does not mean only one look. ‘Curvy’ does not mean only one look. Have some height variation, have some weight variation. Having differing body types will help you so much.
- Facial Structure: I’m talking eye shapes, noses, mouths, the shape of the head and face. There are fourteen kinds of nose, there’s no excuse for everyone in your cast to wear exactly the same one unless it’s An Important Stylistic Decision.
- Expression: Facial expressions can be a big part of character! Try putting a sappily cheerful grin on a habitually grim character- the effect is unsettling, isn’t it? In addition to the ‘resting’ face structure, your characters probably have a few default facial expressions- one is more prone to scowl, one is more prone to smile. People’s faces move differently, based on their structure- someone with a naturally downturned mouth won’t smile the same as someone with one that goes up, and expressions are often colored by the defaults.
- Ethnicity: If you have a large cast, and no reason why they need to be of the same ethnicity, I don’t know why you wouldn’t vary your cast’s ethnicity.
- Body language: Similar to expression and posture- what sorts of gestures are typical of your characters? Maybe one moves their hands a lot when they speak? Maybe they nod a lot. Habitual gestures can be used as markers for particular characters.
- Posture/lines of action: Does your character slouch, or stand up military straight? Are they floppy or rigid in their movements? Are their lines of action angular or curved? Try reducing the character to a stick figure, and check out how they stand and move.
Ways to test your cast’s distinctiveness:
- Draw them with shaved heads and in similar outfits/naked. Can you still tell them apart?
- Draw your cast as silhouettes- can you still tell them apart? Is each character recognizable from a silhouette alone?
- Get other people to review your character designs, and find out how easy it is for them to recognize characters. This will vary based on how good your subjects are with faces (some people aren’t good with them at all), but it will remove the familiarity that you have with your cast.
- If you work in color, put everything in black and white.
- If you work in color or grayscale, I hereby reduce you to outlines. Can you still tell them apart?
-This has been Evvy, at FYCD.
^ (Where I retrieved the image used as an illustration at the top).
I was asked to make a rebloggable version.
1. Be bold, vicious and detailed.
There are different kinds of abuse and they are all damaging to a person. In our current social climate it seems to me that authors and readers have no idea what an abusive relationship is. Bella Swan and Edward Cullen are in an abusive relationship. Travis Maddox and Abby from Beautiful Disaster are in an abusive relationship. Braden and Joss from “On Dublin Street” are not quite there, but they are straddling the line. Christian Grey from “Fifty Shades of Grey” is probably the most terrifyingly controlling man in any book I have ever read and it has nothing to do with the fact that he is into the BDSM lifestyle.
If you are going to write an abusive relationship you have to be aware that abuse has been glamorized and glossed over. Extreme jealousy is now seen as romantic, because “he’s so afraid of losing me.” If a guy isn’t insanely passionate, breaking down doors and watching the heroine sleep then “he doesn’t care enough.” If the guy is trying to isolate the heroine, have control of the way she dresses or where she goes it’s because “he doesn’t want to share me.”
It is scary as hell out there and if you are going to write this kind of relationship you have to go for it 100%. You can not dilute or gloss over how horrible it is. You have to make it very clear that this is not romantic, it is not sweet, it is abusive and this kind of guy may love you forever, but he will probably also destroy you in the mean time
Everyone is different. Every relationship is different, which means that every abusive relationship is also different. Do research. When I was in film school I wrote a short film about a woman who runs from an abusive relationship. I did hours of research on the web. Do you know that survivors of domestic abuse run blogs and websites? These incredible women put all their emotions on the web in the hopes that women who are living through it will read it and be inspired to leave. It is amazing. These stories will break your heart, they will piss you off, frighten you and fill you with conviction. There were nights where I wanted to grab a baseball bat and just go after these husbands. The point is that I found two stories that touched me so deeply, I wrote for hours.
If you have never been in this kind of relationship you have NO IDEA what it’s like. You have no idea, so don’t for a second think that you can come up with these emotions from scratch. If you want to delve deep into the brain of the victim, of the person who sleeps beside their abuser every night, then you have to find their thoughts. You still wont really know what it’s like, but this will give you a better starting point then your preconceived notions of what it means to be abused.
Recently I got a message about a person struggling on how to develop their characters, as they normally wrote about already created characters—also about how to make them interesting and make the people reading your story actually want to continue reading it.
I’d say this is one of the main differences between fanfiction and original work. Writing fanfiction you already rely on the fact people know the characters—how they look (or are supposed to look), personalities, and backgrounds… unless you’re writing an AU. There’s people that already like the characters and would (probably) be willing to read your story. Now, you focus on a good plot to interest them.
But then we are back on our original stories, our novels, anything we write. We have to create our characters from scratch—interesting characters that can fit and make our story flow. Because good characters can handle a poor plot, yet a good plot can’t handle poor characters. I guess this is all we do here, right? this is the bane of our existence as writers.
Truth is, there’s no right way to write a story. And there’s no right way to develop a character! I tested this by asking you guys how you do to create and flesh out your characters. Every response was personal and different.
Sometimes it starts with the spark of an word, an archetype, a color, a trait, a flaw, a song lyric, a painting, someone you know in real life—then you go from there.
Here are some basic steps on developing a character, yet, you can do it as you see fit:
- You start with the personality. Once that’s done it’s relatively easier to know how they look like. You sculpt and pick virtues and vices, flaws and qualities—perfect characters are not interesting. When it comes to protagonists and antagonists, they’re neither 100% good nor 100% bad, because there is not fully good or bad people. Get what I’m saying? Round characters are the thing we’re going for. Take details from people in real life, if you want: funny habits, mannerisms, what makes people human.
- Work on the appearance of your character. What’s their body type, their eye color, skin color, hair color, shape of their face/nose, if they have birthmarks or scars somewhere…
- Pick a name as you see fit. This can be the first step depending on how you work. Is there a meaning behind it? does it show somehow their character’s personality? remember sometimes they are relevant to the setting/genre.
- Flesh. ‘Em. Out. Think of hobbies and background. How’s the relationship with their family and friends, how they act around authority, what kinds of clothes they like to wear…
- Always remember: character development is an ongoing thing. You never “finish” developing your character, just like we, as people, don’t stay the same.
That being said, be creative with it! Don’t imitate the way your favorite authors develop their characters- create your own way! your characters are all yours! Make playlists about songs that remind you of your characters, keep a journal for them- sky’s the limit.
Good links for you:
- Fuckyeahcharacterdevelopment: a blog just about character development. Seriously, if you are not following this blog, you are in nothing.
- Our character descriptions and characters tags, along with body and mind and personality.
- Create fictional characters from scratch
- 13 ways to create compelling characters
- Moral Alignments and Jung Personality Theory: both good resources by the same person. They’re a different way to add dimension and understand better your characters. Even if you aren’t using them, they’re still a pretty good read.
- Get to know your characters interesting questions require interesting answers.
Anonymous asked: > I am having trouble with the way all my characters talk < I already have tips on accents, so that is not what I am looking for. But they basically all talk the same way in a not-so-constant manner and there is not deference in speech than voice.
For some writers, dialogue comes naturally. It’s a gift often taken for granted, and when you don’t have it, dialogue can be the hardest part about writing. There are a few things you can do, however, to develop your skill and allow your characters to speak in their own unique voices.
Here are a couple exercises that you can do for practice:
And here are some more resources you might want to check out:
I hope this helps!
Anonymous asked: Hey, Write World, I love your blog! I have a question: I’m an atheist who grew up in a family of atheists, and I find it difficult to write religious characters. For example, one of my main characters is fervently religious, but when friends read the scenes she’s in, they tell me that there is a condescending tone surrounding her. This is unintentional, but I don’t know how to stop. Any tips?
I feel really strongly about this, so before I give my opinion, does anyone have any tips for the anon?
Can you help?
Last night, I was reading a book on Hiroshima (the book is called “Hiroshima: Why America Dropped The Atomic Bomb” by Ronald Takaki if you guys are interested in it) and the author wrote about how Harry Truman didn’t say the same thing to people around him during the decision to drop the bomb. I won’t go into details about this as this isn’t the time and place to talk about it but it did got me thinking about how people have a different attitude towards others.
It’s something that we do every day yet we don’t think about it. It’s as if we have a switch when we talk with people. I don’t speak the same way to my friends as to do with my parents. I don’t call my parents a ‘bitch’ to greet them. I also don’t call them by their first name. What surprises me about this (and it really shouldn’t if you think about it) is that even among my friends, I don’t approach them the same way. Why? I don’t share the same relationship with them.
The same is true for your characters. When you try to connect your character to others, try to put this idea to use. Let’s take one of my characters, Coralline, as an example.
First, you have a general idea of her personality but in order for me to really bring her to life, I’m going to put her into context. Coralline is blunt, stubborn, ruthless and self-confident. She’s going through a divorce with her Olympic golden medalist wife Zeffie and she’s willing to do anything to get the most out of it. This doesn’t thoroughly explain who she is. If I were to write a character biography for her, I’d go further into how she came to be this way. In other words, I’d go into her history. This is when the next point gets into play.
Secondly, you have her attitude towards other characters. Characters don’t develop independently. They’re shaped by their values, experiences, family, friends, environment, surroundings. Your character has an opinion on all of this. Let’s take the family members of Coralline.
She has an older brother, a sister-in-law, two nephews and a niece. Her older brother died a few years ago but to this day, she’s still trying to protect him. She despises her sister in law because she blames her for her brother’s death. She openly makes fun of one her nephews because his wife is almost as old as her. She ignores her second nephew because he’s an adopted child and looks just like his mother who she disliked as a teenager. She thinks her niece if a freak and didn’t hesitate to send her to boarding school to get her away from the house. These are only her family members yet she doesn’t think of them the same way. Along with the general idea of her personality, history and relationships we get a better and deeper idea of who she is.
Finally, you have the attitudes of other characters towards her. Her wife still loves her but can’t stand being around her. When he was alive, her brother was always there for her and they were close. Her sister in law is afraid of her and only half heartedly stands up to her. Her niece enjoys spending time with her and sees her as a mother. Her nephews ignore her and one of them feels sorry for her for being so cold hearted.
Coralline won’t approach people the same way and they won’t either. A lot of people seem to forget this when GIF chatting or replying to another character. It’s just a simple fact that we do not approach people the same way. Relationships are’t easy to define and are different for each and every one of us. Don’t forget that when conversing with other characters.
Anonymous asked: Hi there, I’m trying to write a story about a disease, somehow like a cancer or anything that cause dying. Can you recommended me some that is easy to write about? Thanks ;)
Would you like to recommend a disease that is easy to write about to this anon?
Describing a character’s body language can be very important and helps your story from being too “telly”. You end up showing your readers how your characters are feeling instead of constantly telling them what’s going on. For example, if someone’s face “burns bright red”, you know they’re either angry or embarrassed (or perhaps a combination of both). Depending on context, your readers can figure out how your character is reacting. Using these simple techniques can help improve your story and make it much more entertaining.
- A character that is over confident (possibly the antagonist) will most likely stand taller, put hands on his or her hips, or bark orders at others. The way they sit will also reveal a lot about their character. Their legs will probably be unfolded and they might sit up straighter to show dominance.
- Someone who is shy and closed off will slump his or her shoulders or wrap their arms around their legs if they are sitting. They will do anything to remain unnoticed, which will come across in their body language. Submissive people tend to smile a lot because they might not want to engage in conversation.
- Anger can be described through clenched teeth, reddening skin, heavy breathing, or crossing arms. If a character feels physically threatened, he or she might ball her fists as if ready for a fight.
- When people lie they tend to touch their face or avoid eye contact. They will try any physical action that might distract people from the fact that they are lying and it will often be subtle.
- I once read that when you’re attracted to someone or open to conversation with them, you’ll point your knees in their direction. Your knees will often face the person who you wish to talk to. If someone is not open to conversation or feels uncomfortable, they will turn their body away from the person to show they aren’t interested.
There are a lot of clues in everyday life as long as you pay attention to them. If you want to learn more about body language, all you have to do is analyze the people around you or even yourself. What do you do when you lie? How do people know when you’re happy? Take a look around and observe.