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July 31, 2014

What’s the Key to Good Character Design?

There’s an image floating around on the internet that shows Final Fantasy and Kingdom Hearts mainstay Tetsuya Nomura’s take on Batman.  Apparently it was his design for a game that never materialized, but in exchange there’s a figure of him and some art if you’re interested in looking.  Speaking personally, I don’t think it’s that bad.  It’s definitely an interesting take, if a little cluttered.  And given the man responsible, it could have been a lot worse.  A LOT worse.

Nomura may be famous for running Kingdom Hearts right into the damn ground his artistic sensibilities, but whether you like his techniques or hate them, it’s hard to heap too much hate on him.  If nothing else, his designs -- when they’re at their best -- are the sort of things that by nature stick out in your mind.  They transcend being mere drawings or renderings, and become some truly iconic stuff.  I’d like to think that (if not for the presence of something like Berserk) it would be Cloud and his Buster Sword that engraved the concept of “massive sword” in the public conscious, where it’s stayed for years.  On the other hand, Nomura has almost single-handedly ruined “belts and zippers” for everyone, so there’s also that.

But let’s not slam the man any longer.  Let’s focus on concepts.

AHEM.  I said, let's FOCUS on CONCEPTS.

Even if you’re the noblest saint in the world, there’s no denying that appearances are important.  You’re going to learn a fair bit about anything -- up to and including a person -- the second you give it a good enough look.  And that’s especially true of pretty much any story in any medium; you’re going to get information about characters and make judgments about them based on their looks.  You’ll do that much faster than taking time to learn about their personalities, and WAY before you get in deep with their experiences, ideals, and that magical thing called character development.

It seems like as the days go by, I care more and more about character design.  I’ve said some stuff about it before here on Cross-Up by taking a closer look at some characters across the board, and I’ve asked the question du jour elsewhere for some perspective.  But I’m nothing if not hungry for perspective -- and beyond that, this feeds in directly to some stuff I’ve got planned for the blog.  I want to put some of my stuff to the test, but I want to make sure I have the proper mindset before I show my hand.  Rest assured, I will -- and I hope that it’s something that’ll get you readers excited.

In any case, character designs can make a huge difference.  It goes beyond just audience reactions, though that helps immensely (is it any wonder that gamers cry foul of burly brown-haired white males heading their titles these days?).   Characters create opportunities, and the way they look can offer a unique jumping-off point, both for establishing them, and for establishing their world. 

Just think about how minor variations in guys like Ryu, Ken, and Akuma can set them apart as completely different characters the moment they’re on-stage in Street Fighter 4.  And think about what kind of message DMC3 Dante sent to players, as opposed to the…statement made by DmC’s Donte.

It remains to be seen if I can practice what I preach, but I’d like to think that there are at least three principles to good character design -- the three that I try to put to good use with my efforts.  Even if my art isn’t exactly…you know, good…I’m hoping that there are a few things that I can prove with it. 

So let’s see if I can break down my thoughts.  With the proper music, of course.

1) One glance should tell you a LOT about the character.  Maybe not everything, because looks can only tell you so much (and indeed, those looks can just be a red herring to a character’s real nature).  But nonverbal communication is a thing for a reason.  Expressions, posture, stances, and the like can broadcast loud and clear what a character is about -- and the obvious things like hair, clothes, and accessories seal the deal.  Outside of the things they were born with -- things that can and do change in Fiction Land, North Dakota -- their choices mean something, even if you don’t consciously consider them.  So, going off of that…

2) There should be enough unique design elements to set the character apart.  All told, I don’t think I can blame Nomura for going BELTZ AND ZIPPAS all the time.  They do indeed spruce up a character’s look, and if we’re being honest, I think characters become HYPER-COOL when they have mechanical parts to them.  (Screws, of all things, keep showing up in my designs.)  So yeah, there should be some piece or pieces to a character that make them more distinct.  Colors help tremendously, as do -- again -- the outer stuff like clothes and hair.  I mean, what would Heihachi be without that hair?  And by extension, Paul Phoenix with that hair?  Nothing, I suspect.

3) Style and substance should at least try to come together.  Some time ago, I ran into some problems trying to write out a character with a more…shall we say, eclectic design.  It was primed to cause some real problems, and it was one of many signals that I needed to simplify -- another one being that I couldn’t consistently draw the character.  There’s a lesson in there: simplicity is important.  I don’t want to say that it’s “key”, because I’d bet it’s possible to have a complex design without it being too cringe-worthy.  Simplicity DOES help, though.  Make no mistake about that.   

I’d wager it all depends on the needs of the character and their world; if the design can make a strong statement about/for either, then it’s in better shape.  If it can’t, then it needs some adjustments.  So concerning Tekken, I can buy into designs like Asuka’s, Zafina’s, or even Nina’s (circa T4, but only to an extent) if asked.  But there is absolutely no way I can take a military official seriously when he thinks it’s A-OK to walk around looking like THIS:

You ask too much of me, Bandai Namco.  Also, screw you for making this guy the new hero of the Tekken franchise.  He’s the biggest Gary Stu I ever did see. 

 Well, that’s enough out of me (and Tekken).  Now it’s your turn, people.  So I’ll leave you with a simple(ish) question: what’s the key to good character design?  What’s your idea of how to make something iconic, instead of making a laugh riot?  What are your personal rules on the matter?  And as a super-hyper-ultra bonus, which characters do you think have good designs?

I can take in whatever you dish out, people.  Bring it on.  So with that gauntlet thrown -- are you ready?  Get set…comment!

Huh.  You know, I like Jotaro, but I think that at a glance, Josuke’s the cooler-looking of the JoJo protagonists.  Though on the subject of Jotaro, I have to ask: where does the hat end, and the hair begin?

Or perhaps…perhaps there was never a difference to begin with.  Maybe they’re actually one and the same.


  1. Just want to say that the Nomura's vision of Batman is god awful and terrible. He looks like a robot from Zone of the Enders. What's something that goes into good physical character design? How about knowing the fucking character. Bruce Wayne is a human that has to jump around the city from rooftop to rooftop and has to be silent. Being weighed down by mech armor would make no sense. Bruce is a human, not a robot.

    Though I am hyped about Arkham Knight, Batman's suit is so stupid and ridiculous for the same reason above.

  2. Fair point. But now I can't help but wonder: if Bruce is just a normal (albeit well-trained and well-conditioned) guy, then what, if anything, is stopping him from using his resources to build a suit of armor to protect and enhance him? I'd think that that would come in very handy when fighting, say, Clayface or Killer Croc.

    ...On the other hand, if he did make some kind of robo-suit, then he'd pretty much be Iron Man, wouldn't he? Also, it WOULD take away a huge part of the character and what he's supposed to be. Batman's supposed to be vulnerable and stealthy, not a MechWarrior.

    Huh. I guess I answered my own question there.

  3. I'd like to give Nomura the benefit of the doubt, but...yeah, you're not wrong here. FFX was already pushing it, but when I think about some of the stuff he did after that? It's a disaster zone. Dirge of Cerberus comes to mind, by way of making one guy a gothic dude with a jockstrap on his face, and another guy just...well, I don't know how to describe him besides "every anime/fanfiction cliche rolled into one." And then there's his art for Dissidia, where it took the Cloud from FF7 and made him more like the Cloud from Advent Children -- AKA the bizarrely-morose Cloud that EVERYONE LOVES SO MUCH.


    RE: Tekken, it'll be interesting to see what they do on that front. It sounds like they're making a prequel out of it, so that would mean (potentially) a new cast of characters, and one that takes a step back in terms of aesthetics. A sort of "back to basics" sensibility, if you will.

    Whatever the outcome, more Paul Phoenix is always good. Always.

  4. He does have various suits like that. For instance, his beefed up armor in the Dark Knight Returns with Kryptonite gloves that he uses to fight Superman. But most of his time is spent patrolling Gotham and only breaks out the heavy artillery when necessary.

  5. Ah, I see. Makes sense for the Dark Knight to go stomping through the city in the right suit. Practicality is the key to dishing out justice. Well, probably.

  6. I love Junpei Iori's design. It definitely shows his personality with his postures, expressions, and even just appearances. More of that is reinforced through his dialogue.

  7. Indeed. Persona 3's not exactly the best example when it comes to ZOMG GRAFFECS, but what they used was used more than competently. Good design, good art, good dialogue...all expressing Junpei without blowing a hundred million dollars.

    It's almost as if sensibility is a bigger factor than anything else.

    ...Nah, that can't possibly be true. Nothing more than a pipe dream, no doubt.