Sunday, May 27, 2012

Clothes Make the Character: The Basics

Look at that handsome slug! All dressed up in a new costume and ready to go for today’s article! I begin a new series, and a new section as we look at the basics of Character Design!

Those that are familiar with my site know that among the reviews and random stuff I do, I like talking about characters, and what goes into making them. And how a character looks is a large part of that. And since I’ve been meaning to jump on the character redesign bandwagon for a while... Y'know what? New series! (because I don’t have enough already, right?)

So every so often (This isn’t a monthly series), I’ll be posting articles focusing on visual character design. Costumes, symbols, “the double standard”, etc. And with each topic, I’ll be posting a redesign of a known comic characters. And not just popular Marvel or DC characters, either. In fact, if there is a character or a topic you want to see discussed, I’ll try to obliged (I can’t guarantee I’ll redesign every character asked.)

Today however, I'm first going to quickly review some of the basics. And I do mean basic. Some of this branches into writing as well as the visual stuff. And though I’ll be going into more detailed topics such as logos/symbolism and “the double standard”. And even though they are just basic, all of these aspects will come into play with the characters I’m redesigning. Okay? Okay. Lets get started:


1) You are allowed to break these rules

Probably the most important rule. Lots of people learn one way to do things, and then fall into the trap of only doing it that way, without realizing that they don’t have to. You don’t have to draw your character in the exact same style as the genre it inspired. You don’t have to use the exact same pen as your favorite artist, etc.

I am not an expert in... anything, really. All I’m doing is giving my opinions based on what I’ve learned. And one of the first things I’ve learned is that EVERYTHING has at least one exception. For every rule, there is a “but” or an “unless”.

“They’re more like guidelines, anyway”.

So now that I’ve completely destroyed the integrity of these articles...

2) Costumes and the characters wearing them, should be unique

Vague, I know. But this is the key element to character design. And this goes for characters, costumes, settings, etc. Make it memorable. Iconic. It’s okay to be inspired by other peoples characters, but if it gets to the point that your character becomes “wolverine clone #274”, then there’s a problem... and probably a copyright infringement. Almost everything about character design extends from this theme,

So how do you make the character Iconic?

That is... a much harder and complex question. The list on just “how” to make your character iconic is a mile long. This list has a few ideas but each of the articles will be discussing portion. And speaking of...

3) The character silhouette.

Part of making a character unique is to keep them from looking like every other character in the story. If characters come from the same culture, where its normal to where the exact same clothes and hair, all right, that’s one thing. But unless the characters are also twins or exact clones as well, their faces and heights are probably not going to look the same. One way to test this is by coloring your character completely in black, showing only the silhouette. If you can’t tell the difference between the characters, you might have to go back to the drawing board, so to speak (UNLESS, maybe it’s important to your story for them to look exactly the same).

For instance, here are two characters silhouettes and...

...Wait a sec...This isn't right...

Oh. Nevermind.

Well, as you can see, even if the silhouettes are very similar, you can see differences between between the characters, even subtle ones.

4) Features

I’m going to give an example this time: I once read CSI: Intern at your own risk. It was an okay story. But I kept getting two of the key characters confused because the character designs were so similar.

When colored, all the characters look pretty unique. But the comic was in black and white. Take a look:

Hair and faces were almost exactly alike when drawn in black and white. The only difference is that one character had a small bow-tie and longer bangs. Another character has the exact same bangs, but had his hair colored in black while the other was colored in white. The other two key characters were a woman, and a tall buff man with buzzed hair.

See the problem here?

This is a bad example of character design. Not only do we have three examples of bad character silhouettes, but getting the actual faces confused is even worse. (I should note that the fact they looked so similar was not a plot point. Just bad character design) It’s not always enough to give small touches like one character wears a bow-tie. The actual facial features need to be more distinct so readers don’t get more confused. This also goes with names and appearances in novels. Let your characters show off a bit more of their own personal style.

5) Color, Color, Color

While were on the topic of features, lets talk about color. If you look at the New 52 teen Titans verses the pre new 52 versions, the new costumes really aren’t that interesting. And we can blame it on the color

They all look so much the same that they look bland, while the former versions cover the entire rainbow. Not only does this make each character more distinct from one another, it also makes for some really great group shots. The new costumes just seem to... blend in together.

This could have been better if the characters had received the costumes as a common uniform after becoming a team, which they did not. It would have at least made sense.

6) Suits the character’s personality and the world around them

This one is easy to misunderstand and, does have a lot of exceptions to it. So I'll go into more detail in upcoming articles. Basically? There should be reasons behind what a character is wearing. Reasons that also fit into the world they exist. Technologies that the characters use should be able to exist in the world they live in... unless you can find a reasonable explanation around that. They can see into the future or they're a super genius or something like that. I’m just throwing ideas out there... see what I mean by exceptions?

And no, “because you want to” is not a good enough reason. I don’t care how big their boobs might be, Don’t dress up your character in a thong bikini if they would never, ever, ever wear that. Moving on.

7) Characters vs. Choice

This topic is mainly related to writing characters, so Ill only touch on it here. There’s ideas about the illusion of choice that characters have. That, despite the characters saying they have a choice, it’s actually the writer that chooses for them. The reader only sees the illusion. The writer decides how the story goes, how the characters act. And how they look.

I bring this up because, while researching the heroine, Power Girl. She had argued in one comic that she wore her outfit (the one with the boob window) because she didn’t care about showing off her body. The statement was an obvious poke at the readers against the costume. And some readers responded back that Power Girl is a fictional character, and that didn’t matter what she thought, and that this was all just a way for the writers and artists can justify putting her in a skimpy outfit.


Okay, the Power Girl vs feminism thing is a storm for another day. I’m not going to talk about it here and I’m not going to get into whether or not the angry readers were right or wrong.

But, yes. We decide what their personalities are like because they are purely fictional. But the difference between putting a character into anything we want and putting them in something that actually suits the character we wrote, is the difference between good character design and bad. And the difference between making that illusion successful or not. If your character is the type to where skimpy fansevice-ly clothes, then that’s what you put them in. If not, then don’t do it and then say that the character choose that outfit.

8) Learn to change your mind

You don’t have to stick to the first idea that pops in your head. Heck, you don’t have to stick with the idea that you made 2 years ago (trust me, I know). If the character you started with isn’t working in your draft, then your allowed to change them. Editing is one of those long, grueling things that writers kinda have to just deal with...

Hey! Don’t look at me like that! I’m not saying to completely throw that character away. Just... put them to the side. You may use them in another place.

Good example is how Dan Shive evolved his character, Grace. Though I should warn, it’s a wee bit spoilery:

If you haven't read his comic, El Goonhish Shive, One: Shame on you! and Two: Don't worry if you don't know who the characters are. This is just one example of evolving characters. There are other really good examples in the rest of his Painted Black: special features. But I suggest you read the comic first before looking at them. (Plus, the comic is awesome)


So that’s it for now. In two weeks, I’ll be back, with the first character redesign, and the first big topics: Character Icons.

And what character will I be using...?

Let the shit storm begin.

Tegan Dumpleton aka, SlugLady28



Finally! About time this series started.

As usual, Sam and my SlugLady avatar are mine. But not any of the other characters are.

So, I've decided to update officially on weekends now, but the sketch-log is still only updating every two weeks. Next time will be the next character design article, but after that... that's a surprise.

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