page contents

Simple to Complex: Character Design Tips

by Sarah Goran & Win Leerasanthanah

Any animator will tell you that a good character design is the cornerstone that can enhance storytelling and make a good animation. When I was first applying to Sheridan College’s Animation program, I was told each button a character needed to could worth $10,000 in spending to a studio. These days, characters are getting more and more detailed thanks to the help of puppet animation and 3D animation but the basics of character design still applies.

There are three big rules of character design: silhouette, straights and curves, and shape design.


Creating Character Silhouette

silhouette design for CoralineSilhouette designs for characters from "Coraline."










When posing your characters, paying attention to the silhouette or overall shape helps a pose read. A pose silhouette is exactly how it sounds, take your character, shade in the space the character occupies, and you have yourself a silhouette! It’s like a big shadow of your character. Great, now how does this help in animation? Picture a character: A main character can carry a simple but memorable design……so that her supporting characters can have outstanding shapes such that they are an extension of her characterization. The composition of these character designs are from Coraline. These should be quick and used as reference for brainstorming ideas. 

Contrast with Straight and Curve

Next is dealing with Straights and Curves. If you study appealing characters you will notice the use of straight lines and curved lines. This does not only refer to male and female characters but to the parts of the body within. You can see these clearly from a profile of a body. The most appealing shapes have alternating curves which create a rhythm through the pose. 

Check out famous animator Glen Keane’s drawing in the animation Tangled, which shows his design and draftsmanship with the use of straights and curves. Notice how the lines are never parallel and are always switching between straights and curves? Aside from the contrast in straights and curves, there is also a contrast in simple and complex sides. Simple contours suggest line of action and clarity in direction, whereas complex contours conveys information. It directs the audience’s attention to it. Straight, angular lines suggest stability, structure and direction. Whereas curves give information – such as flesh, muscle, and squashing. When they are both side-by-side, they create an illusion of contrast and volume.

characters from "Tangled."

Capturing straights and curves in Glen Keane’s drawings.









Psychological Associations in Shapes 

Carl and Russell

Shape design is important in designing your characters personality through their image. Sometmes shapes can have psychological associations. Square characters are sturdy, stubborn, un-moving, like Carl from Disney’s “UP”(2009) for example. Square facial features, as well as hands can also be strong and masculine. Round characters are often viewed as cute and appealing.  Soft round features are used on baby characters, these features are very un-threatening and trust worthy. Triangles are the last most common shape in character design. Triangles are pointy and sinister. Pointy noses, pointy shoulders, fingers, shoes, these can be seen in designs like ZigZag from Richard Williams’ “Thief and the Cobbler” (1993). Notice the sharp contrast in shape between Carl’s rectangular shape to Russell’s round shape in the film, Up.

Joy, Anger, Fear, Sadness and Disgust

Varying designs based on objects (From PIXAR’s INSIDE OUT animation)












Sharp shapes usually suggest villainy, and this is no exception for ZigZag from The Thief and the Cobbler. Recurring shapes that appear in the design define the personality of the character. Of course, none of these rules are set in stone, however, adding them into your current character designs and mixing and matching different shapes can create easily recognizable characters. 


References and Research

Reference and research is also important and something to take into consideration for character design. The more you know about a subject or how it moves, the better you can make sense of what the character is supposed to look like. Does the character have larger feet because its body needs to be balanced for solid work or is it small and lithe because it needs to be able to move swiftly in battle? These are some questions you might want to ask yourself during design phrase.

Demonstration Illustrations/ Design By Win Leerasanthanah

sheep drawings

Preliminary sketches of a battle sheep 

gesture drawing of sheep, stylizing.

Gesture/ pose and facial expressions test 

gladiator sheep and gang ready for battle.

Final render of the character design of a gladiator sheep.

The images above are the process sketches that lead to the final result for an entry for Character Design Contest. The contest theme was gladiators, so I had to research images of gladiator paintings and armor. I also wanted the character to be a sheep as well, so I drew a variety of gesture poses and facial expressions to capture the design of the sheep that is ready for battle. Good character design requires many trials and errors before deciding on the character’s form and shape.

*Disclaimer: Images used were not created by/ for ASIFA-SOUTH except for Wiin Leerasathanah’s images but pulled off the web for explanation and educational purposes only. These belong to their respective copyright holder. 

Sarah Goran
is a graduate from Sheridan College. You can find her works at: 

Support us by sharing this article if you found it helpful!