Designing Cliche Characters
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This guide details my methodology of applying user experience techniques to character design. These methods help me to create more believable and engaging characters. This article combines user experience and game design disciplines with traditional art techniques and a dash of psychology. Create easy to understand visual narratives by embracing character tropes.
Making characters easily identifiable can make players feel good about themselves and their deductive reasoning. It can also help players climb your game’s skill curve faster, so they can enjoy the whole experience of your game.
Get to Know Your Player
Understanding your player motivations can give you insight to designing admirable, attractive or despicable characters. Research indicates that players enjoy playing characters similar to an ideal version of themselves. Identify common occupations, hobbies, and motivations of your ideal player. Occupation for players under 18 is usually student.
Quantic Foundry breaks down gamer motivations into 12 factors, paired into 6 archetypes: immersion, creativity, action, social, mastery and achievement. If the base idea for your game leans towards one of these gamer motivations, you can lean into it by developing your “good” character personalities to fit into a similar motivation type. Bad characters can be developed using alternate or even opposing motivations to make them more disagreeable.
Players prefer to play as characters close to their own age. Adult players tend to like playing characters younger than themselves to relive their younger years. Younger players prefer to play as a character a little older than themselves, striving for maturity and understanding.
Select some personality traits according to how the character you’re designing fits into your narrative. Below is a chart of design ideas divided into common personality traits. Each set of ideas is split into four categories: pose, shape, expression, color.
Characters will move around a lot during the course of your game, at this point in the design process we’re looking at key poses for concepting. Getting multiple of these pose ideas on paper can help with modeling, rendering and animating your character as you further your project.
Perhaps the most powerful tool in generating a human connection to your character striking the right pose. Understanding what emotion a person’s body language is portraying is essential. People will reciprocate body language they see, characters should be posed how you wish the viewer to feel about them.
Experiment: Pose Copycat
Next time you’re with a group of friends (or if you’re sneaky try it in a business meeting) look around and note everyone’s pose. People in the group will often mimic the pose of whoever is speaking if they agree with what’s being said. As it becomes your turn to speak, change your pose and see who copies you. The people who do are often like minded.
Copying someone’s pose while they speak can make you seem more agreeable and easier to get along with. Conversely you could alter your approach to appeal to those who haven’t bought in on your ideas, before they’ve said anything. Of course there are also those rebels without a cause that may not fall for your jedi mind tricks.
User experience (UX) and user interface (UI) designers have a lot of research at their disposal about how people react to shapes and colors.
Combining Pose and Shape you’ll establish a silhouette for your character. From your initial Pose and Shape ideas, fill a copy of your character concept completely solid black (except where it has holes, leave those blank) on a white background. Hide your first sketches and think about how this silhouette looks as though your character were on a hill with a strong backlight behind them. What the first thing that comes to mind? This is a bit like a Rorschach test and plays a big part of the first impression your character will make on the player. If your reaction to the shape you created is aligned with your character idea and personality, you’re well on your way to a great character.
All the points at which your character is touching the ground say a lot about how a player might imagine your character to move.
Large feet and short legs indicate that a character is slow moving. Multiple points (beyond 2) portray a character as being stable, particularly if they are spread wide apart. To increase this slow stable feeling, you can pose your character so their feet are sideways, increasing their visual contact with the ground. You can use things like weapons and capes that are long enough to reach the floor to further add to their grounded feeling.
Small feet and thin legs suggest that a character is agile. Increase your character’s agility by lifting some or all of their feet off the ground, facing feet forward, or putting feet behind each other. Long legs indicate a character is fast moving. You can also create movement by sweeping back hair and loose clothing in the wind.
Many people love magic because it’s outside of the normal. More specifically, and much easier to convey visually, magic defies physics. One of the first laws of physics, that’s easiest to visually break, is gravity. Magical characters are often floating. Their clothes might be floating or billowing, or they may have objects floating around them. If your character is floating, try putting their feet together or one in front of the other to make them seem lighter.
If you’d rather your character on the ground, give them a wide stance with feet spread to make them seem more powerful. Objects floating near them should be to the side and cast their own separate silhouette, not in front of the character. You can try eyes closed tight in concentration, and hands open as if to hold some invisible force.
Expression and Facial Features
A character’s expression can change dramatically during gameplay, in this design process we’re focusing more on the shape of the face and their go-to, default or resting expression. The shape of a character’s face can reveal their personality even if their currently expressed emotion is different.
84.7% of consumers cite color as their main reason for buying a particular product. Color can go a long way towards getting your players to buy into the game experience you’re creating. It can give players a quick and easy to understand way of deciding if characters are good or bad, fast or slow, any number of traits that aids their gameplay. The faster the game, the quicker these character judgements are made by the player. Following or breaking character cliches can visually alter the pace and feel of your game, without adjusting mechanics.
Experiment: Characters by the Stats
I like to think about what stats my character might have if I were playing them in D&D. Think about attributes like strength, speed, intelligence, wisdom, agility, charisma, stamina, defense, offense, good, evil, chaotic, lawful. Give your character a value on a scale of 1 to 10. As you’re sketching concepts, refer back to these scales and ask yourself, “Does my design fit the stats I assigned?”
Your Character Sheet
Cliche Character Sheet
Many tabletop games make use of character sheets as easy reference to the player characters and their attributes. Here’s a character design sheet you can use to keep track of your ideas. Be sure to keep it together with your concepts, and alter as needed while your game development progresses.
Putting Everything Together
Cliche Character Design Quick Reference
Very seldom is any character only one of these things. Combine different aspects to fit the unique profiles of your characters. A lawful evil character might have a defensive stance with feet firmly grounded, with asymmetrical square shoulders with spikes coming out. A sexy shy character may have wavy hair and extreme hip angle, with their left side forward and hands at their chest. A good, aggressive character may be moving in a big circular motion in their attack, pivoting on one foot.
Still To Do
- Get the chart into a presentable format
- Create citation styling with titles for easier distinction
- Create character design sheet
- Create full sentences that make sense
- Add images of characters that exemplify the content
- Add about author