What Anime can teach us about Character Design
Updated: Oct 16, 2019
For many creative teenagers, Anime is a stepping stone into art. Its variety of genres appeal to many a young person that might not have seen anything like it in western animation or life action shows. It gets people drawing!
Art schools however tend not to be in favour of maintaining an anime drawing style. Commercial opportunities for the specific style might also be limited. In the end, a lot of illustrators might abandon the style whilst retaining some of the elements and subject matter that related to them the most. Regardless I think Anime style illustration can teach us a lot!
For one, it is greatly aesthetic, exagerating the features we often find most pleasant in a character. The large eyes are cute, earnest and endearing, and the long flowing hair and elonganted limbs give an impression of elegance. Both aspects can easily be translated into other styles of art and maintain similar qualities.
What I'd like to talk about, however, is the way Anime handles character design. Realistic faces are differentiated by subtle imperfections, different curves to noses, lips and chins. All of these details have to be copied accurately in drawing in order to create a likeness.
Anime simplifies the facial features. As a result, characters can easily look alike given the same haircut, figure and clothes. In order to make characters stand out from one another and give expression to their personalities, exterior features are used with greater force: Colour, patterns, accessories and silhouettes. Knowing how a simplified style designs characters effectively can teach us how to improve our character design across more realistic styles as well!
I tried to find some of these learning opportunities by examining the character design in the murder-mystery visual novel game: Danganronpa (Which has some of the most iconic anime character design I have ever seen).
Why look at Danganronpa?
Danganronpa is a murder-mystery game with 16 new characters for each of its 3 iterations. These characters are all trapped in one location together, instructed by a two-coloured teddy-bear with sadistic tendencies to kill each other or stay stuck forever. The battle royal like narrative is certainly crazy and carries a special flair.
Due to the number of characters, and the need to know and remember them to progress the story succesfully, it is especially important that each one has a distinct design and quickly recognizable characteristics.
That's where some easy-to-spot character design lessons can be drawn from!
Here's what I think Danganronpa does especially well!
Danganronpa is confident about the design of its character silhouettes. After all they display the silhouetted lineup of the 16 characters once or twice each chapter! Silhouette is an important element of character design no matter what style you work in, and is often a good place to start designing.
To make characters stand out, look at their shape only and consider what form suits them. Broad or narrow shoulders? Short or tall? Big or small hair? Figure alone is a good way to convey how athletic, strong or meek a character is and distinguish them from another.
One way anime often adds to the silhouette of a character is by giving them an extraordinary hairstyle, or pertruding accents like special weapons, scarves, swaying coats and hoods.
Whilst this does not need to be as exagerated in non-anime styles, having these accents can still improve a silhouette and add an extra level of interest when the rest of the character is filled in.
Danganronpa's characters all have a limited colour scheme that is tailor fit to the character. Not only does this make their style cohesive and nice-looking, but it lets the player assosciate the character with its specific colours, making them recognizable big or small. Even in a tiny pixelated chibi version, the distinct colours of hair and clothes as a match let the player know who they are looking at.
Deciding on a colour scheme for a character can be a fun and effective way of expressing an element of their personality and letting them remain recognizable in a crowd.
One key way of making outfits look interesting, complete and realistic is to include several layers of clothing, overlapping. That way, different colours, textures and shapes can mingle and create visual interest.
The trick here is to build up a character layer by layer and showing the different parts of each outfit. From undershirts to unbuttoned dress shirts, a blazer covered by a coat and a scarf, to socks pertruding from shoes.
Accessories are the small details that can add a lot of personal touch to a character and reveal some of their secrets and history. Danganronpa does this well! There is a plethora of cute cat ribbons, chef hats, armbands and bracelets, chains, different ties, diamond decorations and especially cute backpacks.
Each character also has an individual symbol somewhere on their character. Sometimes it might be a necklace or hair piece, sometimes it is embroidered somewhere on their clothes.
Adding these details can lift a flat design to a well thought out one and shows that thought went into their characters.
Unless they specifically like to pick plain clothing, it makes sense that your characters would wear something that represents their faith, hobbies and convictions. Maybe a tattoo representing membership to a group in their past, or simply a hint that they enjoy something unexpected: Like being an animal lover when they seem harsh and cold otherwise.
Perhaps it is just the nature of a murder mystery game to think of this: But if you were to look at your character's head only, body only, arms or legs only - would you still recognize your character?
Lastly, to aid the character design process, it might be helpful to think about the way your character would dress. Would they prefer tight or baggy clothing? Do they dress neatly, with attention to the folds in their dresses? Or do they just throw something on and let it fall?
Do they dress for cold or warm weather? Revealing or buttoned up? Imposing or sympathetic?
If, like in Danganronpa, you have a lot of characters wearing something similar, like a school uniform, you could think perhaps of how they wear their uniform. This can easily be observed on uniformed students in real life. Many stick their skirts up higher or lower, button their blazers with differing care, or tuck their shirts differently.
How do these tips for character design sound?
Danganronpa especially has sure taught me a lot of ways to pay more attention to making interesting characters. Of course the games have a specific style of art direction and these tips can't be carried across with quite the same 'attitude' to other genres.
But even if we make accents and silhouettes more subtle and focus more on the facial features and colour subtleties more painterly and realistic styles allow us to utilize, our character designs can benefit from clearer silhouettes and cohesive colour schemes!
Is Anime a style that translates well into later career and school? How much of our first love in art can we carry with us as we progress in our career?
And do you like the way in which Anime handles character design?
All the screenshots above are taken from Danganronpa 2: Goodbye Despair, and Danganronpa V3 - Killing Harmony. I whole heartedly recommend the whole series (If you can stomach a bit of flamboyant and dramatic)! So check them out.