What is good character design?
Different people will have their own ideas about what helps the design of a character (including myself), but over the past few years I’ve begun to consider more how the elements often described as contributing to character design are a kind of double-edged sword.
Take the idea that a character should have a unique look achieved through simple yet elegant means, and that they shouldn’t be mistaken for anyone else in the cast. This is ideally achieved through stylization, and to some extent exaggeration. For example, I find the character designs in Heartcatch Precure! to be fantastic, and part of this is achieved because the girls are varying heights, and that their distinct personalities come across very clearly in the way they look. However, that same dedication to simplicity and really conveying a character’s particular characteristics through their appearance are the same tools that can be used to, for example, create harmful stereotypes. How do you make a character look more Asian? Give them squinty eyes and buck teeth, because that will immediately communicate their Asian-ness.
Of course, there’s a significant difference between making a character that expresses their uniqueness through their design, and drawing to conform a character to a general stereotype in that one is about individualizing and the other is about generalizing, but I think that the two ideas exist on the same spectrum. Take for example a political cartoon mocking a particular politician through the use of symbols and signs meant to represent that individual. A large hooked nose in this case might become the symbol of a racism against Jewish people in another context. The very tools artists use to express ideas of love, equality, and growth can also be used to spread hatred, discrimination, and regression.
I am pro-freedom of expression, so I do not believe in restricting even the more negative and harmful uses of art, but I do understand that a price is paid as a result. Images persist that can strip young people of confidence, make them feel as if they never have a chance in the world. While one way to combat it is to provide even more positive images, the inevitable difficulty is helping them to navigate all of the disparate messages without necessarily forcing them to be blind to everything that’s out there. When the strategy to helping others out is to block their access to material that might change them, then that itself can become a problem.
I myself don’t entirely know the point I’m trying to get at, but I believe it’s something along the lines of “artists have a lot of responsibility.” Whether you use your art to fight for a cause, against one, or just want to draw things that are cute, cool, gruesome, even actively traumatizing, that is a decision to be made, and to be felt, and you it is good to be prepared for the consequences that arise.
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This may actually be conflating two separate points. I think it’s one thing to say “characters should be distinguishable from one another” per the silhouette method. “Who’s That Pokemon?” or the various Smash Brothers reveals over the years wouldn’t have worked as well were it not for adherence to that tenet. In general, I don’t really see much downside to that.
But I think it’s another thing entirely to say “characters should convey their personality through appearance.” There are times where I dislike that philosophy. When you can take one look at someone and conclude “well they’ll definitely be evil!” or what have you based solely on how they look, and the characters have nothing to them beyond what you can discern at first glance, that design philosophy exposes a certain simplicity. Simplicity isn’t automatically BAD, but that is the part that can lead to “people who look this way are that way” stereotyping.