Introduction: Designing a Cartoon Character With Shapes

About: Allos, I am Nikki, and I'm a highschool animation student. I like sunsets and long walks, but mostly I like holing up in my room and doodling.

Remember that super fun game you used to play in grade school where you and all your snot nosed friends would take turns closing your eyes and smacking your hands blindly against each other's faces to try to guess who they were? No? Oh, yeah, I never played that either.

But here's the point (yeah, I plan on making points periodically in this Instructable, prepare yourself) it's hard to tell who's who when the lights are out. So when creating a character, you have to be aware of shapes so your creations don't end up looking like a bunch of little clones (as cool and sci-fi as that might sound). Think of it this way, if all your characters were silhouettes, would a person be able to tell them apart? If you answered yes to this question, good job, you can now close this Instructable and continue surfing the Web for cute cat pictures. JUST KIDDING, you are now legally obligated to finish reading, it's in the contract, small print, you must have missed it, don't bother going back to look, you're just wasting your time, it's really small print.
SO ANYWAY, if you said no, this is the Instructable for you; and even if you are reading this thinking it isn't, well JUST SIT AND KEEP READING, because I'll now explain why it IS. Ahem--there are no rules of creating a character. I can give you suggestions, you can Google it and read other people's suggestions, but that's all they are, suggestions. It all comes down to you to decide what works for you and what doesn't, but the more information you have in your arsenal of how-to-make-a-character-ology, the better chances you have of not creating bad characters. Or at least think of it this way, by the end of this Instrucable, you won't be any stupider, right? (It's up in the air at this point) 

To help you along, I will also make a character with you during this time. It's almost like we're friends, eh? 

Step 1: Choose a Body

AND CHOOSE WISELY! because unless you're going for the contrary look, like a lanky body builder or a buff wimp, shape makes the character. If you're using your character in an animation or even a comic, the watcher/reader won't always be seeing your characters from the same angles, so they won't always see their faces. It would be boring to read a comic where all the characters are shown head on, right? If your characters have different body shapes, its no problem for someone to tell them apart (you wouldn't ever get Patrick Star and Spongebob Squarepants mixed up, would you?).

Here I've shown only a few basic shapes that I've used in a cast of characters I plan on using for an animation. The first is the fat Half Oval which is good for characters who are stout and low to the ground. You could also stretch the Half Oval vertically to create an entirely different effect. I've also used the Rectangle for my overalled character, because it helps to develop the idea that she's a bit of a tomboy, don't you think? The Pear shape is a bit softer and rounder, but contrasts with this characters personality (you can tell by that pleased look on her face). Lastly, my favorite shape is the Triangle which is technically called a Trapezoid,  but the idea still applies. This shape works for this character because hes a bit of a meat head, all his brains are in his muscles. This shape can also be reversed, then it could be nice dress. 

There's no specific way to use the shapes, as well as there are probably a million different shapes out there. If you're feeling particularly uninspired, look at an old learning book that you had to read when you were little, where they tried to teach you all those shapes with weird names like rhombus. Usually a certain shape will strike you as interesting. If that seems like too much work, you could also turn on cartoons and try to see shapes in all the characters. Inspiration comes from EVERYWHERE!!!

For my character I'll be making with you, I've decided that I like the look of an oval for his body. I chose this shape because he his going to be a lanky, unattractive person. 

Step 2: Get Ahead (get It?)

Did you know: Hammerhead sharks use their wide, strange looking heads to trap stingray against the sea floor. That's interesting right? Okay, now that that's out of the way, onward to heads (and not the hammer kind).

I have a head, therefore I know about heads. You also have a head (I hope) but for the purpose of this Instructable, let's just pretend you don't know about heads. Okay? Okay.

Firstly, we must realize that heads come in limitless different shapes. I can only cover so many in these constraints of time and space and all that jazz, but by the time we're done, you'll get the idea on how to work and rework basic shapes to suit your specific desires for your character.  
There are four basic shapes of heads I've encountered in my long time of being a head expert. They are as follows: Rectangle (and for all you Anal Andrew/Annes out there, a square is a rectangle because all a 'rectangle' entails is that its a quadrilateral--four sides--with four right angles, EAT YOUR HEART OUT SHAPE POLICE!) Circle, Oval, and lastly Triangle.
There are also subsections of these four categories, which you can see in the photos attached. A circle, by nature, cannot be altered or it's no longer a circle, so there are no variations of that one obviously. The oval is a little more flexible  and when I say that, I mean that you can turn it sideways. That's about it. If you bend it it becomes a blob, not an oval anymore. The rectangle on the other hand, still remains a rectangle if it follows the laws I stated above, so there are probably a million variations. I've included three basic ones that derive from the Generic Rectangle: the Oblong Rectangle, the Drunk Rectangle, and finally the Inverted Drunk Rectangle. These are all good for different looks. For instance, the Drunk Rectangle gives the impression of an overhanging brow, implying that your character is dull or crude, like a Neanderthal. The rectangular head itself is good for characters who are meant to come off as strong, probably because of the sharp angles. REMEMBER THOUGH, rules can almost always be manipulated, there's no rule book telling you that General Fancypants of the Imperial Resistance can't have a weak, dribbling chin and plump cheeks, or little Jimmy with braces, playing YugiOh! can't have a jaw significantly sharper than any Jaws Spielberg directs.
The triangle can also be tweaked to your liking, and as you can see from the photo, there are two variations of triangle, the Generic, and the Inverted Triangle. The triangle is fun to play around with, because it gives the character an interesting look (maybe they're an alien, maybe it's a condition, I don't judge).
All of these shapes and their variations can be changed around, like I said, there's no rule book. Some shapes are good for conveying a characters personality than others though, for instance, a character who is innocent or immature may have a round face (like a child), or a character who is sly or shifty may have a triangular face (like a fox).  Characters with ovals faces sometimes show height and thinness, so maybe that would be a good choice for an awkward, gangly teenager. Remember though, anatomy still applies, even if loosely, to cartoon characters, so try to keep your characters heads in proportion with their bodies, unless that' s your point. Yeah, I see you Bratz....and Rugrats.

So now that we've learned a little about head shapes, I've decided that the best choice for my character today is the oval head, a classic combination with the oval body, like peanut butter and jam--if the jam were also peanut butter, so really just peanut butter and peanut butter. BUT HEY, peanut butter is good, so I don't see the problem here.

Step 3: Embellish the Face

Bodies may be the first thing your viewer sees, but the face is what they will pay attention to. Have you ever been having a conversation with someone and they are concentrating on something other than your face (mind out of the gutter, please)? It's not likely, unless you're hideously malformed, because humans are hardwired to relate to other humans faces. That's why when we get soup at a restaurant  sometimes we'll see a face in the noddles. It's our nature to find faces. We use faces and their expressions to understand how the people we're around feel, so if your characters look like their wearing those creepy white masks, no one will be able to connect with them. In cartooning, you don't need to go all out, but if your characters have interesting and diverse features, they are far more exciting for readers/watchers.

Here you can see a snazzy little chart with SOME examples of noses and eyebrows to make your character's faces a little less plain. Noses are a fun thing to play around with, you can make them as long and big or small and snouty as you want. just make sure that a huge nose doesn't obscure the rest of your character's face. One of my favorite noses is one I like to call the Triple U which is number 1 on the chart. It can be thin or wide, long or short, it's all up to you. I've also highlighted in red nose numero 2, the Oval, which gives a very different impression than the Triple U, doesn't it? Next to that is your basic Triangle, and on the end is the Circle. All these noses help to create different looks for characters that reflects their different personalities, for example a character with a long, crooked nose give a different impression all together than a character with a straight, button nose. 
It's also important to think of your character from different angles, so deciding of their nose in profile is a good thing to do. Try to remember that anatomy still applies even in cartoon land, so if a nose looks one way head on, try to keep it similar in profile. Some profile noses i have highlighted here are the classic Hooked Triangle (number 7), and next to that the Halfpipe, followed by the Stairway, and on the end, number 11, the Rectangle.

Eyebrows are also a very important (and in my opinion, the most exciting) part of the face. You can probably tell how much I like them from the pictures in this Instructable. You can literally do almost anything with eyebrows, they can be so big they take up half the face, or they can be nonexistent. Once again, they help to develop a look for your character that can drastically change how your viewers see them. Angled, sharp eyebrows can give the impression of someone who is sly, whereas thick, low eyebrows can give the impression that your character is ornery or even dense. I've highlighted two that use the basic shapes we've talked about, number 13, the Rectangles, and number 14, the Curved Triangles

Something that I think is worth mentioning is paying attention to where you place the features on the face also. Wide set eyes make a character seem very different than if they had eyes close together. Also, pay extra attention to the latitude of the features. A large forehead can sometimes be an indication of brain size, but not always. Look at the people around you, you may notice things about your friends you never did before, like how ugly they are. Or maybe you find they weren't as bad as you thought. 

So for my character, I think I'll go with a round but lumpy nose, a narrow, sneering mouth and some big ugly bushy eyebrows. And wrinkles. I've decided my character is going to be evil. I've also added details like clothing, in his case, a frumpy hoodie and some stupid pants.

Step 4: Live the Technicolour Dream

Now that we know all about heads and their embellishments, let's revisit our strange group of friends again. We can observe with our new found skills, that the man holding the loaf of bread on the left has an Inverted Drunk Rectangle for a head with classic Rectangular eyebrows, the robot girl next to his has the Oblong Rectangle head, the girl with the fancy pants a Circle, and our astronaut pal has an Oval. What do these heads make you think about their personality? Really? Awe, that's nice, let's move on.

Okay, so, we've got the black and white all covered, but now we have to focus on their overall appearance, the make it or break it step in creating a character. And by break it I mean, make it evil. (Which is good too, confusing, I know). From the photo below of the nice bunheaded woman and bushy eyebrowed man, what can you tell about the importance of colours? These characters are drawn the exact same way each time, but the colours used for them create very different impressions. The colouring of your characters is a defining moment in their conception. Some colours work better to create a certain image in your viewers head than others, for example, remember villains like Frollo from the Hunchback of Notre Dame, Zurg from Toy Story, Captain Hook from Peter Pan, or Jafar from Aladdin? A few things they all had in common were their tall, thin, cloaked bodies, but also the colours purple and red. These colours together help give the impression of a character who is evil. Think now about colours that apply to protaganists. Just one example of a combination of good colours are blue and cyan (think Finn from Adventure Time, Blue from Blue's Clues, or Capcom's Mega Man). 

A common mistake that artists or writers make is thinking all evil (or else on the fence in the morality department) characters need to be dark in colouring. In the drawing of the bushy eyebrowed fellow, you can see I've used light colours, yet still kept the evil about him. Cool or pastel (non contrasted) colours help to enforce his scary image. Take a look at the cast of characters again for a moment and decided what their colourings say about them.

 So with all that said, I've decided to choose dark blue for my character's hoodie, and gray for his pants. I especially like the colour I chose for his skin, which is a nice shade of sallow yellow, because he's evil and ugly. 

Step 5: Practice, Practice, Practice!

So there you have it, these are the steps I usually take in aesthetically designing a character. You can see my final design of my villain down there, and he's looking quite vile if i do say so myself. I gave him a few extra things so hes not floating in white space and added shadow to his face. He;s now ready to go out and troll and terrorize small children. 

Even now that you're done designing your character, it's good to still keep working on designing different types of characters; do it just for fun on a Sunday, have a sketchbook dedicated just to doodling characters and ideas. Practice, practice, practice makes perfect, so don't get lazy! With great power comes great responsibility!