Art, Cartoons, Comics, Design, Manga

Cartoon Character Design: Creating a Character with Appeal

Today, I’d like to talk a little bit about character design.  Specifically, I would like to address the question of how to take a traditionally intimidating character and making them into an appealing protagonist.  We’re going to talk about the decisions that led to taking this:blog pics 1 copy 2

To this:

Mort ice cream


Before we go doing a point by point design on each of these characters, it would behove me to go a little bit into the language of character design.  Cartoon characters are the actors of cartoons.  Where actors have charisma, cartoon characters have ‘appeal’.  Unlike actors who have to work for and practice their charisma, cartoon characters have to be designed with their appeal.

The first thing a cartoonist takes into account with designing a character is the intended personality for the character.  Every kind of personality elicits a different series of shapes.  I like to think in terms of the following diagram:

blog pics 1 copy 4

When designing Mort, the goal was to take an often sinister and imposingly drawn figure and remove any vestiges of threat from him. Mort is meant to be a reliable and affable workaholic; he’s a nice guy with a dirty job that tries to make the best of things and keep a positive attitude.  That means we needed a character that had little to no triangular shapes in the design.  Points should be rounded with few exceptions.  He also needed to be cute, not just for any demographic either; he needs to appeal to a Chinese audience.  To accomplish this, we employed a classic design trick that is frequently used in both western and Japanese design.

The key to cute is all in the shape of the head.  Friz Freleng used this trick when he created Porky Pig, and Bob Clampett would go to use the same trick later on when he used Tweety Bird.

blog pics 1 copy 5 blog pics 1 copy

Do you see it?  If not, take a look at this Japanese answer to the same design trick.

blog pics 2 copy 2

In Japanese, this large headed, short bodied character style is referred to as ‘Chibi’.  It incorporates the use of a big head and a big eyes, but more importantly, just like the previous western designs it uses a similar head shape.  Cartoonists have known for a long time that in order to affect a ‘cute’ character they need to place a larger circle on top of a smaller circle.

blog pics 2 copy

                                                Behold, the essence of CUTE


In order to exact this particular head shape on a skeleton, it made more sense to simply remove the lower jaw.  After that, it was a simple manner of giving him a short, stumpy body much like a Japanese Chibi character, giving him massive eyes, and then rounding out almost all of his potential points.  As you can see from the character design, Mort only retains two pointing elements in his design:  one on the top of his hood, the other on the bottom of his robe.  We even went as far as simplifying his hands into little ball shapes in order to reduce the number of angles in the character.

Mort in China

By reducing the angles, using a basic ‘Chibi’ design, and making the eyes extremely large we have created a character that so far has solid appeal for his target audience.  He is approachable, non-threatening, and not scary in the slightest.  So far Mort’s reception has been everything we hoped to be.

I hope this has been useful in helping you to understand a lot of the decisions that go into cartoon character design.  If you have any questions please let us know in the comments, or if you would like to see more blogs like this in the future regarding other characters in the books, feel free to comment.

I would also like to know  who is your favourite cartoon character?

4 thoughts on “Cartoon Character Design: Creating a Character with Appeal”

  1. Hey there! I’ve been loving your posts! Let’s see… favorite cartoon character… I guess it would depend on the cartoon! Are we talking more of toons from paper or animation? The original Teen Titans animated series on Cartoon Network was always a favorite of mine, and I really loved Robin as a character. But I think what made that show especially successful during that time period was that it had a mix in animation styles; it incorporated the more serious type, similar to that as seen in Batman: The Animated Series, but also drew into the anime style of Asia during the comedic moments, such as sweat drops and the use of chibi. I also remember watching a lot of Toonami with Dragon Ball Z and Sailor Moon at the time.

    As for paper, I grew up more with newspaper comics because we couldn’t afford comic books at the time. I always looked forward to reading things like Calvin & Hobbes and Beetle Bailey in the newspaper. Mort definitely reminds me of the latter in terms of curves.

    Liked by 1 person

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