If you have any thoughts feel free to post in the comments. I would love to hear other people's theories about what makes a good character design.
This is definitely one of the first times I've ever attempted to put to words what, in my opinion, makes a good character design, and believe me I still have a lot to learn. These are just the thoughts of a hopeful 19-year-old student that likes to draw pictures.
I've observed what a lot of people seem to gravitate towards and also seen what they don't seem to notice. Have you ever gone to a movie where you were able to pinpoint that you liked a certain character? And when you thought of that character, you didn't think of the design specifically- you thought of how the whole thing fit together. Like how a character's habits, experiences, and sayings are all one thing- no one thing overpowers another.
This is something that I've noticed isn't achieved often, but when it is seen it is fantastic. And to this day I can't put my finger on what exactly makes a design so powerful that you get lost in the character- all I can really say that it's a perfect blend of design, acting, and backstory. When these three elements are handled and balanced against each other, they create an extremely powerful character. Essentially these should all be the same thing, but interestingly they are often handled separately.
Concept Art from "The Incredibles". ©Disney/Pixar
One of the first things taught in every design class I've taken is the importance of shapes. They immediately let the audience know what they should expect from the character. A fantastic example of this is displayed in The Incredibles. Every character looks and reflects their superpower. This extends to their acting as well and how the characters carry themselves. Story is constantly present in every moment these characters are on screen- a good example would be Violet. During the beginning of the film she is constantly slouching and trying to hide her face.
Her design constantly supports her habits- her body is incredibly thin and "invisible", while her hair further obstructs any comfortable contact with the outside world. Her design completely merges with her personality: one that wishes to be normal by attempting to hide her powers and, in a deeper sense, her own personality.
Screenshot from "The Incredibles". ©Disney/Pixar
As said before the design should reflect the acting of the character, along with the backstory in terms of why he or she is acting the way that they are. Animation, story and design are all elements that should work together to create a single entity. No one thing should be stronger than another.
Which has led me to a different question that I have been pondering for quite some time. Is a design more effective when you don't notice the design, or when you do? This is an interesting dilemma, since we as artists would like to believe that a design is strong when we recognize it, but is it really effective as a character at that point?
I remember something Mark Walsh said way back during my CSSSA days. It was something along the lines of, "An animation is good when it looks like someone animated it, but it's great when it looks like no one animated it." At the time I had no idea what that meant, but I feel like now I understand a little better. A character should be its own entity- it has its own experiences, habits, etc. A good design doesn't directly compliment the designer- instead it boosts the story and character to heights it couldn't of been otherwise. A good design psychologically stimulates the mind to look at the character and immediately understand what that character has been through.
Too often I see people only relying on shapes for their designs, with no real reasoning other than experimenting with how things look. While this is a vital part of the design process, it is not the only one- I encourage all designers to look as far into your characters as possible and draw based on that.
Screenshot from "Ratatouille". ©Disney/Pixar
A great example of this was displayed in Ratatouille. I remember reading one of the interviews in the art book that explained how Remy's nose was turned downward so that he could smell different foods and scents. Though subtle, it subconsciously made Remy different from the other rats. Brad Bird also mentioned that, during scenes when Remy was defeated or discouraged, he would walk on all fours as a rat normally does- however, when he is inspired he would walk as a human, on two legs.
Character design is a fusion of multiple disciplines in the animation industry- shapes, acting, and story. The shapes need to be strong enough to tell you exactly what the character is about at first sight- however it cannot overpower acting, which are the character's reactions to the story being told. It's an extremely important balance that may determine whether or not a character is believable in his or her role.