By: Elyse                Categories: General

A well-designed character has the following characteristics:

– It will be immediately recognizable and relatable.

– It will be have a recognizable shape or silhouette.

– It will reflect the personality of the character.

– It will have physical attributes that complement the content of the story.

– It will be able to complete the actions that are required by the script.

– It will be interesting to watch.

Searching for the right gopher. Sean McNally character design sheets for Gopher Broke, Blur Studios

Recognizable and Relatable

In the animated short, we need to set up the story, tell the story, and get out. There is precious little time to get to know your character. Therefore it helps if we understand the character’s personality and function the first time we see him. If your character is a weird part-alien, part-human, part-machine creature, we need to know immediately if we are for or against him, if we like him or hate him, how he works and why. If this isn’t clear you will either lose your audience or waste time trying to explain the character. The point is to engage your audience, and to construct empathy, concern or at least curiosity about the character as soon as possible in the story.


Shapes have inherent meaning. Circles are organic, cyclical and innocent. Squares are human-made and solid. Inverted triangles are strong (think of the chest on a superhero). Upright triangles have a lower center of gravity. They can be subordinate, complacent or content (think of the nerdy scientist). Sharp angles and diagonals are dynamic suggesting tension or danger.

Most characters are constructed from a combination of basic shapes. The relationship of the shapes to each other will determine the visual interest that your character will command. The goal is to have a nice contrast of size, shape, and proportions that will express the personality of the character and meet the needs of the story. If you have more than one character, you want each one to have visibly distinctive traits. You will need to put them in contrast to each other, each made out of different combinations of shapes, proportions, exaggerations, and details.

For example, in The Triplets of Belleville, Sylvain Chomet created distinctly different and geometric figures:

Of the characters, many have geometric silhouettes because it is a silent movie. The characters cannot be recognized by their voices. So when they are far away or even when they appear in a scene very fast we need to know, okay, that is this character. So the audience doesn’t get too confused. So when they see something that looks very small like a yogurt pot, they know it is Madame Souza and an enormous square-ish character in black, they know it is the Mafia. This is also something you can do with animation which you cannot do with live action.

The characters are quite convincing because of their shape and also probably because they have lives on their own. They have a story and they are just like us—they live, they suffer, they exist, they can get hurt, and they are so natural.

Mme. Souza in Belleville. Sylvain Chomet, Triplets of Belleville

When you begin a character, begin by thinking in shapes. Style and details can come later. What are the basic shapes that communicate the essence of your character?


Excerpt from Ideas for the Animated Short by Karen Sullivan © 2013 Taylor & Francis Group. All Rights Reserved.

About the Book

From demo reel creation to festival shorts, students and professionals alike are creating animated shorts that are dynamic and eye catching but the time constraints of these shorts are challenging in their own right. The unique format of the animated short of two to five minutes in length presents a practical and aesthetic challenge that is rarely addressed in the classroom. Ideas for the Animated Short is a comprehensive and practical blueprint for creative and unique animated short creation with a focus on the strength of a compelling story. A comprehensive guide to the animated short, this title is an invaluable asset for aspiring animation professionals, students and independent filmmakers. Explore the process of developing a short from conception to final delivery and adapt the industry’s best practices in your own workflow. Written by four leading animators, artists and professors, Ideas for the Animated Shortis written from the unique perspective of a professional animator adapting creative stories into incredible animated shorts.

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