Visually Relatable Characters

When we think about character appeal it is generally like how Frank and Ollie address it in their book The Illusion of Life, we often think about cute, fluffy and cuddly creatures or personalities that look pleasing to the eye. However, this is not the case for cute and fluffy this type of appeal may work for a certain type of character, it does not work in the case of other characters with different characteristics and views. As an artist we think of appeal in the sense of the design and how it should be drawn, etc. that nobody wants to see an ugly drawing… yes, this might be one way of observing the appeal of the character but the design alone does not make them completely relatable to the audience.

Think of people you see walking in the streets, they are strangers to you; or people’s profile pictures you see online when you receive a notification or invite by someone unknown to you. As human’s we have poor judgment of what we see around us, and this is a fact that dates back for centuries. When we look at something, we decide in an instant if we like it or we don’t. How we perceive one another is a big flaw in our genetics. So, what I’m trying to argue is that design alone does NOT make a character relatable to an audience in the slightest… then comes the question that my team and I have pondered this past week… How do you make something visually relatable?

Visual design can spark an interest in the subject that is being presented; but, there is something needed to take that a step further and this is… appeal of character – Who that character is? How they think and feel? All associates to how relatable your character will be perceived by an audience. It is our human traits that make each of us unique and it is that of which we instantly admire about our characters, “how relatable they are to me“.

My team researched to find a better understanding of what makes a good character design. We looked to JOHNKSTUFF blog spot, as our source for information, something that attracted my attention to his post was his list of the different elements we as the designers must think about before drawing our characters. I will only be listing these points in this post; if you’re interested in reading further about this topic you can visit the link: JOHNKSTUFF – Disney Principles #4 Appeal.

Proportions: cartoonists magnify the things we find interesting and shrink the things we find ugly or boring.

Big heads, small bodies, big hands sometimes etc.

A good cartoonist draws emotions rather than precise accuracy or realism.

Personal style: Some artists just have naturally appealing styles. Rod Scribner and Chuck Jones can take Bob McKimson’s basic structures and make them prettier. Fred Moore can take a character designed from generic circles and draw him with flair and appeal.

Animators who draw well but don’t have strong appealing individual styles benefit from having good designs to work from. Design and appeal are not 100% the exact same concepts but they overlap.

Rhythm: Freddie Moore is the basic Disney master of appeal, and lots of people have copied him superficially yet still find appeal an elusive concept.

Control of variety of shapes: This is what good designers do. It’s slightly less intuitive than personal style because you have to intellectually create new shapes and combinations, rather than just rely on a gifted hand that makes every character look good.

You can be too intellectual though and have clever combinations of odd shapes that are intellectually stimulating but not very fun to look at.

Surface details: Disney has more surface details on their characters than Warner’s.

Balance of shapes: The spaces between your design elements have to be just right in order to have a pleasing balance. The Disney animators pursued this goal to an almost mathematical perfection. Bambi evolved from earlier Disney deer that had less pleasing proportions, balance and surface details. Once they nailed that balance, they used it on scores of characters for the next decade and feared trying anything new, untilUPA and Ward Kimball purposely broke this mold and did ugly on purpose just to teach Frank and Ollie a lesson.


(Image reference: GrizandNorm – Body Shapes design tip)

Something more interestingly that I read about recently on p.g. 52 of I Tawt I Taw A Puddy Tat: Fifty Years of Sylvester and Tweety, by Jerry Beck.

The enormous success of the first teaming of Tweety and Sylvester attested to by the fact that even today people often refer to Tweety as “Tweety Pie,” which was the title of their first cartoon and was nothing more than a pun on the loving expression “sweetie pie”. The film “Tweetie Pie” solidified the personalities of both character, at least as far as the Freleng unit was concerned. The two characters were never directed by any of the other units as a pair, although Sylvester was used by other directors. The year 1948 saw the release of Chuck  Jone’s version of Sylvester in “Scaredy Cat,” and the cat had his first encounter with a “giant mouse” named Hippety Hooper in Rober Mckimson’s “Hop, Look and Listen”. Jones created a unique personality for Sylvester in “Scaredy Cat”, completely different and totally hilarious. Sylvester is a silent, timid, and scared pussycat companion of Porky Pig as they spend their first night in their new home – a gothic mansion haunted by dozens of killer mice. All sorts of nightmarish things begin happening around the duo…

What intrigued me most about this was something I remembered Chuck Jones had mentioned in his documentary Extremes and Inbetweens; he mentions that he thinks of his characters as actors and like an actor, you can place them into any role. Which is interesting and this can be both a good thing and a bad one, as in some cases we get used to certain personalities for certain characters and it works. Then when someone else comes along and ruins that by doing something different with the character it runs the risk of falling flat; in other cases this quality is what makes good characters immortal and timeless. It also shows that the definitive idea for a character’s personality may not be the only one.

Appeal in Disney and Pixar Films

This section comes from research one of our team member’s Julie discussed with us, part of our research was to discover how appeal affects our emotions and attitudes to the protagonists, antagonists and supporting characters of a film from the likes of Disney and Pixar. Here I have copied what Julie found in her research here:

Walle- influences of war and time and rustic apocalyptic style. He is old and rusty and there are lots of newer looking robot characters around him, making the audience feel for him.

 Finding Nemo- appeal is heightened with the use of light and colour in the underwater scenes. characters have big expressive eyes which adds to the appeal.

Tangled- the characters have appeal with their use of colour.

(Image source: Wall-E Model SheetWall -E Concept ArtFinding Nemo Concept ArtFinding Nemo Concept Art 2Tangled Concept ArtTangled Concept art 2)

Talk to your Audience Through Drawing

I am re-reading Walter Stanchfield’s Drawn To Life,  the book is not specifically focused on character design, but I find it a fascinating read to understand the important formulas needed to create a feeling from the audience. How the audience will think and feel about a drawing or design of a character.

Try to forget “singing” (drawing) to the audience – just tell the story.

You’re telling a story – so just talk to them (on the tones and melody of course). When drawing you’re capturing a moment or personality of a character that speaks to who they are. You want to tell this in the most enjoyable and creative way you can. You don’t want to burden your audience with how much you know or don’t know about anatomical physics or how well you draw belts and dress seams. Just tell the story with simple, easy-to-read gesture drawings.

63 Body Language

Body language is vital to animation. The uses of body lanuage in visual communication from subtle ey movements to great sweeping bodily gesticulations. Each of these movements has meaning and has been developed to a high degree of spontaneous understanding between people of like cultures.

There are some non-verbal messages that are “universal.” These are basic human emotions such as joy, sorrow, anger, tenderness, submission, domination, fear, surprise, distress, disgust, contempt, and shame. It seems these emotions are tied in with the physiological structure of humans. Some scientists (who study kinetics) believe that the brains of all humans are programmed to react bodly in a similar fashion to these emotions.

Other forms of body language are either learned by copying, or by strict codes or rules devised by individual cultures. Often these gestures are the exact opposite from those of other cultures. For instance, nodding the head in our Western culture’s non-verbal way of saying yes.There are societies in India, however, where nod of the head means no.

Messages of the body are used to establish one’s “space,” of which there are many kinds – personal, social, public, territorial, etc. Body language is used to reveal one’s social position, one’s attitude, and one’s needs; also there are gestures of love, friendship and hatred. Gestures are used to create an “image” of self as honest (watch the candidates on TV), sexy, or physical or caring, etc. The kinds of gestures and their uses are practically limitless. Every gesture we make or contrive is used to explain our thoughts or actions and the degree to which we display the movements establishes our character as extrovert or introvert, aggressive or passive, thoughtful or insensitive, comical or tragic.

In animation, of course, the story and its character dictate the typesof gesture needed. In most cases whatever the character, caricaturing the action is necessary to “punch” the business. Caricature is the animators means of making sure there is no doubt in the viewer’s mind what is being portrayed. John Lounsbery animated what he thought was a cute Italian gesture for Tony,the waiter, in Lady and The Tramp. The director, Geronimi, knowledge knowledge in Italian matters, suggested he change it because it happened to be an obscene gesture.

Poetry can, for instance, be nebulous and suggestive in order to evoke personal images in the mind of the reader, but a cartoon has to “read” in an instant with no need for retrogression. In a film, everything unfolds at 24 frames a second and all must be “spelled out” so everyone arrives at the ending at the same time and with conclusion. Gestures that “ring true” are needed to attain the goal. Practice, observation, constant sketching, “osmosis,” and een emulation of the Disney masters past and present should be among your daily pursuits. Drawing gestures is like using body language – it requires the context of an entire situation (story) to be thoroughly meaningful.

We learn drawing by studying parts; we practice drawing by assembling those parts into a meaningful whole.

Here are some drawings Joe Ranft’s sketchbook, done recently on a trip to Australia. They are what I call “unselfconcious” gesture drawings. As you study them you will see that there was no attempt to impose upon them any more than that they record some activity (body language) in its most direct and simplest form. In every drawing he seems to fuse the gesture into the context of the situation he has chosen to draw.

(Incidentally, this “handout” was triggered by reading the book, Body language by Julius Fast.)

Creating the physicality of the character is particularly important when it comes to capturing their characteristics, in the design process of the character you, the designer, would need to nail down the personality of the character early on before script and animation begin. I feel this section taken from the book Drawn to Life, perfectly explains the importance of gesture in creating and visually explaining emotions of the character.

Appeal in a character does not mean that they have to look “pretty“. Making a character interesting – in body shape, personality/character trait and design is also an important aspect when creating a character for an animation or movie. I am going to add some more video references here to show how other artists work their characters to an appealing design.

The first video focuses on one of the most important principles of animation: Appeal. It’s interesting to see how shapes can improve and make a character more interesting to look at, with so little detail in the design. Shapes have meaning; and in particular, simplistic shapes are recognizable when we consider – silhouette.

Exclusive First Look at Justice League: Mera


I recently came across this image for Mera from Justice League, not knowing a lot about the character myself, it is intriguing to see how instantly I relate this character to an antagonist. Triangular shapes and patterns are embedded in the character’s design. Triangles are commonly used in the design of a villain; because of their hard/sharp pointed edges which incorporate the feeling of tense, unnerving and aggressive.

Click on the link above to watch the behind the scene video for the character design of Mera.


When a Pixar artist is designing a character there are a number of areas they explore to ensure a successful character design.
Research and evaluate
It can be helpful to try and deconstruct why certain characters and their characteristics work and why some don’t. 
 Study other characters and think about what makes some successful and what in particular you like about them.

Who is it aimed at?
Think about your audience. Characters aimed at young children, for example, are typically designed around basic shapes and bright colours.
Visual impact
Whether you’re creating a monkey, robot or monster, you can guarantee there are going to be a hundred other similar creations out there. Your character needs to be strong and interesting in a visual sense to get people’s attention.
Exaggerated characteristics
Exaggerating the defining features of your character will help it appear larger than life. Exaggerated features will also help viewers to identify the character’s key qualities.
Colours can help communicate a character’s personality. Typically, dark colours such as black, purples and greys depict baddies with malevolent intentions. Light colours such as white, blues, pinks and yellows express innocence, good and purity.
Conveying personality
Interesting looks alone do not necessarily make for a good character; its personality is key as well. A character’s personality can be revealed through animations, where we see how it reacts to certain situations. The personality of your character doesn’t have to be particularly agreeable, but it does need to be interesting (unless your characters is purposely dull).

Express yourself
Expressions showing a character’s range of emotions and depicting its ups and downs will further flesh out your character. Depending on its personality, a figure’s emotions might be muted and wry or explosive and wildly exaggerated.

Goals and dreams
The driving force behind a character’s personality is what it wants to achieve. T0ften the incompleteness or flaws in a character are what make it interesting.

Building back stories
If you’re planning for your character to exist within comics and animations then developing its back story is important. Where it comes from, how it came to exist and any life-changing events it has experienced are going to help back up the solidity of, and subsequent belief in, your character. Sometimes the telling of a character’s back story can be more interesting than the character’s present adventures.

Beyond the character
In the same way that you create a history for your character, you need to create an environment for it to help further cement believability in your creation. The world in which the character lives and interacts should in some way make sense to who the character is and what it gets up to.

Fine-tuning a figure
Question each element of your creation, especially things such as its facial features. The slightest alteration can have a great effect on how your character is perceived.

Link to tips on character design at Pixar Animation Weebly.

Reading List:

Beck, J. (1991) I Tawt I Taw a Puddy Tat: Fifty Years of Sylvester and Tweety. 1st ed. New York:Henry Holt & Co.

Character Design. (2016) Available from: [Accessed 15 October 2015]

Disney Principles 4 – Appeal 1. (2008) Available from: [Accessed 15 October 2015]

GrizandNorm (2016) Tuesday Tips – Body Shapes. The Art of GrizandNorm. Tumblr. 23 August. Available from: [Accessed 15 October 2016]

Hewitt, C. (2008) CONCEPT ART, LIGHTING STUDY: SPACE TRAVEL, WALL·E, 2008 Available from: [Accessed 15 Otober 2015]

Oh My Disney. (2014) Amazing Tangled Concept Art You’ve Never Seen. California: Walt Disney Company. Available from: [Accessed 15 October 2015]

Teriman, D. (2011) New Book Highlights Pixar’s Fantastic Art. Available from: [Accessed 15 October 2015]

The Art of Tangled. (2012) Available from: [Accessed 15 October 2015]

The Concept Art Library. (2015) Available from: [Accessed 15 October 2015]

Vejvoda, J. (2016) Justice League: Exclusive First Look at Amber Heard as Mera. Concept Art. Available from: [Accessed 15 October 2015]



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