The Difference Between a Character and a Character Design

Bakuman, Ch.8 Pg. 13

This is a fascinating conversation to have, the difference between a character and a character design.

The featured image comes from a comic I’ve read a couple times called Bakuman, about a couple of young fellas who decide they want to be mangaka as a profession. Narratively, the story is great, but there’s also a lot of insight into the profession and nuances of the business and craft of comic art.

The assemblage of visual and narrative details, the design of a character is easy to do, but difficult to really tune in. It’s tricky to take that and flow it forward into what is actually cohesively a character, not simply a design.

A character design just on its own is fun to product. You get to assemble and adjust visual elements and produce somethin pleasing to the eye, and more readily equipped to connect with an audience because of the human element present in most illustrated works. But something still ends up missing.

It’s incredibly easy in the act of creative production to end up with something that is only really what you see and nothing else. A “flower pot”, to borrow an expression from Louis Sachar. Pretty to look at, but empty inside. There’s not much more value in the work beyond being able to look at it for a moment and feel the dopamine produced by the image itself.

So then where do we find the ground here? How do we locate the connection from “design” and get forward into “character”?

Manga in Theory and in Practice, Page 60,61

One element of this discussion is to address not simply the visual component, but to address a more holistic vision. In the quest to create a character, you’re essentially trying to fabricate a person from the ether.

But a person isn’t simply the shape of their features and the clothes they wear. Where is this person from? What have they seen in their lives? Where do they come from and where are they trying to go?

Who/what do they love? Who/what do they hate? What do they care about above all else, and what are they doing about it?

And then where you find the real sauce in the art of character, how does your character and their loves and values react with/against another character and their loves and values?

My friend Gaston (@captainmolasses) is at least somewhat actively exploring this in his own work through a number of small comics. His art is pretty great just as it is, but the real juice in it is not just the way the pictures themselves look, but in the humanity we get to witness when he designs scenarios that bring out the quirks, edges, and virtues of the characters.

This is also what energizes the characters in our favorite works of fiction. Archetypal characters are excellent and a joy to write around, but the human elements of passion, devotion, commitment, conflict, and sacrifice connect with us in ways that neither single-dimension types nor technicolor shadows ever could.

The power of “story” in art is only ever more amplified with a well-woven story knitted into our characters. This is the difference between a character, and just character design.

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