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Character design refers to the creation of the aesthetic, personality, and visual appearance of a character. But sometimes they just miss the mark.
Let’s take a fun romp through some of the worst characters ever designed. Along the way, we’ll learn where they went wrong and what you can do to avoid similar mistakes!
Need help creating a good character?
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What makes a bad character design?
When designing a character from scratch it’s inevitable that you will encounter a few speed bumps. But if you avoid the following pitfalls of bad design, you’ll be well on your way to creating a memorable, unique character design.
Bad character design pitfall #1: Weak silhouette
The true test of any character design is the strength of its silhouette. A silhouette shows the shape of a character void of any detail and is fundamental to a robust design.
A strong silhouette allows your character to be immediately recognisable and provides insight into their personality.
If you can't make out who your character is by it's silhouette, it needs reworking.
B.O.B. from Monsters vs. Aliens is a perfect example of weak silhouette.
Is it B.O.B.? Gumby? A skinny Jabba the Hutt? It's hard to tell.
Bad character design pitfall #2: Too much complexity
Are your characters unnecessarily complex?
Viewers and readers are more likely to be attracted to simple designs that focus on a few key features.
Desperately complex characters are generally less memorable, problematic to read and can be difficult to draw repeatedly throughout a story.
Take the following example from Final Fantasy.
Two belts, multiple swords, badges, knee nickels, shields and some sort of ankle funnel. And is that pizza in her napsack?
Note to the designer. Remeber the acronym K.I.S.S.? Keep it simple, stupid!
Bad character design pitfall #3: Lack of moral ambiguity
The beautiful golden-haired princess, the brooding rebel boy without a cause, the absent-minded professor, or the black-masked criminal. These are character elements that come up time and time again.
Are your characters stereotypical or clichéd?
Push yourself to find new ways to develop your characters and communicate their traits.
We can’t all create the next Yoda or Darth Vader, but the inclusion of a morally ambiguous or nuanced character can elevate your story to the next level.
Bad character design pitfall #4: Impassive features
For your audience to understand and instantly relate to your character you need to draw life into your creations. A dynamic, expressive character will evoke a range of emotions in your viewers or readers.
Tell your story with believable personalities by emphasising facial expressions and body postures.
A lack of expression is a key trait of bad character design and one of the reasons your characters could be failing to connect with your audience.
Dull animation, overly serious and unlikeable characters gave Delgo the unwanted title of lowest grossing computer animated film of all time in 2008.
Bad character design pitfall #5: Poor use of color
A weak color palette can destroy an otherwise outstanding design. It’s easy to get excited and slap on too many varieties.
Character designers need to be strategic with the use of color. Typically, there should be one dominant color and a few supplementary colors that will support it.
Be selective and avoid using too many competing colors. Due consideration also needs to be given to the contrast of colors in a background or environment.
Sloppy and competing colors may be the least of concerns for producers of direct-to-video animated film Foodfight. The movie lost an estimated USD $65 million.
Bad character design pitfall #6: Lack of exaggeration
Exaggeration is a familiar element of character design and storytelling. Characters need to be unique and distinctive to ingratiate themselves with your audience, so don’t be afraid to go wild with shapes and colors.
By overstressing certain physical traits you can elicit an emotional response from an audience. For example, a super-intelligent character may have a disproportionately sized head.
Look for opportunities to accentuate features of your character to improve the design.
Caillou has been referred to as the “world’s most universally reviled children's program”, a curious reaction to the relatively uncontroversial tale of a four-year-old boy.
Perhaps the character is too “normal”.
More examples of bad character design
We’ve all made mistakes with our characters, but are you making these mistakes without noticing them? Here are a few more examples of poor character design to review before you embark on your next project.
Mortal Combat is considered one of the greatest arcade games of all time by critics. Developed in 1992, the designers used a common technique of re-coloring and recycling character models.
The use of this cost-effective approach is understandable. However, in this instance, the characters look ordinary and demonstrate a weak silhouette.
Fortunately, the creators of this iconic game have since fleshed out each ninja with unique designs and power sets.
While this Azrael Batsuit is intentionally “un-Batman”, the character design of Jean-Paul Valley’s batsuit during his brief tenure as Batman still leaves a little to be desired.
Predominant issues with the design include a poor use of color and impassive facial features.
Rob Liefeld created fictional superhero and master swordsman, Shaft, in 1992. The leader of “Youngblood” was featured in the Image United crossover as recently as November 2009.
The character design of Shaft may be considered overly complex, and without his accessories the superhero has a rather weak silhouette.
A positive aspect of the design of the characters in Air is the simplicity of the drawings.
However, they cast a weak silhouette and each of the characters feature the same bizarre, wide-eyed designs with limited emotion.
Despite, despite being considered one of the “20 worst character designs in anime history”, the animated TV series still achieved a solid 7.2/10 rating on IMDB.
Xenoblade Chronicles 2
While this game character may have some ardent fans, objectively, it meets some of the criteria for poor design.
Her outfit is overly complex, with competing colors and no clear color hierarchy.
From a functional perspective, the outfit offers limited insight into the character, and her face is impassive.
Good vs bad character design
It may come as no surprise that in order to create a good character, you need to do the opposite of what we discuss here.
To learn more about good character design, and what allows some of history's most memorable characters remain etched in our minds, check out our article on the 7 principles of good character design.
And if you need help creating an excellent character of your own (without all the pitfalls mentioned in this article), there are hundreds if not thousands of character designers on freelancer.com who can bring your awesome character to life!
Characters play a central role in any narrative. While incorporating good character design into your work can make a story memorable and original, poorly designed stories or underdeveloped characters often fail to convey a message effectively.
Whether a character design is good or bad can be controversial and is open to interpretation. However, overly complex, ordinary, impassive designs, with a poor color palette or weak silhouette are unlikely to expose a character’s unique personality and generate a lasting impression.