Practical Tips on Realistic Character Design
Written by  Daisie Team
Published on 10 min read


  1. Study human anatomy
  2. Research character background
  3. Create a character profile
  4. Design character wardrobe
  5. Use reference images
  6. Practice different expressions
  7. Give characters flaws
  8. Consider character environment
  9. Show, don't tell
  10. Test your design

Have you ever gazed at a character sketch and marveled at the depth of its realism? The subtle play of muscles, the flow of costume, the spark of life in the eyes - achieving such a level of realism in character design can seem like magic. But it's not. It's a combination of skill, study, and practice. This blog will guide you on "how to improve character design in realism?" with practical tips and strategies that you can put into action right away.

Study Human Anatomy

Let's start with the basics — the human anatomy. Knowing the structure of the human body is a fundamental step in creating realistic characters. It's like the foundation of a house; get it right, and everything that comes after will be so much easier.

  • Bone Structure: Begin by studying the skeletal system. Understand the basic structure and proportions, such as the length of limbs in relation to the torso. Remember the details, like how the collarbone connects the shoulder to the chest.
  • Musculature: Once you have a grip on the skeleton, move on to the muscles. Learn how they overlay the bones and define the shape of the body. Pay attention to how muscles contract and relax with movement.
  • Skin and Hair: Finally, don't forget the skin and hair. Notice how skin folds and stretches, how different lighting affects skin color, and how hair moves and falls.

Studying human anatomy might sound like a task for medical students, but trust me, it's a game changer for character designers. It helps you understand how the body works, and that understanding shines through in your art. It's one of the most effective ways on how to improve character design in realism. So, grab an anatomy book, or check out an anatomy app, and start exploring the amazing machine that is the human body.

Research Character Background

Ever found yourself designing a character, only to hit a wall and realize you have no idea who they are? That's where background research comes into play. It's like a roadmap for your character design journey, providing you with a clear direction to follow.

  • Origin: Start by deciding where your character comes from. Are they a city slicker or a country dweller? Their place of origin can influence their look and demeanor, adding depth to your design.
  • Profession: What does your character do for a living? Is she a firefighter, a teacher, or a space explorer? Their profession will determine their wardrobe, their physicality, and even their personality traits.
  • Personality: Is your character cheerful or brooding? Outgoing or introverted? Their personality can affect their body language, facial expressions, and overall demeanor, making your design more believable.

Researching your character's background gives you a rich tapestry of details to weave into your design. It informs how they dress, how they move, and how they interact with their world. And all these elements together can significantly improve your character design in realism. So, next time you sit down to sketch, don't just dive in—take a moment to get to know your character first. You'll be amazed at the difference it can make.

Create a Character Profile

Now that you've delved deep into the background of your character, it's time to get down to the nitty-gritty. Creating a character profile is like piecing together a puzzle — each detail helps paint a clearer picture. But how do you go about it?

  • Name: Choose a name that fits your character's personality and background. Remember, a name can say a lot about a character, even before they've said a word.
  • Age: Decide on an age for your character. This will influence their physical appearance and maturity level, contributing to the overall realism of your design.
  • Appearance: Sketch out your character's physical features. Think about their height, build, skin color, hair style, and any distinguishing marks or scars. These details will make your character unique and memorable.
  • Skills and Abilities: What can your character do? Do they have any special skills or abilities? This could range from being a whiz at solving puzzles to having the ability to fly. Remember, these should be consistent with their background and profession.
  • Goals and Motivations: What drives your character? What are their aspirations? Understanding their motivations can help you design a character that's true to their character profile.

Creating a character profile is a critical step in designing a realistic character. It helps you understand your character better, making it easier to design them with realism and depth. So, if you're wondering how to improve character design in realism, creating a detailed character profile is a great place to start.

Design Character Wardrobe

Imagine meeting a character who's a firefighter, but they're dressed in a tuxedo. Confusing, isn't it? The way a character dresses tells a story about who they are and what they do. So, when it comes to improving character design in realism, fashion is more than just a side note — it's a key player.

  • Occupation: What does your character do for a living? Their job will likely determine a large part of their wardrobe. For example, a detective might wear a trench coat and hat, while a chef would wear a toque and apron.
  • Personality: Is your character bold and outgoing or shy and reserved? Their personality can influence their fashion choices. An outgoing character might prefer bright, attention-grabbing colors, while a more reserved character might stick to neutrals.
  • Environment: The climate and setting where your character lives will also impact their clothing. You wouldn't expect to see a character living in a desert wearing a heavy coat, would you?
  • Era: If your character exists in a specific time period, ensure their clothing reflects that era. Research is key here to capture the style accurately.

By dressing your character in a way that aligns with their profession, personality, environment, and era, you're not just designing a wardrobe — you're adding another layer of depth and realism to your character. So, if you're looking to improve character design in realism, don't overlook the power of a well-thought-out wardrobe.

Use Reference Images

Ever tried to draw a bicycle from memory? It's trickier than you might think. The same holds true for character design. Using reference images is a practical way to improve character design in realism. Reference images serve as a guide, helping you capture the nuances of real-life forms that memory alone might miss.

  • People: Using images of real people can help make your characters more lifelike. Pay attention to details like skin texture, eye shape, and body proportions.
  • Objects: If your character has a unique item — say, a musical instrument or a specific piece of clothing — find images of that item to refer to. This will help you depict it accurately.
  • Environments: If your character lives in a specific place, use images of similar locations. For example, if your character lives in a treehouse, find images of real treehouses to help you design their home.
  • Movements and expressions: To capture the essence of different emotions or movements, look for images that showcase them. You'll find it much easier to draw a character running or crying when you have a reference to work from.

Keep in mind, reference images are just that — references. They're meant to guide you, not to be copied exactly. The goal is to use these images to inject a dose of realism into your character, not to create a carbon copy of someone or something else. In the quest to improve character design in realism, reference images can be your best friend. They offer a dose of reality that memory sometimes can't, making your characters more believable in the process.

Practice Different Expressions

Real people are rarely poker-faced. They smile, they frown, they look surprised, confused, or thoughtful. One effective way to improve character design in realism is to make sure your characters do the same. Expressions can tell a story all on their own, and mastering them can bring your characters to life.

To start, pick a few basic expressions: happiness, sadness, anger, surprise, and fear. Draw your character displaying each one. This might feel like a challenge at first, but remember—practice makes perfect. The more you draw your character's expressions, the more natural they'll become.

Once you're comfortable with the basics, try adding complexity. How does your character look when they're happy, but trying to hide it? How about when they're scared, but trying to appear brave? These subtleties can add a deep layer of realism to your character design.

Let's not forget body language. A slumped posture can signal disappointment or exhaustion, while a straight spine might indicate alertness or confidence. Combining facial expressions with body language can create a fully-realized, believable character.

So, if you're wondering how to improve character design in realism, remember this: emotions are not just worn on the face, they're carried in the body, too. Practice different expressions and body languages, and watch as your character takes on a life of its own.

Give Characters Flaws

No one is perfect, and your characters shouldn't be either. One common mistake in character design is creating characters that are too flawless. Believe it or not, it's the imperfections that make characters feel real and relatable. If you're seeking ways on how to improve character design in realism, consider introducing flaws into your characters.

Flaws could be physical, such as a scar, a limp, or an unusual birthmark. These details not only make your character more visually interesting, but they can also hint at your character's backstory. Was the scar from a childhood accident, or from a recent battle? These are the questions that keep your audience engaged.

Character flaws can also be behavioral or personality-related. Maybe your character is stubborn, or forgetful, or has a quick temper. These traits can affect how your character interacts with others, shaping their relationships and driving the plot of your story.

It's important to remember that flaws should not just be for show. They should be integral to who your character is. If your character is forgetful, for example, how does that impact their daily life? How do they deal with it? Do they write everything down, or do they rely on others to remind them?

Creating a character with flaws—real, meaningful flaws—can make them feel more human. It can make them more relatable to your audience, and it can add depth and realism to your character design.

Consider Character Environment

When it comes to realistic character design, the environment in which your character lives plays a significant role. It's not just about where they are, but how they interact with their surroundings. Let's explore how to improve character design in realism by considering the character's environment.

Think about where your character lives: is it a bustling city, a quiet village, a desolate wasteland, or a magical realm? Each of these environments would influence their appearance, behavior, and lifestyle. For instance, a character living in a city might have a more modern and polished look, compared to someone from a rural village who might wear more practical, durable clothing.

Environments can also influence a character's physical features. For example, a character living in a cold region might be bulkier due to layers of clothing and a heavier build to withstand the cold. On the other hand, a character from a desert area might be leaner, with darker skin from constant exposure to the sun.

More than just physical attributes, the environment can shape a character's personality and beliefs. A character from a peaceful village might be naive and trusting, while one from a war-torn city might be more cynical and hardened by their experiences.

So, when designing your character, remember to consider their environment. It will not only add depth and complexity to your character but also make them more believable and realistic.

Show, Don't Tell

One of the most valuable tips on how to improve character design in realism is the classic advice: "Show, don't tell". This means instead of telling your audience about your character's traits, you show them through the character's actions, words, and decisions.

For instance, instead of telling your audience that your character is brave, show them. Have the character face a dangerous situation head-on, or stand up for someone who can't defend themselves. This way, you're not simply stating a fact — you're providing evidence that brings your character to life in a believable and engaging way.

Let's say you're designing a character who is known for their intelligence. Instead of bluntly stating "John is intelligent", you could depict him solving complex problems, or engaging in deep, thought-provoking conversations. Actions truly do speak louder than words, and they paint a more vivid picture in the reader's mind.

Showing, not telling, also applies to a character's emotions. Rather than writing "Sarah is sad", show her tears, her quietness, the way she doesn't smile as much. This approach provides a deeper level of emotional connection and helps your audience to empathize with your characters.

So, as you work on your character design, remember — don't just tell us who your character is. Show us. It's a surefire way to improve character design in realism.

Test Your Design

Once you've put in all the hard work and creativity to design your character, it's time to take it for a spin. This is where testing comes in. Testing is a great way to see how your character resonates with others and, importantly, how to improve character design in realism.

Start by sharing your character with a small group of people. This could be friends, family, or fellow artists. Ask them to provide honest feedback. It might be tempting to only hear the good parts, but constructive criticism is key to improvement. Be open to it.

Next, pay attention to how they react to your character's physical appearance, personality traits, backstory, and other elements you've worked on. Do they find them believable? Do they feel a connection? Can they relate to their struggles and triumphs? These are the kinds of questions that can help you refine your character and make them more realistic.

Another useful approach is to place your character in different scenarios. See how they would react if they were angry, scared, or ecstatic. This allows you to explore their emotional range and depth, which can significantly enhance their realism.

Remember, no character design is perfect from the get-go. It's through testing, tweaking, and refining that you can create a character that not only looks real but feels real to your audience. So don't skip this crucial step in your character design journey.

If you're eager to take your character design skills to the next level, be sure to check out the workshop 'Drawing Compelling Expressions in Character Design' by Rory Duke Stewart. In this workshop, you'll learn how to create lifelike and expressive characters that will captivate your audience and make your designs more realistic.