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In previous installments talking about important qualities of character design, we’ve talked about how clarity is the effectiveness of your communication, and yet expression makes up an even more important part of communication.

Design is all about communicating something, so when your designs are characters that are either emulating people or personifying something, the expression that we use has to be innately human. Expression in character design is largely emotional. It’s conveying motivation, feelings, or action.

A staple of character design and animation is the expression sheet, which you can actually get in my Character Design Survival Guide, where you lay out how a character expresses happiness, sadness, joy, anger, any variety of feelings.

Going along with another quality, viability, your character is going to need to be able to express the full gamut of emotions that it’s required to.

How your character goes about expressing those things, though, has largely to do with tone.

Stage plays, going back to Shakespeare, had actors annunciating loudly just so the audience could hear them.
At the dawn of cinema, there was no sound, no spoken dialogue, people were blobs of black-and-white. So in order to express something, acting was hammy, it was big, flailing reactions and cartoonish double takes. That was the standard for acting then, and so was the tone, but can you imagine a modern film trying to convey a mature and deep story, with actors doing the same? (That would actually kind of be funny.)

But Leo didn’t get his Oscar that way. As technology has progressed, and the variety of genres and ways that we can create stories on film grew, the opportunity for more subtle acting, and a different tone arose. The characters that you design whether it be for animation or something else, will need to use expression that fits the tone. Exaggerated and spastic Looney Tune or John Kricfalusi-esque expression fit well in that tone, but more subtle expression suits a more realistic tone.

Here’s a principal and practical tips to improving your expression:

As characters like Grommit and Marvin the Martian have proven, expression is best shown through the eyes, sometimes without the need of a mouth or otherwise. The same can be said of the way poses, posture, and body language tell us what a faceless character is thinking, even one that doesn’t even look humanoid.

As an exercise, draw an expression sheet showing off a variety of emotions or feelings, and omit the nose and mouth on your character. Restrict yourself to only showing a feeling through the eyes and the pose of your character. Not only are you improving how clear your expressions are, but at times I character with only these things innately shows a clearer expression.