How to stop your characters becoming clones of each other

Making character’s faces different, even in black and white

Drawing believable faces is harder than we appreciate. It’s one of the things we look at the most, and like hands, it’s something where the smallest detail can make it look entirely off, even if we’ve placed 99% of the parts in the right location, one misplaced eye or nose can destroy the whole aesthetic.

Then there is the added difficulty of creating unique features for one off characters, or even recurring ones. When deadlines are looming, the pressure is on, giving every character their own look can falter.

Even the professionals struggle with it. Some big name artists are guilty of drawing the same face over and over.

It’s easy to pick on Rob Liefeld as an example seeing as he insists on drawing his own face onto every character, male or female. But, greats like Alex Ross also fall victim to turning every portrait into a mirror of themselves.

When so much of comics is cartooning and creating visual shorthand for things like faces, how can you make sure that you can pick your characters out in a crowd?

The easiest ways are to give your creations different hairstyles, eye colors, and hair colors, but as we’ve seen above, that can only go so far. To truly separate them from one another consider mixing and matching these three features.

Noses

There are around six to eight distinct shapes we can use for a nose without jumping into things like size or if they’ve been broken. These are effective whether you want to exaggerate them into a caricature, or to keep them more grounded and realistic. Here are a few you can use.

A Greek nose which starts at the point between your eyebrows and follows a straight line to the tip of your nose.

A Roman nose, which starts further down the face and creates a bump in the middle.

A Nubian nose which has a long bridge and a wide base.

A Celestial nose which creates an upwards curve leading to the tip.

A Hawk nose which creates a downwards curve towards the tip.

A Snub nose which is short and upturned at the end.

To recreate these simply and easily when you want to add some variety to your character’s noses decide:

  1. How high up the face the bridge will start, nearer the brow or further down between the eyes.
  2. Whether it will bend upwards, downwards, stay straight, or have a kink.
  3. Whether the tip will be level, above, or below the nostrils.
  4. How wide you want the bridge and the nostrils to be.

Mixing and matching just these dimensions can give you upwards of 36 different noses for your characters and can go along way to making it easier to tell your characters apart.

Jaw Shape

Just like noses there are distinct shapes you can give your faces to make them stand apart from the others.

Triangular where it narrows to a point.

Oblong which is half-way between a square and a circle.

Circular where the face creates a very round shape.

Square where the jaw has more defined angles.

You can also add in some extra variations with these by deciding if the jaw is inline with the character’s forehead, falls closer to the neck, or further away. Along with the noses from before, we can now build 432 individual faces.

Eye shape

This is a more subtle one that can still help distinguish different characters from one another. Here you have two key shapes of the eyes themselves, some variations on how much of the eyelid crease is visible, and the angle of the eyes.

Almond is the first shape where the whites aren’t visible beneath the irises and wider than round.

Rounded is the second where the eyes are more circular and the whites are visible under the irises.

Hooded is the first of the lid variations where the crease is very close to the top of the eyelids.

Monolid is where there is no crease at the top of the eyelids.

Downturn is when the inner part of the eye closest to the nose is higher than the outer part.

Upturn is when the inner part of the eye closest to the nose is lower than the outer part.

Does it work?

With just these options for eyes, noses, and jaws we can now build out 5,184 different combinations and we haven’t had to rely on eye color or hair color yet.

If we cycle back to the Alex Ross and Rob Liefeld examples at the top, these are things that are making those faces look so similar despite all the detail in the images. They all have the same jawlines, the same noses, and the same eye shapes. There’s no doubt that Alex Ross is beyond talented and has created some beautiful and iconic images in comics, but, if it weren’t for the hair and costume, could you tell Alex Ross’s Superman from his Aquaman, or even his Wonder Woman?

Now contrast that with something like the Simpsons. There’s a good chance even a casual fan will know exactly who these five faces below are. Even though the only thing visible is their eyes, nose, and jaw, those are distinct and consistent enough that we don’t need the costumes or hair to identify them.

In the Treehouse of Horrors episode where Homer gets a hair-transplant, we still know this is Homer, even though he has Snake’s hair.

And, we could take away the cigarette below and we would still know when Snake has taken control of Homer because his eyes changed to closer resemble Snake’s.

What next

Try creating a few characters of your own by varying the nose, eyes, and jaws. If you want to take it a step further, you could even try grouping characters with similar traits to create a “family resemblance” and add an extra layer of believability.

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