Distinctive Silhouettes

One of the panels I attended at Comic-Con was Bryan Tillman talking about character design—or more specifically, visual character design. I came, I saw, and needless to say, I started thinking about how to apply what I’d learned to prose, to the point where I ended up following up on the jokingly oft-repeated exhortation to buy his book. (Blogger’s note: I might write about the book itself later, but suffice it for now to say that it’s a pretty good explanation, involves more on process and meta than a lot of the art/character design advice I’ve seen, lot of witty one-liners and overall was pretty good—though it’s very much written with a “male hero is the standard” mentality and a corresponding approach in the examples that annoyed me somewhat.) There was, in particular, one detail that stood out: “A strong character needs a distinctive silhouette.”

It’s not too hard to figure out why. A distinctive silhouette lets you get the character across in black and white, in a far row of a crowd, backlit in a window, on a logo somewhere… you get the idea. It’s straight visual memory. Moreover, forcing characters to have different silhouettes means having to make them markedly different (tautological, I know), and along with the overall this-feels-like-a-real-world advantages of not having all the characters seem like they stepped off the same cookie cutter, it also forces us to think about why they’re different and what that means. Then we get back to the original benefit: people can tell them apart at a glance, and each character has an individual presence that makes them more memorable.

So why does a silhouette work, and what role does it play?

When we get down to it, a silhouette is shorthand. Like a logo or a distinctive uniform, it ensures that a character can be recognized on sight without taking too much time to take in features. It works in foreground or background; a character doesn’t have to be taking center stage for the silhouette to be recognizable, so they can wander through a panel or two without having to slow the pace too much.

What goes into it?

Body shape—height, width, proportions, pretty much any part of it really—and head shape. Clothing, particularly if it has a shape beyond that of the body it covers (think epaulets and other shoulder adornments, poofy sleeves, ruffles, that sort of thing). Hairstyle. Headgear. Accessory-type things. Weaponry, sometimes—assuming, at least, that the character’s the sort to always have it out and/or wear it in a way that actually changes the silhouette, and that the weapon’s part of the concept. Basically, visual details adding, modifying or conferring distinctive shapes work together to create the silhouette as a whole. Internal details might look cool, but they really don’t show up when backlit.

How does this get into my usual cross-disciplinary approach? If silhouettes work this well for art, there should be something that creates a similar effect for prose. Tomorrow, I’m going to look into what the writer or words-only roleplayer’s equivalent of the distinctive silhouette is.


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  1. Distinctive Silhouettes in Prose | Exchange of Realities
  2. Impractical Applications (Characters in Silhouette) | Exchange of Realities

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