Symbolism & The Art of Leveraging Intuition to Build Character

Let’s start with intuition. What we usually refer to as intuition is our ability to understand something immediately without the need for conscious reasoning. We do this by taking all of our past knowledge on a subject, and then quickly coming up with a generalized idea. Humans tend to be really good at this and depending on the situation, it can be really good or really bad. Good because we can access information quickly; Bad because we overgeneralize.

For more information on this, I highly recommend reading Thinking Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman (no really, it’s an awesome book).

What this means is that we make powerful associations with certain imagery almost instantaneously. Without realizing it, we have cultivated a visual lexicon of symbols and visual shorthands that are utilized for communication every day. Though most people in our society are literate, the same principles that were used to create cathedrals for the illiterate masses are still being used today.

The next thing to note is that some symbols/imagery carry more weight than others. To illustrate, let’s look at a widely used icon that doesn’t carry much weight:

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In our tech savvy society, it’s pretty much universally understood that this is the symbol for “save”. However, the reason this symbol doesn’t carry much weight is because its meaning is not firmly rooted in our history of human experiences. Many people don’t always associate the act of saving with technology, and to make things worse, this particular piece of technology is obsolete. With the passing of time, the association between icon’s image and its meaning become further and further distanced.

That doesn’t necessarily mean the save icon is bad, but it is a good illustration of how not all iconography are created equal. Though it works for a certain context, weak associations can cause it to easily become irrelevant and age badly. Other examples of visual short hands that don’t carry much weight also include stereotypes (ex: Asian means smart) and marketing trends (ex: blue means boy).

So what are some examples of symbols that do carry a lot of weight? To look for the titans of iconography, we have to study the stories that weathered the tests of time: Myths and folktales. 

When you start to study myth and folktales, you can see similarities in the way symbols are used throughout different cultures. That’s because the most powerful symbols tend to be rooted in a universality of the human condition.

  • Water = life/rebirth
  • Red = blood/danger/valor
  • Flowers = youth/beauty
  • etc… so many…

What makes these strong symbols are not just the fact that their meanings are closely tied to their image (I’m bleeding… red = danger!). It’s also the sheer number of times the color red has been used in the same symbolic manner that reinforces its emotional meaning. A symbol can be used often because they have strong associations, and because it has a backlog of uses that span an entire culture’s history. This is another reason why many symbols that have a lot of weight are typically found in old tradition.

Here are two really great resources for studying themes that run across cultures: The Hero with a Thousand Faces by Joseph Campbell for mythology, and World Tales by Idries Shah for folktales.

Now that we’ve seen symbols on either side of the weight spectrum, let’s see how symbols, both light and heavy, can be utilized to create character.

As an example, let’s look at some of the most popular characters in modern society: pop stars. Using music and image as their primary channels, pop stars embody an image or character that is used as a shorthand for a concept/aspect of life. (Kind of reminds me of Greek mythology honestly). One notable example that I’ll be talking about is Beyonce.

So how is Beyonce branded? You are free to disagree with how successful her team was in accomplishing this, but I would argue that Beyonce is used as a symbol for “diva”, “pride”, “strength”, and other similar concepts. And now look at this image:

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Nothing says powerful like a queen does. Alright, let’s break this down. Though not quite a part of her character design, it’s important to note how she’s lit in this picture. Around her, we can see a halo (I can see your halo~… hahhh…). A halo is one of the oldest tricks in the book to denote a holy figure. Could there possibly be one that also has deep blue flowing cloth draped around her? One that works perfectly in order to symbolize strength and femininity? How about the Virgin Mary?

From here, we can start working our way through other symbols like gold and jewels signifying wealth and royalty, as well as the visual commentary of a black woman in the role of a European queen. I also want to make a note of the light weight symbols that didn’t make the cut. Notice that the blue of the Virgin Mary (and royalty) won over blue signifying “boy”. Also how gold and jewelry signifying royalty won out over it being gaudy.

To make clear, I’m not saying that Beyonce wants to replace the Virgin Mary. I’m not even saying that her team did any of this consciously. Like I said, symbolism is the art of leveraging intuition. The reason her design is so compelling is because we (including her design team) have seen imagery, like the Virgin Mary, used in a particular way many many times. We’ve internalized it, and having imagery that’s associated with that deep backlog of experiences is powerful. By utilizing and recombining imagery, you can communicate on a deep emotional level instantaneously using a visual language that’s been used for literally all of human history.

And with that, I’ll end with an excellent video by Nerdwriter1 about the multiplicity of symbols in Guillermo del Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth. Thanks for reading!

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Personality Leaking Out of Their Bodies

There’s a lot of gripe about being obsessed with physical beauty in this day and age, but if anything, we face exactly the opposite problem. Rather than physical beauty reining supreme, it is actually image that reins supreme. In photography, having nice physical features is a good start, but ultimately what’s more important is being photogenic, being able to retouch a photo (including Photoshop), setting up lighting, etc. So what is it exactly that we lose when we conflate “physical beauty” with “image”? Hint: It’s a key element in creating good character.

At its core, physical beauty is “presence”. A thing most poignantly experienced in person–In the flesh–In the meat space. An example: The most gorgeous specimen of the human species walks into a room, but rather than be wowed, all you can think is, “Jeez, this person gives me bad vibes…”. Or another: You see a person with the most magnetic personality in a group of friends, the one that makes everyone’s faces light up and has some metaphorical but unmistakable twinkle in their eye– Yet their physical features are what you’d call homely. What I am describing is when some deeper part of a personality is projected through demeanor. It’s almost like personality leaking out of their bodies.

A good general rule of thumb to remember:

  • Image: Emphasis on skillful use of visual medium.
  • Physical Beauty/Presence: Emphasis on personality + physical features.

So, a nice photo shoot can make for some pretty damn good images but the images that best capture character almost always feel candid. Why is that? Presence is defined by how visual design and acting are working together. If at some point it’s hard to delineate whether you’re designing a look or if you’re making your character act, you’re probably doing it right. To get to this stage, start asking questions like:

  • How does the character carry themselves?
  • How does the character interact with their surroundings?
  • How do people generally feel about the character?
  • How does the character generally feel about other people?
  • What is the character’s “default” face?
  • Does the character take up a lot of space with their posture or gestures?

An example: A constantly angry character who has very arched eyebrows that look aggressive even when they’re smiling.

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Another example:  An incredibly shy character who wants to hide from the world. Why not have their visual design help them do that?

Violet from “The Incredibles”

I’ll end with a picture of the Harry Potter trio all wearing the same uniform in their own way. Also Ron’s face.

From “Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban”. Hermione left; Harry center; Ron right.

Thanks for reading!

Making Person Stew

To start, let’s look at this character:

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What would you expect from a character like this? She probably has a high pitched voice and exhibits the usual anime tropes, right?

But then what happens if I said she was actually Hitler’s soul trapped in a little girl’s body? The perception of the character changes and suddenly her daintiness adds another layer of interest. Because of the shift in dynamic, the overly saccharine visuals now make the character MORE intriguing, not less.

That’s not to say that visuals and writing must always be in opposition with each other, but it does draw attention to an often overlooked mindset that is crucial to making great characters.

When crafting a character, each aspect of the character should NOT be created in vacuum.

A character’s writing informs what parts of the visual design need to be enhanced, and vice versa. (Same for movement and audio, which might be covered someday… maybe.)

An example of a character design that works because the visual design and writing build on each other:

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Genos from “One Punch Man”

On first glace, Genos looks (and acts) like a slightly blander version of every pretty boy action hero. His visual design alone isn’t terrible, but I’d hardly call it iconic. So why does he work as a character? By all means, if “One Punch Man” were like any other action comic, Genos would have been the hero of the story. However, because of presence of Saitama, the ludicrously powerful protagonist, what would have been Geno’s epic story arc was interrupted. Instead of playing the handsome tragic hero, Genos has now assumed the role of the sidekick/student. With this context in mind, his design actually works. He still looks cool but not iconic enough to be mistaken for the main character and what was initially a mediocre character is made hilarious and complex as he is asked to play a role that his cardboard tropes weren’t designed for.

So the takeaway? Good character creation is not just about visual snazz, but about how individual elements that make up the character combine to make a greater whole. Like cooking a Person Stew, you can’t always save a bad batch by dumping in tons of salt and sugar.

From here, I’ll start doing a deep dive into visual topics (like expression/acting, silhouette, color, and symbolism) and give examples as to how they can be utilized in a given character. And with that, I’ll end with Bioshock Infinite concept art by Claire Hummel and a video about constructing Elizabeth.

Video | Concept Art

Thanks for reading!