Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Animal Characters: Striking a balance.

Hiya, Rachel here. I'm the artist for Four Kingdoms, doing my best to bring Alex's story and characters to life.

I've always adored animal characters in stories and film, ever since I was little. Even today, I still find animal characters to be (almost invariably) more interesting than human ones. But why should that be, if I'm human myself and respond to humans more than animals in real life? The thing is, these characters are essentially human, for the most part – they have human personalities and character traits, and some even walk on two feet, talk, and wear clothing. We can identify with them just fine, even though they're animals on the surface.

I also think that there's a certain freedom to working with animal characters – since they're not 100% realistic humans, you're already expecting the audience to suspend a little disbelief to accept and empathize with the characters as they are. Suddenly if your character needs to accomplish a deed outside the capabilities of a regular person, he can do it because he's not a regular person anyway – he's a cougar or wolf or mouse or whatever. This especially helps when the character's animal traits work with their accomplishment (such as, a squirrel character climbing all the way to the top of an monster oak in minutes – which no human could believably do).

These animal traits can also enhance the experience, especially when it comes to animal gestures that we as humans still understand. When Ren the Fox feels sad, his ears may droop. That would be a ridiculous thing to happen to a sad human, but it is a foxlike gesture we can take advantage of... especially in a comic like Four Kingdoms where we experience the story visually. Animal gestures (like all the hairs on a tail standing on end, or a whisker twitch) can add a new level of expression to the human body language the character is already exhibiting, and makes it even easier to avoid stupid, lazy “telling not showing” dialog such as “Sob! I'm so sad!”

So for me, it all boils down to the human/animal mix that's so intriguing about these creatures. Animal-humans act like us, but are not restricted to purely human mannerisms. This principle also drives the way I've handled the character designs for this story.

One of the things that drives me crazy about a lot of the “furry” characters I've seen around the internet is that there is often way too much “human” thrown in the mix. Say we're looking at a fella known as “Simon the Wolf” ...who is basically a wolf head on a fuzzy human body with a tail. Or even worse, maybe Simon's head is actually humanoid with a small black nose and wolf ears. It's only slightly nonhuman, so it looks really weird and creepy to me – like the “Uncanny Valley” concept that deals with only-slightly-off humanoid robots. If it's 99% human, that other 1% creeps us out because it looks wrong. The less human it looks, the less we expect it to look and act like a perfect human... making it easier for us to accept it for what it is. Making sure there's a healthy dose of “animal” in there also makes the use of animal-specific talents a lot more feasible. If a bird-man just has a beak and no real wings, can we really accept it if he suddenly flies off into the sunset?

So for the Four Kingdoms characters, it was very important to me that they still read as a definite animal, rather than as a weird human with fur. The otters have long bodies and shorter limbs, while the wolves have more shoulder and neck mass than the others. The tails are not just cute little animal “souvenirs” pasted on so much as a definite part of the characters and their overall gestures. All the races' legs are a pretty even blend of human and animal – they walk on their heels, but the leg bones and muscles have a more animal look than human. There's also the matter of female anatomy – due to the high percentage of "animal" I want to retain in the characters, this can make specifying gender a little tough. While the surface anatomy can be treated in a more human way and still not be creepy, I prefer to let the facial features and general body shape do the feminizing. Clothing can help too, of course.

The end result of all this is a cast of characters I can do a whole lot with when it comes to expression and acting. A wolf guard can do much more than curl his lip and lean forward to be intimidating – he can bare his razor-sharp fangs, hunch over his victim, neck-fur bristling, and speak in a literal growl. An annoyed feline scholar can let one of his ears tilt back, unaware that he has lost the illusion of calm stoicism. An ermine's already long and limber body can be forced into an even more exaggerated cringe under the angry Wolf's eye, or be exploited for more impressive-looking acrobatics than a human could manage.

I say, if you're going to make the leap and make the characters non-human: use it! Keep them identifiable with the audience, but take full advantage of their non-human qualities. And that's what we're striving for with our characters in this comic.