On this page you find some thoughts on character design using puppetry as example for some aspects and a description to build a large hand-puppet in the style featured by Malmö Dockteater (Malmö Puppet Theatre) and Malmö Stadsteater (Malmö City Theatre) for download as a pdf-file here. The puppet is simple in its construction and cheap to built, not at least as it can be built from waste-material. It features no strings nor rods but is rather controlled by a puppeteer placed directly behind the puppet in simplified Bunraku-style.
Character Design is central for telling stories - you cannot tell a story without having objects or figures act in specific - characteristic - ways. It does not matter whether these ways of behaviour are in line with expectations, i.e. whether they are typical or even stereotypical or whether they differ from expectations.
All kinds of narrative contexts ask for figures that are detailed enough so that they are believable and convincing in their specific context. Very different routines exist on how to develop figures far enough, so that they work well or even get a live of their own (kind of). In acting, some people imagine and develop background stories for the characters they play, so that thy can fill them with individual mottivation and induviduality (method acting goes much further, obviously - how one does method acting on theatre stages while switching between different plays on alternating days, I have no clue). Anyway: figures benefit from backstories and differentiated ways of behaviour etc. Striking examples are avatars in games that only make sense to be played because of the narrative diversion and personal investment of thoughts on individual abilities, inabilities, ticks, and traits. In Role Playing Games you cannot even play properly if you have not developed your figure in detail so that you have something to set against the behaviour of other players (for a more detailed discussion see my booklet on Schlaraffia that looks in detail into the development of chivalric avatars in that RPG). Generally, when developing specific characters that are supposed to drive a story's development forward, it helps to understand and design them in relation to each other, the story's "figure constellation" - remember the standard of Hollywood-storytelling: oppositions clash and the story is easily developed and driven by that...
Not only figures themselves but also environments are important for constructing and communicating character traits or developments of figures in a narration. E.g. in some comics, backgrounds are designed specifically to express emotions and moods, in some plays, the stage design represents the figures' state of mind as well. A lot of comics do so, too, but comics are quite close to theatre plays, anyway. Models of environments and three dimensional sculptures (well, rough sculpting...) help enormously in fine-tuning figures and their individual details.
Interieurs need furniture: My favourite for models is Thorsten Lövgrens Kotte Toys - offering plywood-model kits of all kinds of chairs (and some other furniture) scaled 1:10 and 1:12 (see images above). Easy but also more difficult kits are available - and even models of the cow and horse from Björn Berg's illustrations of the Emil stories by Astrid Lindgren. And these can be used as skeleton for all kinds of animals and creatures. Used them on "my" Character Design-course at Malmö University, for example (see illustrations below). Note: cork-filling of forms to save on fimo and other bakeable modelling-mass is not recommended! It expands under heat and the figure's shell bursts...
Characters express their typical traits or personality, specific moods in body language, facial expressions, in clothing and accessories (tools, guns, baggage, etc.). The examples below indicate style in clothing and choice of seat, but most of all they prove the cork-issue mentioned above... In the following I am not going to write in detail about body language, mimics, clothing etc., but about different puppets I use for experiments in character design and - of course - puppetry. Of course, body language is one of the crucial tools in puppetry, so always keep in mind that the puppet in play is using some of the mentioned areas, indeed!
The following example of a glove-puppet is a neutral head, which can be individualised by adding different noses, eyes, or hair. These are held in place with double-faced tape or safety pins. When a specific figure is fully developed, the features could be glued to secure them in place, but the head would lose its adaptability, of course.
All rather typical figures, those in the above. With animals we refer to types much more freely, presumably as we know these types from all those fables. They tend to lack individuality - and it is quite difficult to give individuality to an animal, if you try to design it kind of true to nature (oh, well...). The strength of these figures is their typicality, you can use them for great conversations, when you want to reduce complexity of explanations, for example. And: of course you can create individuality in the way you play them...
The following hand-puppet on the left is supposed to look like a Greylag goose (Anser anser) in natural size. I am quite fond of some of the bird-puppets that are for sale, but my hands are too large to play them well, so I had to sew my own. Mine originally had a opening in the belly, but is difficult to play through that one, so I opened it up at the breast. This restricts the usability of the puppet, it now needs to be played as if sitting or nesting, but the neck and beak are controlled better this way. The puppet on the right is a badger, made from a painted Brämhults juice-bottle. It is a simple design, too: the bottom cut out, a piece of wood screwed in as a handle to the head and the body hotglued onto the bottle's sides (image in center).
The semi-friendly chap below is typical, again. Even archetypical (link to more on stereotypes etc.) This kind of puppet is called a marotte. It is cut from poplar wood that is so scaringly white that it has influenced this figures' character quite a lot. Even dousing the wood in black tea did not change that. Material does influence character design in unplanned ways, never forget that! The form is a variation on Mr. Punch and on the Kaspar figure of the Hohensteiner tradition (the old form, not that modernised stuff, bah humbug...). I made it to be used as the courtjester's sceptre at Schlaraffia Malmöhus.
Another important area within character design is the development of all kinds of figures for puppet theatre, education, and film. A lot of subjects can be introduced and discussed in a completely different way by putting an intermediary between the audience, focus group, etc. and the interviewer, teacher, campaigner etc. It also is much easier to ventilate thoughts by making a puppet say them, the puppeteer can pretend to just happen to stand behind it...
Adult people tend to get irritated by being addressed by puppets at first, but most are able and willing to enter the playful special situation that is a conversation and interaction with a puppet. Children tend to be very interested in them, anyway. Here the lack of distance can even turn out to be a problem - but an abundance of strategies deals with this, of course.
The following glove-puppet (and a rather longish glove it is) giraffe came into existence as a by-product of discussing approaches to museum didactics with Malmö museer: they do have a real giraffe - albeit stuffed - in their foyer. And there were other giraffes in Malmö (of steel, but more about that you have to find out yourself). This one is made from potato-sacks, the eyes are cuttings of a styrofoam ball.
Other examples for puppets are the following, all based on the theme "Wiking Kings" and starting from the names of the individual kings - some developed rather far from the original setting one would assume. A series of rod puppets turned out rather large and became a blend of rod and glove-puppets - each to be played with two hands (or three, coming to that). As a bunch of wiking kings are slightly limiting the thematical options, some got figure and gender diversified. Harold Bluetoeth turned into an Elvis-impersonator (left) and Gorm the Older doubles as grandmother, and is good at it (right). Much better play now!
In the centering image the second from the right is an earlier version of the figure that turned into the blue glove-puppet seen below. The forks rattled more nicely against the pipe wrapped in plastic cast-bandages, but it was not offering the intended play-options.
This blue faced gentleman came into existence starting from the name "Sveyn / Svend Forkbeard" and turned into a relative of the muppets that stands taller than me. Quite imposing, especially, as it sports such a friendly face (wikings are not known for their friendliness, I was told...). Central is the mouth that works as the hinge between upper and lower head. The rest is constructed around it. The head is hotglued from a yoga-mat (cheap hardfoam) and covered with synthetic-fleece, which was sewed together, pulled over the cones of upper and lower head and glued onto the rim of the mouth. Nose (fleece-covered foam) and eyes (from a ping-pong-ball) were hot-glued into place. The hair is fixed to the head using a fleecing needle. The hands from blue fleece are gaffer-taped into the cuffs of the jacket, the arms are opened at the seams half-way up the lower arm where you get into the hands. The head is played by getting your other hand through an opening in the back of the jacket and shirt up the neck of the figure and into the head itself. To be able to perform longer plays (or whatever) the chest can be settled on a support-broomstick.