I was recently reading a comic book and I had a hard time telling the characters apart, because they all had a similar face shape, similar facial features and similar body types, and it got me thinking about face shapes.
I think sometimes when artists are first learning, they're taught to draw a generic face shape and then they stick with that shape. I also think that when people are designing characters for a "serious" story, they think they can't caricature the shape of the face too much or their drawings will start to look "cartoony" and not appropriate for the serious tone of their work.
But even in real life, there's an incredibly variation of shape within the faces of people. The University of Massachusetts has compiled a database of faces from all over the internet. It's categorized in several different ways, but to give you an idea of how big it is, here's what you get if you click on the category "first names that start with Jav through Jes".
So that database is a great resource if you're looking for face inspiration.
I think if you're working on a comic book, or animated film, or any other endeavor where you're got to design a group of characters and you want them all to have a distinctive look, you ought to make a "Bible" of what face shape each character has so they're instantly recognizable, even in a rough scribble.
I challenged myself to see how many different face shapes I could come up with in three minutes, using the same facial features for each one. Here's what I came up with:
So you can see the kind of variety you can get, even in a quick exercise like this. Once you start creating variety with the features within the face, you can see how easily each character can have a very distinctive look and would never be confused with another character.
Here's an interesting flow chart from a beauty website that's supposed to help you figure out what kind of face shape you have. Some might find it to be a helpful tool in generating faces. It incorporates jawline and hairline shape as well, which I think could be very helpful.
And here's another picture from an online article where they break the basic face shapes into these seven categories (and also talk about the best type of haircut for each):
In the comic book that inspired this post, all the men had beards, which made it even harder to tell the characters apart because all the beards looked the same. Again, I think artists can fall into the trap of thinking there's a standard beard "shape", and then they repeat that on every character. In reality, there are as many variations in shapes and types of beards as there are faces. Here's a sample of the variety you can get just by Googling "beards":
Or you could check out beards.org to see a wide variety of beard types. Again, I challenged myself to come up with beards for my face shape template in a minute. This is what I came up with:
The whole thing about making choices of face shapes, facial features and beard shape is that it should all come from the personality of the character you're designing. Every choice you make should accentuate and enhance the personality of your character. In that regard, it's always best to base your characters on somebody that actually exists, at least as a starting point.
If you're designing a shifty, weasely type of character, you might look at actors who seem to play those type of roles (say, Steve Buscemi or Paul Giamatti, etc.) and ask what gives those actors that kind of appearance. So whatever type of character you're designing, look at actors who play those type of parts and look for ways to get that look into your character.
Even better than actors would be to base your characters on people you know. That can lead to much more original and interesting designs. So think about the people you know and what type of personality they project, and why. Getting that type of thing into your own characters is really satisfying and makes them really rich and unique.
Finally, it can be tempting to rely on color to distinguish between characters (like, say, these two characters look similar, but one has red hair and one has blond hair). You never know if your work will be seen in black and white, or reproduced without color. And then there's people who are color blind...they may have a hard time with discerning between the two characters. You never know.
So, if you're working on a comic book or an animated movie and you're creating a group of characters, I think it'd be wise to sit down and make a chart of the different character's face shapes so that you have a guide to keeping them separate from each other and distinct.