Creating Character

Art by Klaus Scherwinski and Luisa Preissler; ©AIHA; used with permission.

(A continuation of my look back at the blending of my two work cultures over the last 16 months.)

“You’ve sold the idea, but that’s the easy part. How do you bring this brainchild into the realm of reality?”

I knew early on that we didn’t want our future avatars based solely on one individual. Their strength and appeal would rely heavily on being composites. With AIHce 2015 right around the corner, we had to act pretty swiftly to take advantage of our audience.

We set up several focus groups through our Volunteer network. They helped us target a diverse group of members within that community, most of whom gladly joined us at the conference to share about their job, career path, and day-to-day activities.

But we didn’t stop there.

I really wanted a lot of data, anticipating all kinds of ways we could picture our avatars in their careers. As we hadn’t nailed down an artistic path, I wanted to make sure we got everything we could, including the proverbial kitchen sink. We talked to members at conference and via email, and set up several phone and email interviews that stretched through the summer.

A small sample of questions I tossed at our participants:

  • What is your normal day-to-day work wear? (shoes, outerwear, hair, jewelry, accessories)
  • What type of environmental extremes have you faced?
  • What’s your first exposure/experience/job within IH?
  • If you could do something else as a career, what?
  • What skills would you want someone in your position/field to have if they worked with you? To feel confident in their work?
  • List important character personality traits that you find are essential in your current position.
  • The stereotypical image of someone in your job/position includes what?
  • What’s the most dangerous task you’ve faced, and how were you equipped?

A lot of these seem strange at a glance, but they’re very valid. It’s a process similar to one I use in my game designs when setting up a new world or environment, or detailing a new main character. For instance, when trying to envision how an alien city might look, ask yourself some crazy questions like, how do they handle sanitation? What is the due process for an accused criminal? How would you describe the process for handling air/spaceport traffic?

Meet James, one of our student avatars; ©AIHA; used with permission.

Those questions force you to think outside your normal assumptions. They also help you connect to the character you’re trying to create. By asking some non-linear questions, I can begin to visualize our avatars: who they are, what motivates them, how they work, what they aspire to. This is important, because the next step is going to be crafting our main scenes, showcasing our new professionals in their native environment.

But before that step can be fully taken, we also had to answer another critical question: What is our timeframe of reference?

Certainly, the more ‘safe’ answer was the here-and-now, the present. But there were dangers with this approach, including:

  • The scene would become dated.
  • Materials, equipment, uniforms would need to be exactingly detailed to standards, in order to pass muster with our CIH experts.
  • Our avatars would be ‘stuck’ in the present.

The more ambitious answer, therefore, would to be more future-forward. But that also came with its own dangers:

  • The risk of being too ‘advanced’ and therefore, unrelateable.
  • Our avatars might be too disconnected to current-day professionals.
  • Scenes might be too comic-y and thus, not taken seriously.

However, there were a lot more positives with a future-forward presentation. We could sidestep the hyperaccuracy of tools and equipment, giving current designs a more streamlined look but remain recognizable. By using some touchpoints to the modern day, we could keep them relatable. Most importantly, using a future-forward perspective would show that the profession is still evolving and adapting to the needs of the ‘now.’

Interestingly, the more we fell into the future-forward perspective, the more it also answered the question of whether to use photography or illustration to depict our avatars and their jobs. And that’s a decision rooted deep in art and design that we’ll cover next time.

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