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A great character model starts with a great design. It's important to have good concept art to work with before you get into modeling. This is because even though modeling in 3ds Max is faster and more flexible than ever, it's still no match for good old-fashioned pencil and paper when it comes to planning out the design. If the character design that you're modeling is weak, the model will be weak as well and making changes to a finished model can be more trouble than it's worth. You may have heard the phrase "quality over quantity." That's not quite true when it comes to design--at least not completely.
You see the best path to quality is by doing a large quantity of quick sketches. Very rarely does the best character design happen on the first try. If you only do one drawing of a character, you'll never know if it was the best, because there aren't any to compare it to. The professional concept artist's secret is to do a huge quantity of drawings and only show the best few to other people. You may see the work of famous designers and think that everything they do is polished in detail beyond belief. But the fact is that most of their time is spent doing exploratory sketches that nobody will ever see.
My approach to character design is to first understand what the criteria of the character is. What is its purpose? If it's part of a story, what role does it play? You'll need to get into the character's personality and setting to truly understand how to design for it. The next thing to do is research existing people or creatures that have a similar role. Look for photos or read books about them. Get beyond the standard assumptions about what that type of character is supposed to look like. If your character is French, for example, you would want to look for ideas that go beyond the stereotypical striped shirt and beret.
Once you've collected reference material, start drawing pages full of very loose sketches. Don't worry about details or anatomical accuracy at this point. I practically scribble everything at this stage. Just work out variations on the overall shape and proportion of the character. Once you've done several pages full of this, you're ready to take what you like best about those sketches and start exploring the details. Again, I would do several pages full of sketches that deal with a particular part of the character. Sketch out lots of heads, lots of hands, and lots of props and accessories.
Give yourself time; it is going to take a while to really explore all of your options. Now that you've got lots of ideas to choose from, you can be confident that your design is at least the best out of many options. Take the best out of all your experimentations and do some more detailed drawings. These are finally the images that you would show to other people. Draw the character in several poses that would be expressive of its personality or nature. Also, most importantly for modeling, do a front and side orthographic drawing. Draw the character in a neutral pose facing head-on, as well as one from the side.
You'll want to make sure that every feature of the drawing is at the same height between the two orthographics. This is easy in Photoshop with guidelines that you can drag down to make sure that everything is at the same level. I usually scan these orthographics into Photoshop where I can even reposition things if they're not quite even. Now you're ready to send your design into 3ds Max for modeling. Character design is an art form with no absolute rules, and it can take years to truly get good at it. The most important thing is to just keep working at it.
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