Character through Armor Part 1: Helmets

Hey there character designers. Hi. I think it’s time we talked about something very important: helmets.

Aren’t helmets great? They protect your head from all sorts of things. There are many different kinds, suited for all sorts of different tasks. Helmets are really important.

So why do so few of you include a helmet in your character design? In video games and movies, all too often we see fully-armored characters (in the case of videogames usually NPCs) mucking about in battle without proper head protection. Why do this?

Well, first argument would be that because we can see their faces, they can be easily identified and related with. If they are recognizable, and we can see their expressions clearly.

Also, it designates who is important to the story and who isn’t. Take Aryan la Valette in the beginning of The Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings:

Or Mercedes Marten from Dragon’s Dogma:

Those arguments, however, are balls.

Helmets are the most important piece of armor you can own. The head is the most vulnerable part of the body, and the most important. Your brain and face and ears and eyes and all sorts of other important body bits are in and on your head.

Helmets come in many different shapes and forms, even within their own categories. Making a helmet that stands out from those of the nameless masses is not at all difficult.

Moreover, forgoing a helmet reduces your possibilities for additional physical characterization. We are bound to see important characters both in and out of their helmets, and if their equipment isn’t in control of a player (in the case of video games), then their helmet can be used as another means by which to characterize them.

Most fantasy settings tend to have this bizarre, pan-Medieval collection of military technologies. This gives the designer leeway in the selection of helmet. Characterization, in this case, is not restricted by technology.

We’ll start with one of my favorite helmets, the sallet!

The sallet is a type of helmet usually synonymous with gothic plate armor. Typically it has a frontal ridge and rimmed visor for  deflecting enemy blows away from the eye-slit, so they cant use the helmet’s own contours to slide in (though many examples don’t have these features). The primary weakness of the sallet is the space under the back of the helmet.

Get a spear point, or a sword, or a dagger under that and the guy is dead.

What might a sallet say about its wearer? They might be headstrong and reckless, unable to see they are being outmaneuvered. It might foreshadow a betrayal. It can easily be used to physically express a crucial character flaw.

Additionally, you could use all sorts of different sallets for all sorts of different meanings. They aren’t all alike:

What might each of these helmets say about who wore them? 

Then there’s the great helm:

Like the sallet, the great helm comes in a number of subtle variations. But central to all of the constructions is this cylindrical shape. These helmets are towering, imposing, and rigid. It could express the character’s adherence to the rules of social order and hierarchy. They are an agent of the status quo. Even if a warrior were to take off this helmet, underneath one would find a coif of mail, their identity subsumed by the trappings of their martial class.

Likewise, it could be used to subvert. An agent of chaos and tyranny, destroying an important social institution from within whilst wearing its trappings. There are so many possibilities!

Perhaps the bascinet?

We know from medieval art and from many real world examples that it was not uncommon for knights to fight wearing a bascinet without a visor. This could communicate that the character is one of integrity, their open, expressive face showing, while they are unassailable from all other sides.

Likewise, there is a wide range of visors that can be fitted to bascinets (for example, klappvisors). Each choice is an opportunity not just to characterize them, but to set them apart from the nameless and faceless soldiery.

And for my last example, the barbute:

Notice how much more of the face is covered than the open-face bascinet. His sides are guarded, his nose protected from slashing blows. While this might realistically offer a wider range of vision than any of the above helmets with visors down, it still looks like the wearer’s vision is tunneled. His only vulnerable space is the front of his face, directly where he is looking.

This could communicate that the character has some sort of obsession. To kill someone who wronged him, or to defeat some great obstacle that perhaps should not be overcome. His weakness would come from what he is obsessed with, rather than the obsessive nature by itself (which is something better suited for a sallet). As such, the barbute makes an excellent villainous helmet. Hell, Boba Fett had a barbute-modelled helmet and was obsessed with Han Solo, and look how popular he is.

There’s a whole world of helmets out there that can be tailored to fit what you want to express about a character. Don’t neglect them.