The Duolingo World characters are essential to making language learning fun—from Junior’s antics to Lily’s sharp humor, each character probably reminds you of someone you know in real life! And that’s no accident—it’s thanks to the hard work of the Duolingo Studios team and Linda Simensky, the head of animation and scripted content!
Linda joined Duolingo in October 2021, and just wrapped up one of our most exciting animation projects to date: helping Lily and Zari host Duocon! Bringing these Duolingo BFFs into the “real world” was a challenge Linda was well-prepared for thanks to her previous experience with animated characters at PBS, Cartoon Network, and Nickelodeon. We chatted with Linda to learn more about her passion for animation and character development, and what it was like prepping Zari and Lily for their Duocon debut!
Where did you work before Duolingo, and what was your role?
Earlier in my career, I had worked at both Nickelodeon and Cartoon Network, where I worked in programming and animation development. My jobs for both networks involved finding and developing animated series, and I worked on everything from Rugrats and Doug to Dexter’s Laboratory and Powerpuff Girls. After that, I worked at PBS KIDS, where I most recently was head of Content. In that job, I oversaw the development of all the kids series and worked on the overall direction and content strategy. At PBS KIDS, I was able to find and develop a number of shows that became popular with young kids, including Wild Kratts, Dinosaur Train, and WordGirl.
What excited you about building out the Duolingo world?
When I first started using the Duolingo app, I fell in love with the characters and the animation. Five short seconds of animation told me everything about each character. That’s impressive! At Duolingo, the opportunity to find out more about each character and then help bring them to life through longer form animation was exciting. The more we know about each character, the more believable they are. We have been working on building out each characters’ passions, motivations and goals, as well as determining what gets in the way for each character and keeps them from fulfilling their dreams. That’s often where the stories and the humor can start.
Lin, for example, is easy-going—she avoids obligations and wants the freedom to get up and go! This keeps her from wanting a steady job or a schedule to stick to. Her grandmother, Lucy, would love her to figure out what she wants to do and get on with her life… and move out already!
Is there anything specifically different about developing characters for an educational space versus a pure entertainment space?
You need the same amount of development and information for all characters, no matter what sort of content you’re making. Even characters for very young children benefit from as much information as possible. With educational programming, we needed to make sure that there was a main character in every series who was particularly enthusiastic about whatever the curriculum was for that series.
When you heard Zari and Lily were asked to host Duocon, how did you decide if this is something “they would do” as characters?
Once we started thinking about them as emcees, it seemed like it would be fun and also a chance for their fans to see them interacting. We knew Zari would be thrilled about the assignment, and we sensed that Lily would be apprehensive and possibly a bit indifferent towards showing up. But we knew they’d bring their special brand of banter—Zari would be an eager host and Lily would reluctantly support her.
What was something that surprised you about their hosting styles?
Zari wasn’t worried at all, which was a pleasant surprise. Maybe she’s been practicing for this in her bathroom mirror all these years. And Lily was a tiny bit nervous. I guess that’s not a surprise, since she’s not a talker. They were both very kind and appreciative toward the production crew, which is always the mark of good hosts.
What makes Lily and Zari such a compelling, er, duo? Why does their friendship dynamic work, and how do you continue making it shine?
Lily and Zari are complete opposites and best friends. Like many teenagers, Lily might not always care about much, but she does care deeply about her best friend, and will support her, even if it means doing big and crazy things like hosting Duocon. I think the magic ingredient is how much they care about and support each other, even if Lily never wants to admit it.
What’s it like to move these characters into the “real” world – outside of lessons and the learning app?
It feels natural to see Lily and Zari interacting with each other. My daughter once told me she was a “total Lily,” so I think we all see teenage girl dynamics in real life and can appreciate them. Lily and Zari are a lot like friends you might see in real life. This means we can put Lily and Zari into any number of situations you might find teenage girls in (a night at the movies, club tryouts at school…) and let them do what they do. If you develop a character well, you should be able to put them in any situation.
What are the most important things to consider when putting characters into new situations?
To be believable, an animated character must be developed to have as much complexity as a real person. That would include all the contradictions and quirks that each of us has. And then the writer must then make sure that each character is always consistent with their description and literally “in character” in any situation.
Eddy will always be Eddy no matter what he's doing. He'd always rather be working out… or watching a rom-com. If we suddenly had Eddy wearing a tie and enjoying working in an office, it wouldn't ring true. We owe it to Eddy to tell his true story!
Do you have a favorite character in the Duolingo world?! Is there a character that you relate to most, or that you’d most likely want to be friends with in the “real world”?
I think Falstaff the Bear and I would hit it off well. We would make each other laugh. I’m betting he also likes watching cartoons. I could also imagine getting together with Lin and Vikram weekly and catching up over coffee and tea.