What is a Character Artist?
Someone who models and possibly textures CG characters for games and/or cinematics.
What do you actually do?
I take awesome 2D James Holland concepts and try and create low poly (6K to 15K) characters that can be animated and rendered for real time use from them. Each character artist's pipeline is different and dynamic, but at some point involves taking the low poly model and importing into a high poly sculpting tool, such as Zbrush or Mudbox. Here, the model can be subdivided into millions of polygons allowing the artist to be able to sculpt in 3D similarly to how a traditional sculptor would sculpt in clay, and allow us to reach a level of detail unallowable in a traditional 3D authoring tools such as 3DS Max or Maya. Then, once the high rez character is approved, normal, cavity, lighting, or even displacement maps are generated which, essentially, transfer much of the detail from the high rez character over to the low rez model. After these maps are generated, I then begin the texturing process, using some lighting and cavity maps as guides. Photoshop is the primary program used when texturing, although Zbrush's ZApplink is invaluable to my personal texturing pipeline as well.
What are the general qualifications?
Being able to take general knowledge of 3D authoring tools (Maya, Max, etc.), digital sculpting tools (Zbrush), and painting tools (Photoshop, corel), and create 3D artwork from them that can be utilized in today's games.
What sort of classes (if any) would you suggest for someone interested in becoming a Character Artist?
Speaking from experience, I would avoid going to an overpriced Computer Animation program and spending thousands of dollars. As long as you can get your hands on some of the essential programs I've already mentioned (and most of them offer trial versions that can be downloaded for free), there are probably hundreds of online tutorials available for anyone wanting to learn about a specific discipline. Gnomon is a great resource as well and the first one I'd use when wanting to learn any new technique. And, fortunately for all new students of CG, a recent valuable resource is YouTube and other sites like it. I can't tell you how many times I've needed to learn how to overcome an obstacle and have found the answer on a free video site. Also, if you're learning Zbrush, the Zbrushcentral and Pixologic sites offer up for free everything a new user needs to get as good as they could ever want to be. So, basically, what I'm trying to say is, if you can get instructional classes for cheap and they focus on the particular aspect of CG you are focused on, then that's great, but if not, everything you need is on the Internet, and fortunately, from my experience, no hiring agent seems to care about what school you went to or even if you went to one at all. All that matters is that almighty portfolio. Get a website, throw your best stuff on there.