Visualizing Your Characters

If you hang out on readers’ forums long enough, you’ll start to see specific themes crop up time and time again. One of those is: Who would you cast in the movie adaptation of your favorite novel? Sometimes, the question hones in on specific books and characters.

Is this Stephen King’s gunslinger?

What inevitably comes of these discussions are the wide interpretations of what a character should look like. There is rarely agreement.

Frankly, it’s the writer’s fault.

You see, while writers may have a very specific image of their character in their head, we are often told to minimize physical descriptions. The idea is to allow the unfolding story to give the reader enough clues on the appearance of your characters. Besides, writing/reading is a two-way street. A story only comes alive in a reader’s imagination when said reader’s imagination brings it to life. The less a reader has to imagine, the less involved in the story. We want them involved. So, it makes since for writers to keep physical descriptions at a minimum and allow readers to fill-in the blanks.

Of course, that all goes out the window when a movie-adaptation comes along or, more relevant to most of us, when you create your book cover.

Yes, that whole can of worms. What will you put on your book cover? Will you go for a vague landscape scene and stunning font?

Or bold graphics?

Or your characters?

If you write in certain genres (Romance and Urban Fantasy, I’m looking at you), you pretty much have to go with the later. But that can be tricky. I remember the first book in Robin Hobb’s Farseer triology. In the edition I had, the boy on the cover had blond hair. It really really irked me because Ms. Hobb referred to her character’s dark looks and dark hair numerous times throughout the series. I’m sure someone in the art department hadn’t even given the boy’s hair color a second thought. Or maybe it was a conscious decision to appeal to a certain demographic that would relate to a lighter-haired character? Who knows. All I know is that Ms. Hobb’s current series features the same character with a physical appearance that matches the one she describes in her book. (And he’s hot, imho – that’s short for ‘in my heated opinion’.)

I won’t go into all the pros and cons of putting representations of your characters on your book cover. That would be a long post and I’m sure there are much better qualified folks out there who can help you decide what to put on your cover based on the genre and style of the book you wrote, the book’s target audience, and your budget.

Let’s just decide you do want to put your main character on your cover. Now what?

You can pore through countless images on DeviantArt or stock photography sites in hopes you’ll find just the right model or illustration that matches the image in your head or you have an awesome artist friend read you draft novel and come up with their own interpretation.

Lucky for me, I happen to know a fellow writer who is also a digital painter. A long time ago, when I thought I could actually finish a novel (hasn’t happened yet), Robert Garbin felt inspired to illustrate the cover of my draft novel, The Denouncer.

Thank goodness, that pile of poo (my first novel) will never see the light of day. After three (hard) revisions, I abandoned the effort after an editor pointed out that my writing, nor the story, wasn’t even close to prime time. Though I made the announcement to leave the project, Robert was still inspired to complete his idea for my cover. Well, I’m happy to announce that he finally finished it! And here it is:

Denouncer Cover no Text
Illustration by Robert Garbin

I think the striking colors are gorgeous. That dark sky against the yellow field of flowers very much reflects one particular scene in the draft novel. More importantly, when I first saw this image, I realized I didn’t know my character at all. If I had been the one to draw her, she would have had a haughty look. She probably would have been looking off into the distance or right at you. But that wouldn’t be who she was. The character drawn here very much reflects the character I wrote: an out caste struggling to find peace with her physical deformity.

The take away?

If you put a representation of your character on the cover of your book, proceed with extreme caution! You might get it completely wrong.

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5 thoughts on “Visualizing Your Characters

  1. My publisher’s cover artist did put a likeness of my character on my first book. It turned out okay, and it was how I envisioned she might look so that was good. My second book has no character likeness on it, and that works perfect for it. I suppose it depends on the book and what message needs to be conveyed.

    1. Definitely, it depends. And then there is always individual taste. I think that varies just as much as our imaginations! 🙂 Oh, but I do love the cover of Eating Bull. That’s an excellent example of stunning graphics: null

      1. Ah, thank you. I always comment from the notification tab, but I still use the old dashboard for posting. I’ll have to try posting an image some time from there.

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