Seeing the People in your Head: characters in cover art

I once edited a romance author who would not describe characters. She mostly wrote tight third person on the heroine (that is, reader in the heroine’s head), and never had her heroine itemise her looks in a mirror, so her heroines were entirely featureless, and her heroes were given the absolute minimum of ‘tall,dark and handsome’. Asked to fill in character description sheets for the art form, she would refuse point blank and demand a landscape cover. She insisted that the reader should be able to physically identify with the heroine, to become the heroine, and that description just got in the way.

Obviously this makes a huge and rude assumption about the motives of romance readers (I don’t need to imagine a different life for me, thanks), not to mention their gender and race. Also, it meant her characters were fairly indistinguishable. And mostly, romances with landscape covers never sell. So I politely attempted to suggest that she might just fill in the goddamn cover form and stop bitching already, and got an email in return informing me that she would not tolerate a cliched, trite stock image on the cover that looked nothing like the characters in her head.

Which is, I suspect, what the ‘no description’ thing was about. She had a long career, she had written many books back in the days of illustrated covers where you could dictate what the characters looked like rather than having to sacrifice your firstborn to the Stock Photography Gods in the hope of someone roughly the same species as your hero, and she couldn’t handle having the person on the cover be different to the one in her imagination.

(Incidentally, the designer did a cover with a random guy in a jumper, safe in the knowledge that the author didn’t have his phone number. She went ballistic.)

Ask any author and you are likely to get wails of agony about cover models. The grossly overused ones (there is a whole blog series about this), the ones that look nothing like the character. Ask a cover artist and you’ll get wails about authors doing ludicrously specific descriptions and the difficulty of finding anything halfway decent on Shutterstock. Ask a reader and they’ll probably complain that the cover doesn’t look anything like the person in their head, who is not the same as the person in the book anyway.

No, not kidding. Stephen in A Charm of Magpie series is 5’0 tall, a fact which is repeatedly made clear. Yet I’ve seen readers insist, point blank, that he’s taller, or at least fight against it.

In The Magpie Lord, my inclination was to make Stephen taller.  Unfortunately, the text kept reminding me that he was not tall. (Kaetrin, romance reviewer)

Equally, Jake in the Adrien English series by Josh Lanyon is a dark-haired cop, unless you read what the author actually wrote, which is that he’s blond. I have to tell you, this is wrong: Jake is dark, dammit. I am not alone in this opinion, so much that Lanyon has commented with bewilderment on it. The books do actually make it clear he’s blond.  But…well…not in my head, he’s not.

I quoted Kaetrin above, from her blog post on the default hero and heroine. She says she has a tendency to ‘reset’ her mental image of heroes to a particular physical default (e.g. dark-haired six-foot white guy) unless the writing prevents her.

Do other people have their own default characters?  Might this explain (at least in part) why, when two people read the same book, they might see something completely different in the characters?

Certainly, two people can read a book and come out with a totally different mental image of the main characters. I was browsing reviews of a book I liked recently, one with both heroes on the cover, and came across a string of reviews which said:

  • the cover was perfect for both characters
  • the cover had a good Hero A but Hero B was nothing like the character
  • the cover had a good Hero B but Hero A was completely wrong
  • the cover was totally wrong for both characters
  • the cover was just a routine stock image thing with no effort put into it

(The last of which…I feel for the designer.)

I have, to date been incredibly lucky with my covers. If they aren’t the people in my head, they are at least in the same postcode. The one I had the most trouble with is the model used for Stephen. He’s not bad, I like him, he just isn’t how I see Stephen. Interestingly, he’s also the one for which I have had the most reader comments…and they have all been how lucky I am to have such a perfect model for the character.

Obviously, I want to howl He doesn’t look like that! But I’m wrong. Because if the reader thinks he looks like that, then he does. The reader’s Stephen is an intersection of their brain and my book and the character himself and possibly the cover image. That will always be the case, and it’s why my author was absurd to refuse description to ward off anyone seeing her characters in the way she didn’t want. The readers were never going to see what she saw anyway. They were going to make their own characters. All that her anti-description stance did was to ensure that they saw a default stock image.

Did I “create” Mr. and Ms. Default in response to a certain… blandness in characterisation in my reading?  In other words, was there a vacuum and Mr/Ms. Default was created by my imagination (aided perhaps, by pop culture) merely to fill it? (Kaetrin)


I have been musing on this because I received an epic compliment this weekend. Reader Lydmila Tsapaeva sent me a drawing she did of the main characters of Flight of Magpies (and if you’re thinking this whole post is just an excuse to share it, ssshh).


Obviously, I love this, and the fact that she did it, and just everything about this. I have rarely felt so thrilled. But what’s fascinating for me is, here are my characters visually mediated through a reader’s mind. I can see how she sees them. The Magpies cover designer, Lou Harper, is outstanding but she’s still stuck with finding and using existing photos of actual people*; Lydmila is going from my imagination via her own to the page, putting in characterisation and movement and interaction and life. This is as close to me seeing someone’s experience of reading me as it’s going to get.

For the record: Crane (the arrogant blond) and Jonah (the dark-haired pest) have been teleported from my brain here: we are in full agreement. Crane is quiveringly perfect for me. Lydmila’s Stephen (short redhead) is more, ooh, manic, less vulnerable than mine (though a lot closer than the cover photo model), and my Merrick (gentleman’s gentleman) is a lot rougher than hers. Which isn’t to say they’re ‘wrong’. They can’t be wrong: they’re how she sees the characters. But it’s fascinating to see how they work against (with? alongside?) how I see them, to consider the elements in what I wrote that may have led to her interpretation, from book character to image. And if you’re a Magpie reader, I’d love to know how they stack up against your version.

(Here, for comparison, are the photo versions of Crane, Stephen and Jonah (on the right of Jackdaw). For me, Crane is 8/10, Stephen 5/10 and Jonah 9/10 if he was a bit skinnier. I told you I was lucky.)

CaseOfPossession-A300 CaseOfPossession-A300 jackdaw small

*Let us all take a minute to consider that the Magpie Lord cover model actually exists as a human being. My God.


Give me cover art complaints, criticism, funny stories or an explanation of why I’m wrong about Stephen in the comments!

Flight of Magpies is out now. Jackdaw is out in February. Huge, huge thanks to Lydmila Tsapaeva for the glorious art.

91 replies
  1. Rj Scott
    Rj Scott says:

    Whenever i read Stephen is five foot… i must admit I am like *nope, he’s not, he’s cutely small but he’s not actually that small”… nods.. then Crane lifts him… (I just need a minute – Crane lifts Stephen… Crane is lifting and doing all kinds of… okay, back. So yeah. Apparently Riley in my Texas series has dark hair according to quite a few people, even though I write him as blond. That fascinates me. 🙂

  2. M.C.A. Hogarth (@mcahogarth)
    M.C.A. Hogarth (@mcahogarth) says:

    The fan art’s Crane also is pretty close to mine, and the Jonah is good too! The fan art Stephen is too cute/young-looking, though; the Stephen in my head is delicate but stubborn and too reserved to have the body language in the fan art (body language is enormous; when I draw, I often find myself thinking about how people’s carriage/mannerisms reflect who they are). And my internal Merrick is a bruiser, not a butler!

    Your covers have always struck me as lucky as well, in that they’re not horrendously off from how you describe the characters. But honestly, I don’t really like the stock photography covers on most romance novels precisely because I don’t like having my internal image replaced.

  3. Heather C
    Heather C says:

    I’m not 100% crazy about the Crane on the covers, but I like the fanart version. And Stephen on the covers fit how I see him. He looks like a pre-teen in the fanart though lol. A little too “Peter Pan”

    And funny how you mention Jake from Andrien English. I KNOW he was blond, but I could NEVER imagine him as blond. He was always tall dark and handsome and when I would read “blond” ugh!

    And as for as the non-described heroine, I believe Sophie Kinsella went that way in her Confessions of a Shopaholic series. Drove me crazy that I could not figure out what she looked like…until I read online somewhere that it was intentional.

    • KJ Charles
      KJ Charles says:

      You know what, I think I hate the ‘everywoman’ idea of not describing characters. If I want to read a book that makes me the main character, I’ll get a Choose Your Own Adventure. Otherwise I want the author to create a character I can get to know, including appearance.

      • merriank
        merriank says:

        Also I hate with a passion that idea of not describing characters because readers need placeholder protagonists. I’ve had a conversation with an author recently who was shocked to realise that all romance readers were not projecting themselves into the stories, that placeholding is only one way of reading. It isn’t how I read for one. I’m also fairly visual so when I’m reading I am thinking of how people look, of the way a room is laid out, what a gesture might actually be… by the end of a book I haven’t just followed a series of events I’ve seen the people living them and through them their world.

      • Becky Black
        Becky Black says:

        Me too, because it implies that our appearance has no bearing on our personality, which is patently not true, because what a person looks like affects the way other people treat them and therefore the way they feel about themselves. Good looking people are treated differently than average people, fat people differently than thin people, etc. And it starts in childhood, so the effect is deep and permanent.

      • KJ Charles
        KJ Charles says:

        This. Exactly. And *particularly* with ref to race. To suggest that you can just tint the skin tone in your head and have a POC hero/ine is such a spectacular expression of white privilege.

  4. Pam/Peejakers
    Pam/Peejakers says:

    Ooh, great post KJ! Haha, I don’t think I’d ever want just a landscape cover for a theoretical book I wrote, but it really would bug the heck out of me to have people who didn’t look the least bit how I imagined them. I typically prefer artwork of people on covers rather than actual photos also. For some reason I can’t ever accept people from photos as the characters, they seem too jarringly real to me, somehow, compared to my mental image of a character which really is more like a drawing or painting, I think. Sort of like a person from a dream. In a way it reminds of the difference, in the old days, between watching videotaped TV movies as opposed to movies on film. I disliked the video ones because they looked & felt “too real”, which is very strange actually.

    With some books, like your Magpie Lord series, the cover images make such an impression that it *creates* the image I see of the character. But then there are covers like the one for Alexis Hall’s Glitterland. That cover picture created this weird dissonance for me, though most of that wasn’t due to the cover itself but to me not paying attention. Before I started reading the book I thought (pretty stupidly given how he looks) that he was supposed to be Ash! Possibly due to his expression & the fact I knew from the blurb that Ash was the main character. As I read I realized the cover was supposed to be Darian. But I could not make Darian look like that in my head. At the same time, Darian persisted in being a blond in my head, which I kept trying to correct but could not. Ash, on the other hand, I finally got Alexis to give me a vague-ish description that sounded (to me) slightly like a young Jeremy Irons. Which totally works, but now my mind tries to make him a bizarre cross between Jeremy Irons & that cover model – arrgh! And also, in the Adrien English novels, I absolutely saw Jake as blond, & Adrien as looking like an even-better-looking version of Montgomery Clift 😉 my image was totally based on the description in the books.

    I definitely don’t default to a type in how I imagine book characters, but maybe that’s because I don’t have a default type in life. But sometimes my view of a character is influenced by their personality. Your cover photo for “Think of England” is sort of similar but not quite how I picture Archie, for example. Also, in your fan-art picture here, the one most off from how I imagine him is Merrick, as you say I also picture him a lot rougher than that.

    Anyway, it’s all quite fascinating 🙂

    • KJ Charles
      KJ Charles says:

      I agree on Archie! Great cover, not Archie but really as good as it normally gets, and certainly not *wrong”. I don’t love the Glitterland cover for Darian though I think it’s a good cover for the book, if that makes sense…

      • says:

        Wat een fantastische opdracht en wat een voortreffelijk werk, Patrick! De gelijkenissen zijn zo treffend en toch zo lekker gestileerd, precies zoals ik het lekker vind. Ironisch genoeg vind ik Indiana zelf de minst gelijkende, maar ik weet hoe onmogelijk die man op papier te krijgen is.Favorieten: Toht (beide), Marion met aapje, Sallah en natuurlijk Mola Ram.Erg, erg goed gedaan, vrind.-Jordi

  5. merriank
    merriank says:

    Your covers are pretty close – at least I can really see Crane in the model but not Stephan som much. I was just reading Kaetrin’s review of ‘Rogue Spy’ and the blonde guy on the cover is much closer to my image of Crane – on your current covers he is too young and bland for me I will give your cover models cheekbones a sigh in passing though. Also I imagine Tom Redmayne when I think of Stephen×347.jpg and Merrick is definitely a big bruiser.

  6. Elin Gregory
    Elin Gregory says:

    My original post was eaten by the work internet gremlins 🙁 so I’ll try gain later at home. for now I’ll just say that I adore the artwork both fan art and book covers. No they don’t match my very strong mental images but I don’t expect them to. Hell, I’ve tried to draw some of your characters, and mine and everyone elses and my own drawings don’t match up [talent, it must be nice to have it]. Book covers are objects of beauty in their own right and can’t really be compare to a written description any more than a book and a film can be compared. They are two different acts of creativity.

  7. Sirius
    Sirius says:

    Jake is so not blond ;). I mostly just wanted to say that fan art is fantastic and yes sometimes what I see in my head does not quite match to what’s in the book or on the cover. Great post.

  8. louharper
    louharper says:

    🙂 As the designer of said covers, I was grinning madly at how much love Stephen got. It’s that blush on the cheeks, I tell you. 😛

    As someone who stubbornly imagines Lanyon’s Jake with dark hair, I totally see your point. In case of books the creative process doesn’t end with the author (or the editor), but the reader. And every reader brings something different with them, a different lens through which to see the story, and of course the characters. Imo, in cover design it’s more important to hit the right mood/atmosphere than the physical resemblance to the figure in the author’s head. The readers will make up their own, anyway, and no matter what you do, you can’t make everyone happy.

    (Aside: the much maligned headless torsos have a big plus in this respect.)

  9. E.E. Ottoman (@acosmistmachine)
    E.E. Ottoman (@acosmistmachine) says:

    I think the cover model for Crane is too fine-featured and pretty to be my mental image of Crane. The cover model is almost too striking too, I kind of imaged Crane to be good looking in a deceptively normal way if that makes any sense.

    While in my head I image Stephen to be small, slight and sharp featured but not nessisarily as young or baby faced as either the covers or the fanart (although it is amazing). I don’t know, I always imaged Stephen to be to small to be handsome but to severe to be pretty.

    • J. K. Pendragon
      J. K. Pendragon says:

      I was going to comment with how I saw the characters, but E’s pretty much read my mind here. 🙂 The drawing is also pretty much perfectly in line with how I see them. (except Merrick, who I picture as short and stocky with a buzz cut and a square, scarred face.) Stephen is definitely much closer to how I see him than on the covers, though I can imagine the difficulty of finding a stock photo of someone who looks like him.

      I never have any trouble picturing Stephen as small btw, because I’m dating a guy who’s 5’2″. And let me tell you, it’s a thing of mine, haha. If anything I picture him as even smaller for effect.

  10. Tiuri Elvander
    Tiuri Elvander says:

    I think I must have default characters as well. It completely explains why I have trouble when casting actors for a role based on a book. They never actually look like the characters are described in the book. Maybe you should do a separate blog about seeing the characters in your head in a movie??? I noticed you mentioned Michael Fassbinder for Crane, any ideas for Stephen???

    • KJ Charles
      KJ Charles says:

      I have no idea for Stephen though Tom Redmayne as linked above is pretty good. That said, Tom Cruise as Jack Reacher ruined fantasy movie casting for me forever with the prospect of it going horribly wrong. ‘You want to cast Toby Jones and Mackenzie Crook as Stephen and Crane…right…’

  11. Evaine
    Evaine says:

    I’ve really enjoyed this post. 🙂 I will admit to a love/hate relationship with many covers and cover styles in use today. As to having default characters, I’m not sure that I do. Not in the way you describe them at any rate. It’s something I’m going to look for going forward though. 🙂

    As for Crane… well… I have a picture of him in mind that is partly because of the description, partly because of Lou’s cover work and partly because his name is Crane. *LOL* In my mind’s eye, I see the actor/director Peter Horton from his days WAY BACK WHEN, when he played Crane McFadden on “Seven Brides for Seven Brothers”. Picture here (I hope it works) – He’s been one of my man crushes for decades. 🙂

    And Archie from “Think of England”? You’re gonna laugh, but in my mind’s eye I saw someone very similar to Prince Harry. *LOL* I guess I was thinking of England. 😉

    • KJ Charles
      KJ Charles says:

      Prince Harry has come up twice now in this conversation. I’m not even a royalist. /gives work the side eye/ But there’s something of the, I don’t know, thelacking the smarts to be deceitful and a basic decency that may not always be well expressed because of lack of smarts, sort of thing, I see that.

  12. amyjocousins
    amyjocousins says:

    All of the covers and Ludmilla’s fan art are mostly close enough to my pictures of them that they work for me, except for Merrick! My Merrick is burlier, always with a five o’clock shadow, some scars, looking far more like an ex-brawler than a butler. 🙂 But I still love Ludmilla’s drawing! It’s brilliant.

  13. selinakray
    selinakray says:

    One of my favorite things to do is play ‘the casting game’ with M/M book series, i.e. plug actors into the theoretical movie version of the book. I haven’t done this with all of them–I read far too many–but I’ve been toying with casting the Adrien English characters for months now because I just cannot come up with an actor for Jake who isn’t either, 1) unattractive, or 2) way too young. But the biggest obstacle is that he’s blond, so perhaps I’ll just take a page from you and pretend he was always written as dark-haired. (Matt Bomer is 100% Adrien, especially because he looks so much like Montgomery Clift.)

    I love this post! So much to dissect. I personally hate the stock photos on romance covers. Give me a headless torso, some scenery, whatever, but don’t put an idea of what the character looks like into my head. I guess I’m one of those readers. But I definitely want to hear what the author thinks they look like! And certainly their physical attributes are the last thing that make me relate to any of them.

    I would agree that the covers of your novels, while beautiful, don’t really reflect the characters I see in my head. I confess I had a hard time picturing Stephen while reading. But I loooooove that he’s a redhead. Maybe it’s just that he’s magic, but I always picture him with these pale, almost translucent green eyes, kind of like mood rings. And yes more vulnerable. I was impressed that the bloke on the cover is actually in the ballpark of what he’s supposed to look like, because so often it’s just totally wrong (based on the author’s description).

    The image of Crane influenced me more, but I basically never imagine anyone with a ponytail since I despise them. I have this idea that his face is a bit more weathered and his eyes kinder. And I too imagine Merrick as a brute!

    Lydmila’s version may be my go-to from now on (except I will age Stephen up from adolescence). What a stellar picture! This must be so fun for you!

    -S. ;D

  14. laneswift
    laneswift says:

    Funnily enough I’ve just read the second in the Adrien English series and Jake is definitely a honey blond cowboy type to me. If I had to cast him, I’d be looking at a young Ed Harris.
    I spend a lot of time visualising. I think it’s why I’m a slow reader. In your Magpie series, I can just about deal with Crane on the cover. Again, my mental image is Julian Sands. As for Stephen, the cover doesn’t meld with my mental image at all. I think of him as more angular, tough but vulnerable. Jamie Bell with redder hair.
    I’m thrilled for you with the fan art. How amazing and all credit to you, to have inspired a reader that way. She has very much captured the vibe, I think, especially Crane. But I agree with you on Merrick. I’d have him stockier and much more weather-beaten. Stephen would be more restrained, I think, and smaller. Jonah is spot on.
    I literally read the writer’s character descriptions over and over. I really take every visual cue and try to assimilate it while I’m reading. I don’t have a default male or female, and perhaps that’s why the generic muscular ‘bloke’ puts me off in a lot of romances. I really love characters who don’t fit that mould, and seek them out.

    • KJ Charles
      KJ Charles says:

      Yes, Julian Sands! Definitely. Gorgeous but not as pretty as the model. Interestingly, in all the original pics he has his shirt off, and he is extraordinarily muscular, which brings down the prettiness somewhat and sends the OMG JAW ON FLOOR level skyrocketing.

  15. Jamie
    Jamie says:

    For me, personally, the bookcover version of Crane is a little too posh. When I think of Crane, I automatically recall his time spent living in the slums of China, and rubbing elbows with all walks of life. That’s the impression that stuck with me the strongest. So in my head, he’s someone very broad and strong and a bit rough around the edges; someone capable of holding his own in a fight. I can’t, for the life of me, imagine bookcover Crane picking up Mr. Day and fucking him over a desk. @_@ I have to constantly remind myself that other characters see him as someone very aristocratic and polished and respectable. So to deal with these conflicting impressions, oddly enough, the Crane in my head actually changes appearance according to the situation. When he’s mingling with his peers, or sneering down at someone, or putting someone in their place, then bookcover Crane would pop in my head. But when he’s working out at the gym or just hanging out with Mr. Day and Merrick, then a version of Crane similar to Lydmila’s drawing would pop in my head. Weird, I know, but this works for me. Is anyone else the same?

    • KJ Charles
      KJ Charles says:

      I know exactly what you mean! And that sort of duality was exactly what I was going for. Clothes and voice are his superpowers in a rulebound society, but he has the added advantage of not being bound by those rules. So yes, he has to be simultaneously polished and impeccable, but with a lot of muscle and tattoo underneath the well cut coat, and that gives very different appearance.

  16. LegeArtis
    LegeArtis says:

    Jake from Adrien English looks exactly like Daniel Craig in my head, dammit.
    I usually don’t attach faces to characters I read, but sometimes I have such a clear picture of how are they looking it’s unbelievable…
    And that drawing is gorgeous. Well done Lydmila!

  17. Becky Black
    Becky Black says:

    The fan art is lush. I think because it’s not simply portraits of the characters, it’s an interpretation of who they are, not just what they look like. It’s as much about what’s inside as outside.

    I love you having Stephen be only 5ft. In the forest of 6 foot tall guys that swarm all over Romance land that makes him stand out. And given that people were shorter than they are now in the Victorian era then he’s short, but not as noticably short as he would be if walking around London now. And Crane would be considered just as much out of the ordinary the other way, as there wouldn’t be as many six-footers around.

    I’ve learned not to expect the cover models to look all that close to the characters, mine or other people’s. As long as they are right physical type generally and they are hot, I’m happy. I’ve only objected 2 times out of 9 on my own that they didn’t work and the publisher changed them. Most of them I have been very happy with. A couple, positively ecstatic and totally adopted that as what they definitely look like.

    I do have a clear picture in my head of my own characters. I don’t get the idea of not thinking it’s important – especially in a romance when they is going to be plenty of appreciation of the other person’s looks. I don’t get down to the detail about the arch of their brows or the exact shape of their nose (well except Zach front Higher Ground. His nose got a few mentions.) But I could give you the exact shade of hair colour for any of them, and the style they wear it. Hair is sexy.

    Count me as on the side of “of course Jake is blond”. But also on the side of “Wait, what do you mean, J.X. Moriarity isn’t black?”

    I try to resist casting my own characters with specific actors, because it means the cover models are always going to be unsatisfying. Though Cal in Patient Z is definitely played by Typer Hoechlin. 😀 And there’s a screen grab I have of Tom Hiddleston in a show called Wallender that almost perfectly matches a character I’m writing just now. Just needs to be shorter and more ginger. On the other hand he doesn’t resemble TH playing Loki.So it is literally that specific, that hair, that look, in that one picture. But I will sometimes use pictures either of actors or models that even if the face isn’t right, the picture catches a certain look, a vibe, that the character embodies. Again, more about the outside than the inside.

    • KJ Charles
      KJ Charles says:

      /flails/ I thought JX was black too!

      I never write with picture models. I’m not hugely visual myself, it’s a collage of impressions rather than an image, so a picture model would overrule the person. Also, Lou Harper told me once the best way to brief a cover designer was vibe and feel, rather than specific picture ref. ‘Like Bruce Banner in the first Avengers film’, not ‘looks like Mark Ruffalo’, if you see the difference.

  18. Emma
    Emma says:

    When it comes to characters, I’m always thankful for a rich, detailed physical description because I try very very hard not to look at the people on the cover and risk accidentally commiting them to memory. I worry it would clash with my own interpretation of the book’s description.

    On a side note, Ms. Charles… I recently read a m/f romance novel where the hero is described to be massive 7′ tall, winged creature, and the heroine is a 5’2″ shortie… and yet when he’s fucking her, somehow, he’s able to not only kiss her, but suckle her breasts, as well. And normally, I would have thought nothing of it (having no experience with tall men to compare with); but in this instance, I immediately thought back to Crane’s comment about how, because of their height difference, there were no positions in the world that would allow him and Stephen to kiss while they’re fucking—and I felt totally SMUG to have realized how silly that whole scene with the mf couple was. Lol. So thanks for that. I’ve become a more informed reader now because of you.

  19. Dreamseeker
    Dreamseeker says:

    As a reader and not an author I’m very thankful I don’t have to go through the process of choosing/designing a cover. I can see how it can be challenging since I see the same model/pose on multiple covers and find myself occasionally saying “wait, that’s not so-and-so, that’s him book x…” The fan art you shared is amazing. I love the Magpie covers. I can easily see Crane looking like that, though I image him slightly rougher and older based on all of his experiences. My imagination makes Stephen rougher as well due to all of his experiences.

    I have some small issues with Stephens height as I am 5′ myself, but only because I tend to make everyone else taller! For Crane do maneuver Stephen as he does, he’s either ridiculously strong or Stephens short. As for blond vs brunette, my personal default is dark and I occasionally find myself going huh? in some books. Not with Crane though. Your characters as described in the book have stuck with me 🙂

    You describe Stephens perception of his environment quite well. Authors with short characters tend to forget to describe the world from the height of your average 13-14 year old. Covers with short people just don’t look right, a short person can’t lay their head on the tall person’s should while standing (or other activities if their waists line up). To much height difference. Also, most people don’t seem to realize where your eye level ends up – a 5′ tall person does not have a 5′ eye level, it’s a few inches lower. I once had a 6′ colleague ask why I just didn’t look over the cube wall (also 6′). In spite being friends and sharing a cube for years, he didn’t realize that my eye level was mid chest on him.

    May you continue to have great luck in your cover art!

    • KJ Charles
      KJ Charles says:

      Thank you! I did try to keep Stephen’s height in the forefront, like Archie’s missing fingers in Think of England – it does annoy me when you have a physical issue with a character that’s like a costume aid and it doesn’t affect their daily life. Crane is uncomfortably tall sometimes and Stephen has to hop to get on furniture.

      Re existing covers, when we were doing Think of England I was sent the pic of the model for Murdo in Joanna Chambers Enlightenment series and I just vetoed it on the spot. Sorry, no, That’s Murdo and always will be.

      • willaful
        willaful says:

        The cover isn’t Darian for me, either — ironic, that. I’m not sure I could tell you what Darian does look like, though. Jeremy Irons works for Ash.

        Archie would surely be bigger, and perhaps not quite so elegant? The guy who was Murdo would work for him… nice big guy! Though I can see why you wouldn’t want to reuse him.

  20. Darla
    Darla says:

    I love this post–when I was a student of English Literature, one lecture a Prof gave was on famously inaccurate interpretations of characters that readers experienced all the time, Belinda in The Rape of the Lock and Daisy of The Great Gatsby-Belinda being fair haired while Daisy is dark haired.
    I never pictured Jake as a dark fellow because Adrienne is so much the Montgomery Clift and it’s referenced again and again and they didn’t read like same coloring men to me. There seemed to be quite a lot of contrast between those two.
    As for Lord Crane and Stephen Day, I like the cover art as a jumping off point–they are not quite exactly what I picture from the author’s descriptions, but they are a reasonable facsimile. For me, Lord Crane is most definitely actor Julian Sands in his heyday. Mmm, Stephen, is for me, more like a Prince Harry , but yeah, very short and bit thin and more serious–not quite as ingenue-ish as he appears on the covers. Though readers have trouble with Stephen’s height, I was reminded that statistically, a person who is very short will receive x amount of comments on their height throughout life while exceedingly tall persons will receive order of magnitude greater than x.
    I love love the fan art! How very cool!

  21. mmjustus
    mmjustus says:

    And this is why I so seldom put recognizable people (most of mine have someone walking away in the distance [wry g] or are in silhouette) on my covers (I self-publish, and I’ve done all mine except for one). For the record, Stephen on the covers looks too young. I always think of him as looking older and more world-weary.

  22. Jackie Wachob
    Jackie Wachob says:

    Interesting post. Jake clicked as a blond for me so no problems there. The cover Crane is more pretty and slim than the way I picture him and the Stephen is a little too boyish. But they’re pretty good compared to some covers that seem to make no effort to match the written descriptions. Sometimes I wonder if the cover artist even got to read the book! I don’t rely too much on the cover image to visualize the characters though. And I often disregard the author’s description too. I see them how I want to see them.

    • KJ Charles
      KJ Charles says:

      I don’t think a lot of cover artists do read the books. It would pile on the time per job. Usually the author or sometimes editor does a cover form with description and maybe image refs and the designer goes off that. Not easy!

  23. EAH
    EAH says:

    My experience of cover art / “seeing” the characters in my head is probably a bit different than most, because I have no visual imagination whatsoever, and no ability to “picture” things in my head. I do sometimes notice if the cover actively conflicts with the description of the character, but only sometimes.

    Thinking about this, my mind immediately went to those racist fans of the Hunger Games trilogy who were shocked and enraged when a black actress was chosen to play Rue, even though the books mention her skin colour at least three times. The comments made were disgusting, but it seems like an extreme(ly awful) version of the same thing—readers’ brains hang onto impressions, and will just skim past contradictory descriptions like they’re not even there.

  24. a_pina
    a_pina says:

    Interesting post, and interesting comments. Hmm, I don’t have a very clear picture of Jake at all, but for some time I thought Adrien had white hair (not as though he were old, just white, like an anime character or something). I fixed my mental image after awhile, mostly, because that is obviously wrong from the text. And J.X. definitely seems as though he should be black, or Hispanic. Maybe because he wears black and reading quickly gives the wrong impression? I generally try to keep reasonably close to the description given in the book. (If a proper description is given, that is—comparing them to actors in the text doesn’t help, because I don’t watch enough movies to know what anyone looks like, and it breaks the mood to have to do a Google image search in the middle of reading, even assuming I am near a computer.)

    Your cover model Crane seems spot-on to me; he looks arrogant and upper-class, and it seems that he could look rougher than that under different circumstances. And I can’t tell how tall or broad-shouldered the model is, from those pictures. I agree with E. about the Stephen model, although the hair is good. He isn’t supposed to be that pretty. As for his being short, I think that is awesome, and there are guys who are that short around. (Especially in the military, for some reason.)

  25. queue42
    queue42 says:

    Crane on the covers has just exactly the cheekbones – and the surface hauteur – sported by the Crane in my head (and miraculous things those cheekbones are, too). Oddly, he’s too young for me – I read him as twenty-something, about the age Stephen actually is in The Magpie Lord, and as the disparity in their chronological ages plays a part in their dynamic, that seems a bit off to me.

    Cover Stephen’s coloring fits right up against what I have in my head, but he’s too frelling tall as pictured next to Crane – as though he’s up on a literal soapbox as well as the occasional marvelous metaphorical one. I keep wanting to tell him to get off the stepladder.

      • queue42
        queue42 says:

        Also: your books are MARVELOUS, soup to nuts and everything in between (and the chocolate at the end as well). I’m ashamed of myself for not having said that first and unequivocally; I got sucked in by the discussion of cover art and momentarily lost my way, for which I do apologize. I stumbled across The Magpie Lord somewhere recently, inhaled it nearly whole, and promptly went out and got everything else I could find you’d written. I’m sailing a sea change; your writing and the world you build with it are helping me keep hold of my navigational tools. Many thanks.

  26. Helen K
    Helen K says:

    First of all, I just want to say how much I’ve enjoyed ToE. I read it based on a recommendation I saw online and have already reread it twice in this last month. There’s just something so touching about Archie’s discovery of his own inclinations and acceptance of his love for Daniel. I also find the way he reflects on his experiences to assess his sexuality and the discussion of a sort of a spectrum of “queerness” fascinating. I’ve also since read the Charm of Magpies series and Butterflies and have thoroughly enjoyed those as well.

    I find this thread about covers and picturing characters in you head so interesting. I generally don’t pay attention to the covers unless they seem very close to the descriptions in the book. In any case, I just had to put in my two cents regarding “casting” for the cover of Magpies and ToE. I agree that Julian Sands (circa late 80s) and Eddie Redmayne seem right for Crane and Stephen. For Archie, as Daniel calls him his Viking, I see Chris Hemsworth, not as Thor ironically enough, but as he was as George Kirk (Captain James Kirk’s father) in the reboot of Star Trek — very stoic and heroic! As for Daniel, he wasn’t on the cover, but he’s in my head of course. I can’t really think of the right actor, but a younger Robert Downey Jr comes close, not quite right physically, but he does tormented and snark so well!

  27. Star
    Star says:

    Erm… I’m a little late to the game here, but … seeing as the Crane model is (OMG) real… does anyone know if he has a fan page somewhere or something? I think I would give my firstborn to see him sans shirt…

  28. Galini K.
    Galini K. says:

    Say what you will about your covers, I think they are gorgeous.

    When I first saw your books (The Magpie series) in recommendations on Amazon, it was the cover that draw my attention – the models were good looking and the general quality of the covers was great. I thought: “I probably should give a book with such a gorgeous cover a chance”. I just finished reading a short series of M/M and was a bit disappointed – my experience with gay romance books was unsatisfactory to date and I thought I should stop wasting money on books and stick with fanfiction (there’s some really good fanfiction, but I wanted some original stories).

    But I bought your Magpie series and devoured (there is no better word for it) every single book and short story in a few days. I LOVED it! I would praise them some more, but first of all I want to say that although the cover models don’t 100% agree with my own vision of Crane and Stephen, they’re great models and convey the general mood of the books splendidly. The Magpie series have some of the best covers featuring it’s book characters that I’ve seen.

  29. Deb Milsom
    Deb Milsom says:

    I’ve definitely come late to this discussion but I thought I’d put my two cents worth in.

    I like the suggestion of Eddie Redmayne but I can totally see Seth Green in the role of Stephen. He’s not a tall chap by any means and he has the red hair, cheeky face and glowing eyes that I picture when I think of Stephen. As for Crane, I can see the Tarzan (2016) version of Alexander Skarsgård. He does rough around the edges quite nicely but when he dresses up in a suit and tie he looks particularly yummy, lean and muscled without being over the top bulky. He appears to have the physique to be able to easily lift Stephen for any activity I think.

    I’ve just spent the last week or so totally immersed in your books. I don’t normally read anything vaguely paranormal (ghosts and stuff). I prefer my heroes to be unable to perform feats of magic or transformation or anything remotely like it. But I read The Magpie Lord and was hooked. Now I’ve read all of your books (I think) and I’m eagerly awaiting anything else that you produce for me to read! I wish my favorite authors could write as fast as I read but I don’t think that’s possible. In the mean time I will continue to reread your back catalogue and try to be patient until the second book (already pre-ordered) of your latest series arrives in my bookshelf. I can’t wait! Thank you for the hours of entertainment!

    Having said all of that I love your covers!


    • KJ Charles
      KJ Charles says:

      I had Seth Green as a photo reference when I did the cover brief! And also Michael Fassbender for Crane. Mmm.

      Thanks very much for your kind words!

  30. Bethany
    Bethany says:

    Very late to the party but such an interesting discussion! I may be in the minority, but I am partial to the Lord Crane cover art. It captures the haughtiness of the character. It must be those cheekbones! I know there is new cover art for the series, but I still visualize Crane in line with the originals. In a kind of similar theme, as an audiobook fan, the narrator really influences the visuals of the story. A good one can make (or a bad one break) the book. The recent Sins of the City have been great audiobooks and I hope the upcoming release will be partnered with an audio version. And someday I hope there is a chance for a Magpie audio series. Your many fans would so enjoy it and the books would make wonderful listens. It is fascinating to talk about how influential visuals and narration can be for the readers. Thank you for sharing your experiences and thank you for sharing your wonderful books.

  31. Rachael
    Rachael says:

    Is there any chance of this series being done as audiobook? It sounds amazing and the other works of yours that I’ve been able to access have all been via the audiobboks you did w/audible. I have accessibility issues so while my imagination doesnt always line up with the cover models (who is the children on the cover of Seditious Affair and A Gentleman’s Agreement and where’s Dominic and Richard? I thought they were supposed to be middle-ish aged men! /o) MLD usually does a pretty good job with voices creating something so solid I can see them in my head.

    But because of my issues with reading long content, I cant always access novels 🙁 so I always am hugely influenced by the reading and hope this will join the others as ones I can listen to 😀

    • KJ Charles
      KJ Charles says:

      I’m delighted to say, yes, there will be audio of all the Magpies plus Think of England and the Secret Casebook–all coming over the winter/spring, I believe.

      I couldn’t agree with you more re the Society of Gentlemen covers, but the publisher has the final word. :/

  32. TJ
    TJ says:

    Interesting, the covers that come with my audible books are the black silhouette versions which give me a lot to run with in terms of using my imagination! I wonder why they are different than the cover art with the models? (also yes the Magpie Lord model is very good). One thing with Crane is that I don’t know if his hair is short or long because I don’t remember what the 1880 fashion is like. I keep picturing him looking like my version of Laurence from His Majesty’s Dragon who is described as having hair long enough for a short queue in the first book but I don’t know if that’s right for the time.
    The expression and body language on Crane in the fanart suits him perfectly, I love it! And while I picture Merrick as more of a bodyguard than a butler I do like the contrast with him telling the lads off for ruining their suits 🙂 I agree Stephen seems a but to puckish and pixie-ish to fit my imagination- I imagine him softer and a bit more reserved. Also, as a fellow shorty (I’m 5’2″) I must stand up for Stephen’s canon height! He be smol.


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  1. […] strikes again. This is glorious, all four characters absolutely spot on, and I am in love. (Earlier art here if you missed it – I think she’s got the characters perfect this time.) There is also a […]

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