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.)
*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.