Photo-Realism in Writing   10 comments

Do you draw your main characters so that a forensic sketch artist could put them on the cover, or do they belong to the reader?

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Now this is a question I never really thought about before.

I can certainly imagine my characters in my mind’s eye and if I could draw, I might be able to sketch some of them. I’m not a very good sketch artist myself. I like landscapes. Faces are hard for me.

I do describe what some characters look like. Shane is dark – curly hair and tanned skin, indicative of his father’s Indian ancestry — but he has green eyes from his mother. His face is angular with high cheekbones, a generous mouth with full lips, large eyes, and a strong nose and jaw. I actually borrowed his look from a kid I saw in a coffee shop when I was drafting Life As We Knew It. You know he’s 6’1″ and fit. I give readers plenty of details to envision him and I’m pretty sure a sketch artist could sketch him fairly accurately.

Ryanna in Daermad Cycle is physically modeled after my daughter, so if someone wanted to do a sketch of her, I’d give them a photo, although I also think a sketch artist could reasonably depict her based on the details given in The Willow Branch.

A Lighter Touch

Other characters may not be so easily defined. You know Rob Delaney (Shane’s father) is tall, broad-shouldered, has graying sandy hair and blue eyes. The Indian blood doesn’t show in his coloring, but it does show in his facial features, somewhat obscured by a reddish beard. You don’t know a lot of other details. I left it up to the reader to fill in the blanks.

I write series and I don’t often go back to describe people more than once. If a POV character meets a character for the first time, I might share their impression of them, but — as I said recently — I don’t really like repetition in novels. I can guess Aes Sedai will wear the fringed shawl. I don’t need to know that in every stinking scene of the book. I described Jill Delaney in Life As We Knew It and it’s not until Winter’s Reckoning that I note a change in her — she’s lost weight and her red hair is growing out gray and brown at the roots — both in keeping with the apocalypse.

I think readers prefer to have a general impression of most characters so that they can choose to envision them however they want. There are times when looks matter. For example, part of Shane’s problem with feeling comfortable in his family stems from how much his looks differ from those of his siblings. He knows he physically resembles his uncle who committed suicide. That affects him. It’s part of the tension that he must resolve within himself. But I don’t need to go into so much detail that the reader feels obligated to envision the young man I saw in that coffee shop.

Engage the Reader’s Imagination

There are times when details matter and there are times when it’s best to work in broad strokes. One of the reasons I avoid face shots on my covers is that I like to give readers a chance to use their imaginations. I don’t utilize a one-technique-fits-all-characters strategy. My hope would be that if I hired an artist to sketch a character, I’d be okay if the details weren’t entirely accurate because I’ve left enough room for the imagination of the reader.

Posted August 3, 2020 by aurorawatcherak in Blog Hop

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10 responses to “Photo-Realism in Writing

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  1. “One of the reasons I avoid face shots on my covers is that I like to give readers a chance to use their imaginations.” Thank you thank you thank you.
    Face shots are cheesy nods to serialized crap and amateur hour or inexperienced authors being in a hurry or railroaded by “cover artists”. No matter what or how you write, if there’re people on your cover all your work for reader investment is lost. The characters and setting are embedded before anyone ever opens the book.


    • I used to belong to a cover analysis group because a friend said they were great at promoting books. But I quickly learned they were face-obsessed. “You need people on your cover to attract readers.”

      I lasted about three months in the group before I just stopped following it. They trashed so many authors’ beautiful covers because “faces, faces, faces.” I assumed some founding members had learned that at a writer’s conference and just couldn’t let it go.

      I think faces have their places and they work on some book covers, but all hard-and-fast rules are tyranny and it might explain why it seems some genre of books all have the same cover.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Amen to that about shelf after shelf of sameness. Yuk. Covers have become as homogenous as their content. Now, if we could just address the logic that if it sounds like writing, particularly narrative, even if it’s illogical sound bites strung together, then it deserves a cover and a spot in the circle jerk reviewer rotation!


      • I am following up on some comments that got stuck in the blog filters.

        Sound-bite writing. It’s almost as if it was a draft and someone forgot to edit it before publishing it. I know what you mean and I’m frustrated when I read it.


  2. I’ve been working in my mystery series for so long, I have to force myself to find ways to write in hints of description for my main characters. Secondary characters only ever get hints so they are easier!


    • Yeah, hints. There’s all sorts of ways to drop those. Although I did have a beta reader ask me this last go around if I was ever going to describe Mace Ketteridge in Transportation Project. I guess I never gave any sort of physical description of him. So I asked that beta reader and a couple of others to tell me what they thought he looked like. They all had similar ideas. My job is done.


  3. Just drop a few hints and let them work it out.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. I’ve been told by a previous publisher that books sell better with real people on the cover, and his best sellers proved that. However, I’m going to take Phil’s advice for my next book and see if objects instead of people cause the readers to flock to my Amazon page!


    • I think hard-and-fast rules create ruts and cause complications we don’t need. Yes, people on a cover can convey a message that’s useful Human interest stories – your mother-in-law book, for example — that’s a great image. But I write series and if I put an image of the main character on the front of every book, I either have to accept they will not look like the same person or I have to maintain a relationship with the model through the series. That’s a complication and not worth the effort (in my opinion).

      Liked by 1 person

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