How Do You Picture Characters? {Discussion}

Discussion Post


The other day, Brent randomly asked me: “When you picture characters while you’re reading…do you picture them as the models on the book’s cover if it’s a picture of people?”

And I had to stop and think for a couple of minutes. Do I? Do other people? Am I supposed to? These are interesting questions! So I thought I’d center a discussion post around his really insightful conversation-starter (see? Even though he’s not really into reading, he definitely still supports the whole “bookworm” thing).

I think that the answer, for me personally, is…sometimes yes and sometimes no. But I’m not really sure why.

Take, for example, the Pushing the Limits series. None of the cover models really look anything like the people I ended up picturing in my head while reading the books.

Pushing the Limits Series

Sure, their hair color is right. But everything else? Not exactly what I had in mind. And for some reason, seeing those models on the covers before reading the books didn’t influence that! Whether it’s because the covers are really off or McGarry’s characterization is so great (I’m leaning towards that one), I was still able to make up my own ideas of what the characters look like, even though those covers are basically screaming: “Here, this is what you should be picturing.”

And I kind of like that! I don’t necessarily want to be shown exactly what the characters look like. A huge part of the reading experience is connecting with the text, using your imagination, and recreating the world of the book inside your own mind. Some publishing company telling me what I should be imagining kind of makes the process less pure in a way.

But just because I prefer being able to picture the characters on my own doesn’t mean that I hate it when I’m given a helping hand.

Two examples of book covers that definitely influenced my imagination are from The Other Typist by Suzanne Rindell and LoveLines by S. Walden.

PicMonkey Collage.jpg

In the case of The Other Typist, I was actually having a little bit of trouble picturing Odalie, one of the main characters, who is actually pictured on this version of the cover. I think it was because she was just so mysterious. It was hard for me to get a feel for her, so I remember referring back to the cover image a few times while reading this book — to remember her intriguing eyes and 1920s modern haircut.

But with LoveLines, the reason I ended up picturing Bailey as the girl on the cover was because I just thought that the model matched up so perfectly with what I had in mind. I couldn’t have imagined her any different! I actually think that this is a really interesting example, because I actually didn’t picture Reese at all like his cover model. It was weird to have one be so right and the other be so wrong (at least in my head!).

I think that makes an important distinction — that it’s not always the author’s writing (like in Pushing the Limit’s case or possibly The Other Typist‘s) that affects how I picture the characters — because it’s not like Bailey’s characterization in LoveLines was so weak that I had to rely on the cover and Reese’s was so strong that I couldn’t ignore my own imagination.

I guess it really depends on a lot of different elements!

I do have to say, though, that I pretty much always picture the characters as their respective actors if the book ends up becoming a movie, whether or not I see the movie before or after reading the book. But that’s another discussion for another time!


So you tell me! Do you picture a book’s characters as its cover models (if applicable)? Do you ever picture a character completely differently? What do you think affects whether or not the character you picture looks like the cover? If you’re like me — sometimes yes and sometimes no — do you picture one (your own vs. the cover models) more often than the other?




18 responses to “How Do You Picture Characters? {Discussion}

  1. I actually never picture them as the models on the book – but I don’t think I ever form a mental image of what a character looks like. Mainly, I think about how their character is. I think that’s one of the reasons I like to see books I’ve read turned into movies – because then I get a visual (either good or bad).

  2. Interesting topic today! I’ve never thought about this before, but after thinking about it I don’t think I ever picture characters as cover images portray them. With one exception-Gail Carriger’s Parasol Protectorate series has covers that are so distinctive, with the protagonist’s image, that I always pictured her just like she was portrayed 🙂

  3. Fun topic! I’m like you, it really depends. For the Katie McGarry books, I felt like the cover models looked similar to how I pictured them, but not exactly. The cover model for Isaiah was not at all how I pictured Isaiah, but Rachel was pretty close, and I was probably influenced by the cover model. The Take Me On cover models looked nothing like I pictured those characters.

    I don’t always picture the movie actors like the characters though. Take Harry Potter, whether it was before I saw the movies, or after, I never pictured Harry like Daniel Radcliffe. Well, that’s not completely true. Young Daniel in the first couple movies was fairly similar to how I always pictured Harry, but I can’t seem to fit older Daniel onto how I imagine Harry Potter.

    But I never pictured Hermione looking like Emma Watson before the movies, but now I can’t picture Hermione any other way.

    • The cover model for Isaiah is probably the one that I think least looks like the character I pictured in my mind! Weird that it’s the same for both of us haha.

      I don’t know what it is with me and movies…once I see an actor playing a part, I just can’t get them out of my head, no matter what.

  4. I actually don’t picture characters beyond their hair color, and sometimes I even have the wrong hair color until it’s corrected when I’m reading. I love really vivid settings and scenery, but as far as characters I generally picture very fuzzy people standing in the scenes. So I kind of like it when a book is made into a movie, or there’s a cover model, that way I can use them to stand in for my lack of imagination 😛

    • Haha. Sometimes I have trouble picturing characters, too. It depends on the book…some people are more vivid than others. Hair color always trips me up, too! It’s something that, unless made abundantly clear, I don’t latch onto about a person while reading. So sometimes I’ll have pictured somebody and they have the wrong hair color and I don’t realize it until way later in the book. But if that happens I’ll usually just shrug and think “Well, if I pictured this person with this color hair, that’s just the color that they’re supposed to have!”

  5. I never thought about this until you brought it up. If there is a cover model it can influence how I picture a character OR it will be how I picture them but only if it happens to fit how I think of them. If that even makes sense. In general though, I don’t think that I have a clear picture of the characters. I think of them as people when I think of them but not so clear a picture that I could draw them or anything. It’s more of a vague sense of how I think they look.

  6. What about in book adaptatations? I watched the first episode of game of thrones before reading the books so all of those character’s actors influenced who I pictured.

  7. My images of fictional characters often don’t match up with the cover, since I tend to imaging characters as illustrations, the style of the illustrations depending on the mood of the story… It might be a bit weird, but that’s just what I do! And another little fact: I don’t like imagining guys with blonde hair, so if a male character is described with blonde hair, I will basically just scratch out every mention of his hair color from my mind. O_O

    • That is actually really really cool! Wow I never imagined anybody doing that, but I love the sound of it now that you tell me about it.

      Don’t worry, I don’t like it when guys have blonde hair either. Can they just never have that??

      • It’s super fun and makes characters look cuter! You should try it sometime 😉

        Blonde guys should be banned from books. Forever. Blondies who want to be represented in fiction should just write the “he has blonde hair” in themselves with a red pen. There’s no need to make people like us suffer. I’m so totally serious right now 😛

  8. Cover models never influence how I picture the characters. They’re usually so random anyway so it doesn’t play into what I have in mind. Even when reading the Harry Potter series, having already watched some of the movies and known Harry, Ron and Hermione as their respective actors, I still didn’t find that my picture of the characters were really influenced by the movie depiction. I can’t say at all because there definitely was a bit but for the most part, they were two separate things for me.

  9. I don’t think I always see characters in THAT much detail unless it’s a major series like HP. And then after seeing an adaptation, that’s who I see in my head and I can’t remember what I used to see before, like in TMI. I see certain scenes up close, like if there’s a description of hair curling at the nape of a neck, I’ll see like a close-up shot, but for the most part I kind of see whole scenes that doesn’t really focus on facial expressions and whatnot. I’m beginning to think I’m the weird-est person in the world ever. No matter what cover models look like that’s never what I see. I have a messed up cinema in my head apparently.

    • I think you’re probably more normal than you think! SO many people responded to this post saying that they never picture the characters as the cover models, or even actors (if it’s been turned into a movie). I was surprised!

      I don’t always focus on facial expressions or little details like that, either. And sometimes I have trouble picturing characters, too, and their faces will just be kind of blurry in my mind.

  10. Most of the time the models will not in any way affect me, they’ll just piss me off. I hate it, loathe it, when I am given a model on the front cover.

    Part of reading is imagining the world the author has given us, and the characters are a major part of that world. So don’t take that away from me by giving me some model that (mostly) looks nothing like the character in the books – PLEASE.

    I remember Nara @ Looking for the Panacea posted about visualising characters, and I said something along the lines of: I pretty much see characters as blobs until something specific is pointed out. Which is true. Unless I am reading a certain passage about expressive brown eyes, the characters are a kind of blurry image of what I have been told to see. I don’t visualise so specifically as to see a fully formed human (HAHA that sounds weird), like a model.

    So I guess that is one of the reasons having models annoys me. Because I have a blurry Chiara-formed image in my head.

    But other covers are fine. I love it if it is a place that is mentioned in the book because then it can help me better visualise the setting.

    And, strangely enough, sometimes I am all over animated/drawn covers. For example, Wildwood Dancing by Juliet Mariller has a beautiful drawing of the main character on the front and it is EXACTLY how I imagine Jena (the character) every time I read that book.

    But models? *hiss* No, thanks ;D

    • Haha wow I’m surprised how many people are both SO against cover models and also don’t really form pictures of characters in their minds when they read. I learn so much about other people from these discussion posts! A lot of times I’ll have a response in mind that I think I’m going to get from people, but a lot of times people comment completely differently from what I’m expecting.

      And I think that it’s really interesting that two different people, yourself included, either usually or at one point have pictured characters as animations. That totally blows my mind! That’s never happened to me before. I’m kind of jealous haha 😉

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