How often do you imagine what your favorite fictional character looks like?
How often do you wrestle with the author over the amount of detail you need to actually see your favorite character clearly in your mind’s eye? We make an emotional connection with the protagonist, and it ends up mattering very much to us what the main character looks like. Characters have the potential to become more real for readers than their own family members, and can elicit just as much sympathy and concern.
Charlotte Brontë sketched her protagonist, Jane Eyre, as not particularly pretty. Jane had a small mouth, a high forehead, and unhealthy skin. I have no real idea what Jane Eyre actually looked like; I have to create her in my mind’s eye. Yet when I’ve seen actresses portray her, most of the time, they seem mis-cast. One is left wondering, in fact, what did Jane look like to Charlotte Brontë? She certainly didn’t describe a woman who looked like Joan Fontaine!
When a movie is made, or TV series created, you see the actor portraying your favorite character, and you sense, without knowing why, that the casting is simply wrong. The character isn’t supposed to look like that! But how do you know?
We’re relying on our sense of what this person looks like, the person’s face we create in our minds based on the bits and pieces the author gives us. As a writer, I believe that creating the character’s face for my reader is one of my most challenging tasks.
It feels very much like painting on a small canvas using too-large brushes, because the level of detail I’d need to let you see what I see seems obsessive to get into. I must, for the sake of brevity, leave you to fill in the missing pieces of the visual mosaic I’ve attempted to create for you. Hopefully, you will care enough about the character to fill in those blanks.
BBC News reports today that it’s possible to apply police sketch technology to recreate the characters of our imagination, making it that much easier to be sure the character’s representation matches our inner vision:
No matter how lovingly a fictional character is rendered in print, he or she is still just a figment of the literary imagination, with a face readers can only imagine.
Inevitably, a film adaptation prompts protests that whoever was cast doesn’t get the look quite right, though it’s never truly clear just what the look should be.
But now a new website uses police technology to sketch out faces of characters described in notable novels. Called The Composites, it shows images of literary characters created by using the author’s description of a character with law enforcement composite-sketch software.