What Does Your Main Character Look Like? Why Your Readers Care

Joan Fontaine as Jane Eyre? I don't think so!

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.

Do these people look odd? They should; they're police sketches of fictional characters!

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!

This image of Jane Eyre makes sense to my imagination

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.

This is the right look for Jane Eyre (Charlotte Gainsbourg; 1996); not glamorised or prettified.

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.

The website shows the faces of Humbert Humbert,  from Nabokov’s Lolita; Vaughan, from J.G. Ballards Crash; Aomame, from Haruki Murakami‘s 1Q84; Emma Bovary, Tess of the d’Urbervilles and many others.

Now that we can see what our favorite characters look like, though, will we want to? Perhaps some things are best left to the imagination.


9 thoughts on “What Does Your Main Character Look Like? Why Your Readers Care

    • I know exactly what you’re saying; I have wrestled with this question!! I have been told that you have to give your reader the information all at once, but it feels more realistic and natural to mention the bits as pieces as you go. I’m compromising by giving readers the bulk of the information in the beginning (when I introduce the main character) and then a little bit here and there, as it comes up and seems appropriate. Good question, though, and one I have really thought about a lot!

      • Interesting answer. I tend to think any time you can increase subtlety, it’s better for the story. “Show don’t tell” is really exhibition over exposition. We create exhibits and field trips with our writing, taking the reader to a place or person and let them discover. When we exposit, we lecture and preach.

        All that to say I WANT to give them all the goods but I FEEL like I should wait and lure them in. It’s a hard line…

      • I know; I agree with you (in principle). But what I found was that I was increasing subtlety to the point where my readers were confused and asked too many frustrating questions, some of which it became clear I had to answer earlier on. Now, I’m writing a murder mystery, so I thought, ah, we need more subtlety, not less, but apparently readers need a little more detail to light their way in the darkness of your intentions. If it weren’t for my readers, though, I would obfuscate up the yin yang, but (sadly) readers’ needs trump my desire to be as mysterious as I’d like to be. 😉

      • I think a lot depends on what it is you’re trying to hide, if you know what I mean. Some things really shouldn’t be hidden. But then, for example, I have a main character about whom I would like to keep certain details to myself early on, and only reveal them as the plot develops. I’ve heard from two readers (neither of whom know the other) that I’m holding too many cards to my chest. Unfortunately, from my perspective, it just simply feels wrong to reveal too much early on, so I’m probably going to be more, rather than less, obfuscating and we shall see how agents take it. If they too say the same thing, then I will be forced to revise.

      • Yeah, that’s exactly why McKee says “use exposition as ammunition.” In other words, build conflict with information, don’t release it until it’s crucial to escalate things.

      • Yeah, exactly; I think that’s the important thing that only you can know for sure (when is it crucial to escalate things). Your reader doesn’t know the story as you’ve created it in your head (or in outlining). So they really can’t judge. This is why it’s important, in my opinion, not to let the wrong people read your stuff.

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