He Looks Like What?!

So here I am, reading “Imminent Danger and How to Fly Straight into it” and having a grand old time. I like Eris a lot (maybe partly because she reminds me so much of me), and Michelle Proulx has managed to create a male… well, I don’t know what he is. He’s certainly antagonistic, but something tells me he’s not going to end up being the enemy, so… prantagonist. That’s what he is. Anyway, he might be even less likeable than mine, which pleases me greatly. Why go half-way, right?

The book is a YA sci-fi, which means lots and lots of ALIENS. Obviously an author isn’t going to spend pages describing every detail of every creature we run into; that would be boring, and to my mind unnecessary. If it’s not important to my understanding of the story, I like to be given a few details to sketch a character in my mind, and then be allowed to fill in the rest myself. Tell me a character is deadly attractive and give me a few details; let me decide the rest for myself.

This book is a good example of that approach, but it’s made me consider a question I’ve asked myself before: how do the characters in my mind match up with the ones in the author’s?

This goes for any book. It’s one of the reasons I get nervous when a favourite book is being turned into a movie or TV mini-series (hi there, Under the Dome!); there’s no way all of the actors will look like they do in my head, and it ruins it a bit for me.

I drew a sketch of one of the characters from Imminent Danger, Miguri. He’s described as humanoid, 3 feet tall, brown-skinned, with massive blue eyes and a mop of white hair, plus a huge white, furry tail. He wears a brown, knee-length, belted tunic. Also, Eris thinks he looks like a cross between a monkey and a garden gnome, which kind of tickled me. And this is what came to mind:


I didn’t say it was a GOOD sketch 😉

It’s a great description, isn’t it? But I’d be willing to bet money that Michelle Proulx’s mental image of Miguri is nothing like mine. There were still blanks to be filled in, weren’t there? Ear shape, for one. My mind made them big and pointy, I don’t know why. Face shape is another; I guess what I see in my mind came from the monkey thing. Even the shape of the milky-white gem on his belt and the way that it’s hanging are probably off; I picture a smooth, round gem, but in the author’s mind it could be cut and polished.

I like that. It’s like a collaboration between writer and reader, and something new is created every time a different person reads a story.

I also wonder what people think my characters look like, the ones I’ve created. I tend to lean toward less description; Rowan has auburn hair and grey eyes, fact. I know exactly what she looks like in my mind, but does it really matter if someone else pictures her differently? Not so much. Aren gets a bit more description as Rowan notices things about him, but again the details are up to the reader to fill in. Does it affect the story if I think Rowan has a few freckles? Not unless Aren notices them when it’s his turn to speak. Then it matters… but he generally has other things on his mind.

Likewise for creatures. I don’t have a plethora of aliens to describe, but I have critters and creatures. My horses are rather unusual, so they get a few extra lines of description, but when a dog appears and I say “brown shaggy mutt,” you guys can feel free to give him floppy ears or straight as you see fit. Heck, give him white socks and a black patch over one eye. Have fun with it.

Stephen King says a little about this in On Writing, and if you haven’t read that one, I highly recommend it. He’s an author who tends to give very little physical description of characters unless it’s important to the story (or his POV character is observing it), but I’ve never had trouble picturing his characters in my mind.

One other note, while we’re on the topic: do you guys remember when they revealed the casting for the Hunger Games movie, and there were people who were outraged that Rue was being played by a black girl? Oh, the horror. -_-  How dare they use this beloved character to promote some kind of… Well, I don’t even remember what the arguments were, I tuned them out, they all sounded like assholes. Basically, people thought it was political, and were for some reason upset about racial diversity.

Guess what?

“She has bright, dark eyes and satiny brown skin…”

The Hunger Games, chapter 7, page 98 in my edition. Quoted.

It doesn’t matter how you describe your characters, people are going to see what they want to see in their minds. If I pictured Miguri as a fluffy, pink-haired, horse-faced, 7-foot-tall thing with nifty shoes… that would be really weird, but I doubt the author would lose any sleep over it.

What do you guys think? When you’re reading, do you see characters clearly in your mind? Do you prefer more description, or less? When (and if) you’re writing, how badly do you want your readers to understand your vision of your characters, human or otherwise?


About Kate Sparkes

Kate Sparkes was born in Hamilton, Ontario, but now resides in Newfoundland, where she tries not to talk too much about the dragons she sees in the fog. She lives with five cats, two dogs, and just the right amount of humans. USA Today bestselling author of the Bound Trilogy (mature YA Fantasy), Into Elurien, and Vines and Vices. Writing dark, decadent, and deadly Urban Fantasy as Tanith Frost. www.katesparkes.com www.tanithfrost.com View all posts by Kate Sparkes

14 responses to “He Looks Like What?!

  • Kathy Dunlavey

    Yup, sure do!!! I don’t read science fiction, but the characters come alive to me in whatever genre I am reading, almost always to the point where I am afraid to see movie adaptations…even good ones (which are far and few between). I LOVE Dan Brown’s books, but ever since I saw The DaVinci Code movie, I have never been able to read another of his books without picturing Tom Hanks as Robert Langdon. I love Tom Hanks, but he looks nothing like the character I had so firmly imagined!! I could go on and on with examples. I think those of us who truly love to read, immerse ourselves in our books, and invest so much of our own imaginations in the characters, that we should avoid movie adaptations at all costs. Now, having said that, I can’t wait to see the next one so I can complain about the casting!!!:). P.S. your sketch is wonderful…and I say that with no Aunt/Godmother bias at all…you are extremely talented!!

    • katemsparkes

      Completely unbiased, you is!

      Thanks for commenting! Agreed on all counts. I love that they make books into movies for people who prefer that– great stories should be shared. But a lot of the time I’d rather not see them (with some exceptions)

    • Kathy Dunlavey

      Also…I prefer the author to leave as much to my imagination as possible. I have actually put books aside when so much description is given that I can’t reconcile the author’s vision with the pictures in my head!!!!

      • katemsparkes

        What, you don’t like the old, “I woke, stumbled to the mirror and inspected every facet of my own appearance entirely for the reader’s benefit” opening in a novel? 😉

    • katemsparkes

      I had to stop watching the TV version of “Bag of Bones” because Pierce Brosnan, while attractive, looked and sounded so much NOT like Mike Noonan (and they cast the little girl, Kyra, completely wrong and too old) that it was going to wreck the book for me. I didn’t want them in my head when I read the book again.

  • Michelle Proulx

    Your Miguri sketch is absolutely adorable!!! Someone needs to make that into a plush toy, like, RIGHT NOW.

    I’ll be honest, my mental image of my characters shifts from day to day. Sometimes Miguri is just a tiny human with poofy hair and a tail, sometimes he’s a full-on monkey, sometimes he’s in-between … it really just depends what level of insanity my imagination happens to be at that particular day 😀

    Also, can I share your lovely image? I’d love to feature it in my next blog post, and I have a section up on my website for fan art. You would, of course, get all the credit 😀

  • Jae

    I prefer just enough to give me an idea, but not more than that. And I like authors best who weave the description in more naturally, like comparing their looks to others or someone making fun of their crooked nose, etc.

  • mysticcooking

    I like a solid description, as long as it’s done creatively. For instance, Harry Potter has some of the best physical descriptions ever, especially of Snape. The greasy dark curtains of hair, the beak-like nose…love it! I also thought “The Raven Boys” had some really good physical descriptions as well, but none of them went overboard. Definite features were described, and then from there you were on your own to imagine the characters as you wanted.

    • katemsparkes

      Yeah, I don’t have many complaints about anything JK Rowling did in the Harry Potter books. I think more description is better in MG books, anyway- really gives younger readers more for their imaginations to build on.

  • And now … to cheat blatantly at Camp NaNoWriMo … | Michelle Proulx - The Blog

    […] fan art!!! Today’s offering comes from the lovely Kate Sparks. Check out her rendition of Miguri, the loveable, contraction-phobic […]

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