The Face of a Hero

girlfrommars During my book club’s latest meeting, a friend who’d seen the play version of a novel most of us had read, showed around some leaflets of the production and asked whether the two actors who played the leads were in accordance with how we’d imagined them. This lead to a rather funny moment, because of the six women present, three instantly claimed they never visualize the main protagonists of any novel they read, whereas the other three said they visualized them without fail, and that watching a stage or movie production later with actors that didn’t fit with their expectations, could ruin the play or film for them.

I never ever fully visualize people in books. I do kind of register their attributes – what hair color, tall or tiny, a scar etc. – but I never give them a real face. As a result, while I am bothered by actors (or even cover images) not fitting the descriptions in the books, like Emma Watson’s hair being all wrong for Hermione, as long as the actors’ looks don’t contradict what is said about these people in the book, I’m fine with about any actor.

With some attributes, not really visualizing a hero or heroine can actually help. For instance, I am quickly annoyed by characters’ unusual (and usually meaningful) eye colors, like moss, violet or amber. So as long as it’s not constantly rubbed in by the narrator, I can read about such a character quite happily thinking of him or her as green-, blue- or hazel-eyed. The same applies to heroes’ muscles. For some reason, my taste is not to heavily muscled men in real life. When I am reminded of a hero’s huge torso and each single muscle, I tend to find that off-putting or giggle-worthy. As long as I mostly ignore his muscles, I am a far happier reader.

Once I have seen a movie version, I am influenced by the way the actor who played a character looks. And it’s the first actor I’ve seen – my Mr. Darcy is far more David Rintoul than Colin Firth, much as I enjoyed the latter’s performance. To a lesser extent, this may apply to covers, as well. Mostly I am able to ignore the way the leads look on a cover, but sometimes a cover model may kind of inhibit my perception – or rather, my freedom to imagine – the heroine or hero. Naturally, this is most often the case when I find a cover really awful! As a result, I really prefer covers that can’t do this because they don’t show the leads’ faces. I love covers with flowers, landscapes, funny drawings and people with their heads cut off.

Now, I sometimes go to authors’ websites because I want to find out more about a series, and I have come across a trend of putting up photographs of people that are supposed to look like the heroes and, less often, the heroines of the books discussed on this pages – recent examples are Sherrilyn Kenyon and Roxanne St. Claire. I find those pictures really jarring. The men in the pictures usually look like male pin-ups in their early twenties, but what I want to think about is this lovely hero in the book who is 38 and has seen a lot. You’d imagine, even with all his undisputed gorgeousness, that some of this experience would be reflected in his face? Not so if you look at the pictures. So what I must mostly do after spotting such a picture is exorcise it quite thoroughly from my mind to get “my” hero back, which is a bother I prefer to avoid.

Authors – you’ll make this reader very happy by not putting up photos of your “heroes” and “heroines” on your webpages.

Fellow readers – what’s your opinion? Do you visualize romance heroes and heroines? And do you like to see their pictures at an author’s website?

– Rike Horstmann

18 thoughts on “The Face of a Hero

  1. I actually thought Johnny Lee Miller was a good fit as EMMA’s George Knightly. After having been put off by seeing Mark Strong play him in the earlier version, I had thought I’d never find my perfect Mr. Knightly but Miller came pretty close. With his slightly receding hairline I thought he seemed more mature rather than less.

    Then there is Captain Wentworth of PERSUASION. I wonder if I’ll ever find a right fit there. Don’t get me started on Ciaran Hinds in his rages and while Rupert Penry-Jones has a pretty face, he is all that is wooden as an actor. We’ve had a couple of good Darcy’s like Firth and Rintoul, so why can’t we get a good Wentworth?

  2. It seems to me that actually seeing the pictures is limiting in a way – I guess it closes off possibilities. At the same time, some characters are just hard for me to get a grasp on, and then I appreciate at least a hint at what the author was thinking.

    I guess we all hate the cheesy covers. I don’t understand why some of the models they put on can’t actually be 38, or however old they’re supposed to be. Why can’t they show people who are attractive without looking like Barbie and Ken?

  3. I’m mostly with you Rike. Although Colin Firth is my Mr. Darcy because he was the first one I saw. If I see the picture first it doesn’t bother me so much, but if the picture is not what I expected, that can jar. Mostly I don’t envision a face either, it’s more a body shape with a shadowy face. The only time I remember actually envisioning an actual person, was in Nora Robert’s Northern Lights – Sheriff Nate seemed a lot like Nathan Fillion to me and the character fitted with others he’s played on TV and in film. (It worked for me anyway!) But, mostly they’re just faceless and I prefer it that way.

  4. I dislike headless or faceless torsos on covers. There’s something that bothers me about reducing a person to a torso or a back. I’d rather see a whole person with a face. I’m pretty good at rejecting the image altogether if it doesn’t work as I visualize the character. Same reason I don’t mind seeing the author’s vision and I’ll even fess up to having liked a few video book trailers. Trailers done for Leslie Parrish’s Black Cat series and Karen Rose’s Vartanian series are quite well done and I didn’t have to erase any of the visual images. As long as the cover model is visually appealing to me I can live with it. If not, then erase erase. Always have to mentally shave mustaches found in books from the 70s.

    I rarely cast but I’ve got a few. I’m sorry, but Pierce Brosnan IS Roarke and I will not entertain any argument :) Eve is a model I saw in a magazine and I don’t know her name. As soon as I read Karen Rose’s description of blonde and buff Daniel Vartanian, actor Kevin McKidd poppped into my head and stayed.

  5. I don’t generally visualize characters, and I dislike covers that impose specific images (especially monstrous muscles or simpering). But on this, YES:

    “my Mr. Darcy is far more David Rintoul than Colin Firth”

    David Rintoul’s appearance and performance correspond to the Darcy of my imagination. That doesn’t happen often; the setting of the Lord of the Rings films is the other instance that comes to mind.

  6. I don’t need or get a clear picture of faces of characters as I tend to be more attracted to their personalities and attributes such as kindness, intellect, humour, etc. I loathe the cheesy covers that we sometimes get. The Fabio type covers are so obnoxious that I think they help contribute to the general denigration and dismissal of the romantic genre. A cover without people on it is often better. I did think, however, that the covers on the Georgette Heyer re-releases were good where there were covers that looked like period paintings – much better than the covers on the old versions I have on the keeper shelf from the 1970s.

  7. I thought everyone visualized the characters when they read! For me, I visualize everything the author describes including a clear picture of the characters. I don’t think I would be able to enjoy the stories at all if I couldn’t visualize them clearly, especially the faces. I never rely on the covers to help me visualize the characters especially since they rarely fit the author’s description (the curvy heroine who is pictured as a size zero in the cover always kills me!).

  8. Yes, I agree about not liking the pictures or videos that authors provide on their websites. My imagination can create faces from the authors’ words.

  9. I do visualize characters, usually not in great detail but with enough specificity that I can tell whether the cover model is right or wrong based on my image of the hero or heroine. Like others, I do not want the characters to be described in exhaustive, and exhausting, detail. Cover models usually don’t make much of an impression, but a model with a face I don’t care for can sorta, kinda get in the way. I then have to expend mental energy (of which I have only a limited amount) to push that image away and replace it with one I like. My favorite covers tend to have people who meet *my* definition of the H/H, but tastes vary (an immediate example is that I liked Joseph Fiennes as Shakespeare, although I totally agree with Nana about Gary Oldman), and I think it’s often safer to have a partial portrait, either bottom of head only or character seen from the back, rather than a whole one for that exact reason.

  10. I don’t visualize the faces at all. I do like to have a brief description of the characters. I don’t enjoy the pictures and u-tube videos that authors are doing now. . Half the time, I don’t think that the individuals that they pick are attractive. Leaving it to the readers imagination is so much better. We each have different ideas of what is attractive and what isn’t.

    I also hate reading about body issues. ex. my thighs are too big, I am bald, etc. The author doesn’t have to go on and on about how gorgeous they are, but then again, I don’t want to read about how their big nose overpowers their face.

  11. The recent Georgette Heyer reissues have had covers that have me rethinking what men were supposed to look like back then. Did they really wear white hose and small heeled pumps? And the women are not very attractive. Not that I want a model but someone not ugly would be nice. Were women’s heads smaller back then? If you look at the cover of a Convienent Marriage, you might think so. I’d rather look at flowers or cut off heads!

  12. I’ve realized that I don’t really visualize characters when reading but if I do see an adaptation of a book done and it’s not what I “would” have visualized if I did, then I get annoyed. For instance, Emma Watson as Hermione Granger really bothered me because I thought she was too pretty for the character.

    I know that authors generally have very little say in covers, but it drives me crazy when the people on the covers are blatantly not what the characters in the book should be (i.e if the hero has black hair and on the cover, he’s portrayed with bleach blond hair, or the wrong eye color etc).

    It used to bother me that I don’t visualize characters or settings while reading so I tried once to make a conscious effort to visualize while reading and it was far too distracting.

  13. Victoria S. – there was totally something wrong about Ralph Fiennes as Shakespeare. I think it was a combination of the eyelashes, and the fact that his head is really tiny relative to his shoulders.

    Beth W. – I think Lord of the Rings was full of actors like that, especially Eowyn and Galadriel: different from the books but compelling and effective in a new way. Some characters, of course, were bang-on. Ian McKellen as Gandalf, Billy Boyd as Pippin, and Sean Bean as Boromir were exactly the way I pictured them from the books.

    When actors fail, I don’t think it’s because they look “wrong” to me (except for hair color; I’m very picky about that), but it’s that they don’t make me feel the way the character is supposed to make me feel. I had a crush on Sirius Black from Harry Potter, so a bedraggled Gary Oldman in the role was just unacceptable. Similarly, Jonny Lee Miller didn’t quite work for me in the recent BBC Emma. Something in the charisma wasn’t there – I didn’t get the air of authority mixed with humor. Sometimes he came across as just a immature.

  14. I too much prefer covers without faces. Or unusual and unlikely modelish bodies, for that matter.

    I prefer my imagination to the pretty boy or girl actor/model flavor of the week. And that way the books don’t look outdated so obviously as well.

  15. I rarely picture a face on either the hero or heroine when I am read. I can get a clear visual of the person, but the actual face isn’t clear. As for books turned into movies, I just recently read Crazy Heart (was a book long before a movie) and I have to say that the character in the book looks just Jeff Bridges. Fits perfectly.
    As for authors putting up pictures on their websites, I don’t like it. While I can understand an author thinking of the face of a model, actor or musician, or whoever while forming a character, I wish she would keep it to herself. It seems just a little juvenile to me. And the book covers..I am liking the covers that only show the lower half of the face. I think the eyes say everything about a person and when they are not shown, we as readers at least have that left to our imagination.

  16. In another conversation about this very topic, I said that yes, I do visualize a character – sometimes the face is clearer than other times – but I couldn’t describe him/her to anyone. I know in my head what Jamie Fraser looks like, but I can’t tell you.
    I’m not really influenced by pics on author’s websites or fan pages – I can shrug those off easily – but I am influenced by movies/tv series/plays. This can be good or bad, or sometimes both.
    For example, I have had a crush on Aragorn from Lord of the Rings since the first time I read those books eons ago, and a very clear picture in my head as to what Aragorn looked like. When the first movie came out, Viggo was so NOT my Aragorn, and it really distracted me at first. Then I decided that Viggo’s Aragorn was really rather yummy, and I now happily can picture that Aragorn, and I don’t even remember what MY Aragorn looked like. I’m OK with that.

  17. Rike, I’m a lot like you in that I never fully visualize the faces, but do register characteristics also. I too love covers with flowers, or scenes , Deanna Raybourn has some of my favorite book covers. Shana Abe has some of the most interesting, and I’ve never read one of her books. I like that most Nora Roberts Covers don’t have faces either. The new trend with the heads cut off are perfect for how I only visualize characteristics, because I can focus on something other than the H/H faces, and I love looking at the beautiful gowns. I like interesting covers, two people in a fake clinch is NOT interesting. I really can’t say I am a fan of authors’ website photos of H/H, Rike, you are spot on!! Anybody who is supposed to have some character and living on their faces is not gonna be a good model and a 20something pin up does nothing for me at all!!
    In two of my favorite period movies, Little Women and Sense and Sensibility, the actors portrayal of the characters were fine enough that I could accept them as characters. I love Shakespeare In Love, but the guy who played Shakespeare seemed a little small and too pretty for me. He did a great job, but I could not get him as William Shakespere…. and this is why I don’t like to visualize characters. I want to enjoy the story not worry about what someone looks like.
    Oddly enough I too can ignore a bad lead on the cover of a book more so than a movie.
    When I come across bad H/H portrayals on covers or in movies I just say to myself “They just didn’t know any better” and move on.

  18. Rike – great topic!

    Visualization is key to my enjoyment – I can’t read romance without it. But I’m not tied to the book’s physical descriptions and don’t care about the leads’ eye or hair color. Usually I have the looks of the character firmly in my mind before starting the book. I have a roster of lead characters I pull from and some can play more humorous roles while others are definitely the serious type.

    I’ve discovered over the past few years that I probably take visualization to the extreme but it is what works the best for me to get maximum enjoyment. And I’m sure that the fact that I’m a visual learner somehow plays into it all as well.

    Pictures of leads on authors’ websites are a non-issue since I don’t pay attention to anyone else’s visualizations – including (and especially) book covers.

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