Imagining fictional characters

10:40 AM

How do you imagine Holden Caufield? What do you think Emma Bovary (and her husband's childhood hat) look like? Does Gatsby look more like Leonard diCaprio or Robert Redford?

The other day I came across The Composites, a website that uses a sketch software and book descriptions to make mug shots of literary characters. It's funny because the result is very realistic but the person being sketched is not actually real.

 Holly Golightly from Breakfast at Tiffany's
Her mug shot from The Composites and Audrey Hepburn in the 1961's movie

This got me thinking that some of those drawings, despite matching perfectly with the description given by the author, don't really match my own perception of the character.

I mean, the author gives you a description - some will offer more details, others less. Then the reader goes and puts in a lot of his own feelings and imagination. In a way, it's not only the author who decides what the character looks like. Think about it, each girl probably has her own image of what kind of man Mr. Darcy looks like.

I have a little system of my own. When reading a book, I try to picture a character according to the author's descriptions but I never follow them too strictly. Sometimes if the description and the character's personality match a famous person, usually an actor, I'll use that person's appearance.

For example, in Jane Austen's Emma, Mr. Frank Churchill looks like Adam Brody to me. He seems just like the type of guy who would suddenly leave town just to get a haircut in London.

And who's to say Mr. Churchill isn't handsome too?
But sometimes the character's personality is also very important, so then I'll just picture someone new in my head. Mr. Knightley, from Emma,  is a much more diffuse image. Handsome but not vain. Tall, thin but strong at the same time - kind of like the guy who played the last Superman but older and with more personality (no offense).

In this sense, movies can either help or hinder our imagination. Winston from 1984 will always be John Hurt. But I don't think Mr. Darcy looks like Matthew Macfayden or Lawrence Olivier.

Images via: 1, 2, 3

How do you picture your characters when you're reading? I'd love to hear what actors you think your favorite characters look like!

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  1. Good question ... As I grew up listening to radio (radio soap operas were a must!!), I end up "picturing" the characters by voice. I barely "see" how the character looks like, but imagine which kind of voice he would have ...

    1. That's so interesting! I suppose "listening" to the characters is just as important as "seeing" them.

      I only do this when I'm reading a book in a different language. For example, I'm reading a book in Spanish right now and I try to imagine a Spanish person I know reading it to me. I don't like my own voice in Spanish! Just like in that episode of Seinfeld where George can't listen an audiobook anymore because the voice it's similar to his own (

  2. If I can refresh this one, very nice topic!...

    I have to say it's often tricky with some characters... and with age of a reader - I mean, when I was younger, I used to follow description completely imagining hero out from author's words only - whether it was Robinson Cruzoe or any other.
    But the more I grew up I started to compare those faces with people I know, movie stars or... with myself... well, maybe that's my writer's habit... I often envision "actors" who could "play" certain characters even before a clear description of that character is given... which sometimes makes me wanna argue with an author - "no no no no... he would look better without a mustache" etc ;)

    And the other thing - do You ever get tricked by differences of a character in books and film version? Especially if You saw the film version earlier... this is a case with me sometimes - like with all those Sharpe series, where I always envisioned main hero after Sean Bean's portrayal, when he's actually a brunet with a scar in original :)
    Same with Erast Fandorin series - I had a serious doubt of author's vision after watching "Tukish Gambit" first :)

  3. How interesting you "disagree" with the author about what a character should look like. I think that's how the reader can become an integral part of the creation process.

    When movies enter the equation it gets more complicated.

    Sometimes they help, but sometimes our expectations can kill the movie. The Three Musketeers will always be Charlie Sheen, Kiefer Sutherland and Oliver Platt to me. (I once saw a man on the street who looked exactly with a musketeer, actually. And he was wearing a suit and a tie...). But I usually don't like Jane Austen adaptations because the actors don't sell it to me, you know?

    I really want to watch the movies you mentioned, I never heard of them before. xx

  4. "reader as an integral part of the creation process" - that's a great thought :)
    It's funny that a lot of authors novadays, especially those from small "book societies", actually do let others participate in that process from a very early stage.
    Wonder if great classics used to to that back then?

    Hehe :) I was actually thinking of Michael York! Thing is his versions had been shown plenty of times in polish TV when I've watched "Your version" only like one time. And I absolutely loved Chamberlain as Aramis... as much as "Shogun" of course ;)

    With TV adaptations generally I had this thought that every reader should be given 200 mln $ to make a "proper" version of his favorite title, and that some should actually stay unadapted. I would never adapt Robinson Crusoe for example! It just impossible and doesn't make sense to me :)

    Still I have to admit with shame... that... I haven't... read.. anything... of... Jane Austen :(
    It sounds more strange when I think I've actually always wanted to live in XIX-century England :)

    About Sharpes's and Fandorin series...
    Sharpe has 16 movies ( ) with Sean Bean, and I'd say that these are good for me as a history freak, having less artistic value as they're low-budget produtions, still it's casting and acting is very nice and these are very watchable...

    Fandorin has two adaptations so far. which holds a box office record in Russia and I did like a lot because of great actors.
    The other one I haven't found available anywhere.
    Apparently these were two competitive productions as they filmed both in 2005 and both had different actors :)

  5. Even though I don't like Robinson Crusoe adaptations, like the one with Pierce Brosnan, I did enjoy Castway, which is similar to Robinson Crusoe.

    Thanks for the recommendations, these seem very interesting movies.

  6. Saw "Cast Away" years ago, pretty good... although I was sad for Hanks' character... last good title by Zemeckis :)


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