Planning a Novel 2: Envisaging Characters

In planning my latest novel, I’m now moving on to envisaging characters. I’ve created a ‘character book’, with a page on each of them visualising what they look like, their back stories, their motivations. 

Some of my characters are real historical people where there is information known about at least the basic events of their lives. Other characters are entirely fictional. To visualise them, I look at paintings – not so much medieval paintings, which were quite formulaic and naïve in terms of portraits. Instead, I look at portraits from the Renaissance– Sofonisba Anguissola, Parmigianino, Botticelli, and from later periods: Whistler and others. I look at photos of film and tv actors who seem to me to evoke something of my characters. Then I see people on the street or on a train, or I use people I know. My characters are visualised with a mix of all those sources. Envisaging the characters helps me write with them. I won’t give you the images I’m using because readers will want to envisage the characters themselves. Each reader will see the characters differently, based on their own imagination and associations, combined with my descriptions. 

Book covers present a dilemma in this regard. For a long time, it was the trend to feature a headless woman or a woman with her face turned away on the covers of historical fiction focused on a female protagonist, to allow readers to imagine the character themselves. My first novels, Almodis and The Viking Hostage are examples of that style.

Recently, there have been more full-face historical fiction covers, like my own Conquest series. Do you have a view on this? Do you like covers that picture the protagonist or prefer a less proscriptive image of a character on a book cover?

[Title image is Parmigianino’s Pallas Athene, 1539]

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