The mental image of a character : the influence of covers

A Mental Image from Voice alone

a blank face so we create our own mental imagesHave you ever met someone on the phone — a business colleague, perhaps — and created a mental image of them from voice and conversation alone? If you later met them face to face, how did the reality measure up to your mental picture?

I vividly remember doing just that with a woman who subsequently became a close colleague when I was working in London. From her voice on the phone, from her senior position in the organisation and from what she said to me, I pictured a middle-aged, rather motherly figure with mid-brown hair in a beautifully-coiffed jaw-length bob. It was a pretty strong mental picture, though I have no idea where it came from.

We had quite a few phone conversations. (This was long ago, in the days before social media, so there were no online images that I could view.)

motherly mental image turned into glamorous blondeAnd then I met her.

When she walked in, I was shocked.
I couldn’t have been more wrong.

She had a wild mane of curly ash-blonde hair, she was bubbly and she was fun. She was senior and responsible, certainly, but neither middle-aged nor motherly. Oops 😉

Mental Image : the Influence of a Book Cover

Cover of Sara Craven's last bookA few days ago, I was given a copy of the last book by the late, great Sara Craven, bestselling writer of deeply emotional romances and much-missed friend of the Libertà hive. I didn’t read the blurb on the back — I didn’t want anything to spoil the unfolding of a taut, unputdownable Sara Craven story — but I couldn’t help looking at the cover.

It’s lovely. That dark-eyed beauty with long straight ebony hair certainly registered with me. Yes, she could easily be the heroine of a Sara Craven romance. (For some reason, the chiselled, bearded hero didn’t make as deep an impression. It was the woman who set my imagination working. Something to do with the light on her jawline, maybe?)

Me-time: Cup of tea, book, mental images of charactersTime for me-time. Delicious luxury.
I sat down with a cup of tea and began to read. The voice of the ebony-haired beauty sang out from the first page. i was quickly hooked into her story and dying to uncover her secrets.

About three pages in, my mental image was shattered. Sara’s heroine, Alanna, had a cloud of dark auburn hair. What? Did that mean it was curly as well as red? What’s more, her eyes were green. Nooo! Not possible. She was already in my subconscious as that dark-haired, dark-eyed siren.

I read on — of course I did; it’s a fabulous read, a real belter of a story — but I’ll admit I had difficulty “seeing” Alanna in my mind’s eye after that, because my original mental image had been so wrong.writing for a reader - stressed

How to give Readers the “right” Mental Image

Is there a solution?

For my self-published books, the choice of cover model is my responsibility. And I try very hard to get it right. Mind you, it can be difficult, because I generally write historicals and because — whisper it ever so softly — many of the picture studios that produce shots for use in cover art don’t seem to have a clue about the period they’re supposed to be representing. If you don’t believe me, look at a typical example: female in ball gown, kneeling male in evening dress and…?

Riding boots in the drawing room?

…and boots. Riding boots! 

My #1 and biggest beef, by far.

Think of a cover scene.

It’s outdoors. He’s dressed for riding. Boots? Yes, fine. Totally appropriate. But how often is that kind of shot used?

More often, he’s in the lady’s drawing room. Boots? Well, possibly Hessian boots and pantaloons. Certainly not knee-high jobs for riding.

Ballgown and riding boots?

Often in these shots, though, he’s seducing the heroine at a ball. We know that, because she’s wearing a ballgown.
Hero in boots? No. Never.
Dancing shoes. Plus knee breeches, quite possibly, and silk stockings. But NOT boots.

I have a solution here that I’m happy to share. I usually ask my cover designer to hide the boots somehow — with the title, or a logo, or simply by cropping the shot. If it’s my own cover, I will NOT have my hero wearing riding boots at a ball.

Will photo galleries ever get the message? I’ve never yet seen a gallery shot featuring dancing pumps.
If you find one, please do let me know.

The Right Mental Image : Beef #2

A Regency Invitation, Edition in Polish

A Regency Invitation, Polish Edition

My second biggest beef is facial hair. In the Regency period, gentlemen were clean-shaven. They didn’t have moustaches or beards. And they absolutely did NOT have designer stubble.

Here’s one of my own covers that made the facial-hair mistake (though only in the background). Please don’t complain to the poor author, dear readers. I tried to get that beard photoshopped out as soon as I saw it, but I was too late. Much gnashing of authorly teeth.

Sometimes, both my beefs appear in a single shot. Have a look at these examples of a Regency couple: not only boots, but designer stubble as well. ARGH.

OK, that’s 2 beefs about the male models.
What about the females? Surely those are right?
Or a bit more right?

Rake’s Reward
Regency Lords & Ladies Collection


That, I fancy, is a topic for another blog.


And in the meantime, I leave you with the only one of my covers to include a gent in knee breeches. Problem is that, although he’s in period, he’s not exactly my mental image of a hero…

Sigh.Joanna Maitland, author


8 thoughts on “The mental image of a character : the influence of covers

  1. lesley2cats

    Very pleased my publisher stuck to scenic covers for mine, although they are often the wrong scene… I always wondered why the cover designers so frequently got things wrong in the “old days”.

    1. Joanna Post author

      It would be interesting to interview publishers’ cover designers, wouldn’t it, Lesley, and ask them? Cynic that I am, I have a feeling that it probably came down to money and budgets. Finding exactly the right scene or cover model for a story takes a lot of time and effort (= money).

  2. gilliallan

    This is one of the reasons I rarely read a book with a pic of the romantic protagonists on the cover. Even if the colour of hair, and dress is appropriate, they rarely look like my imagined image. BTW, given the period (demonstrated by the woman’s ‘high’ Regency’ frock) the hero seems to be sporting a rather old fashioned hairdo as well the inappropriate footwear.

    1. Joanna Post author

      Well, what do we expect, Gilli? If they can put him in riding boots, why should they get anything else right? Sigh

  3. gilliallan

    Well .. maybe he’s a slightly stuffy baron who needs to be brought up to date by the feisty nad modern heroine? x

    1. Joanna Post author

      Could be. And shows exactly why Sophie says (after Ursula Le Guin) that stories are something that writer and reader create together.

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