Friday, 22 May 2009

Illustrations and Virtual friends - Linda Strachan

People are often not what we expect.

If you communicate with someone over the internet or perhaps only speak to them on the phone or correspond by letter you might find that they are not quite what you imagined.
A while ago I met, for the first time, a girl I had spoken to on the phone many times, in fact over more than a year. I had come to know that she was married and had two children, liked walking and cycling - the everyday kind of details that pass in conversation from time to time. I felt as though I knew her quite well. She had a warm voice and a great sense of humour.

Eventually an occasion arose where I was to meet her for the first time. I had no particular thoughts about it but when I was introduced I was taken completely by surprise.
I had created in my own head an image of the person I had been speaking to on the phone. The small amounts of information aligned with the sound of her voice had conjured up in my imagination someone who looked completely different. I struggled to hide my surprise when I met her but it was entirely my own fault.

It made me think about the relationship we have with our stories when we hand them over to an illustrator.
When I write I have a picture in my head of my characters or the scenes in my stories, but the images my words might create in an illustrator’s mind my not necessarily be the same.
I have had my books illustrated by a fair number of illustrators and most of them have produced, if not what I had imagined, at least something that was close to it, and often much better.
Unfortunately once or twice the illustrations turned out ‘wrong’ at least as far as I was concerned. In one the main character’s best friend was just not friendly looking (admittedly he was an alien - but that was no excuse!)

It is sometimes very difficult to let go of a story, and characters you have given birth to, if you don’t like the way they are being illustrated. Even if you do like the style it can take quite a bit of a shift in your head when it looks very different to the original image conjured up when you wrote the story.

But a bit like the girl on the phone, once you get used to the difference you often forget your original thoughts and come to appreciate that the difference is just another way to see that the world is even richer and greater than your own imagination!


Nicola Morgan said...

Excellent points and a nicely thought-provoking post. I've had just the same experience with meeting someone I'd become friends with on email. And although I don't have my books illustrated, I can relate to your point there - and it's a little the same with a cover.
Also, (and I know this is a slightly different point but your post triggered it) the book we know and story we wrote is sometimes interpreted quite differently from how we felt about it, or people pick up on elements we didn't even see, and we kind of do have to let our own feelings go and absorb other people's realities. Nice post, Linda!

John Dougherty said...

When I wrote my first book, Zeus on the Loose, I imagined Zeus as tall and broad-shouldered and handsome - essentially a classical statue come to life.

The illustrator, Georgien Overwater, drew him as a fat bloke in a bed-sheet.

But the thing is - after a moment of surprise, I realised that Georgien's picture suited the character as I'd written him much better than did the picture I'd had in my head. I guess that's why she's an illustrator and I'm not...

Paul Lamb said...

I've had similar experiences, finally meeting in the flesh a person I'd known only on the phone for years. You're right. We quickly adapt to the new reality.

In a corollary to this thinking, I suspect that despite how we might describe our characters, most readers create their own images of them. These images may be based partly on the descriptions we give but also on their experiences with people they have known. It's for this reason that I don't spend a lot of time describing my characters or the clothes they wear. It just seems unnecessary and intrusive. In fact, I've seen the over-description of a character's clothes called a "Nancy Drew Moment" because of how this kept happening in the old Nancy Drew novels. The racing narrative would be interrupted by a florid description of a character's outfit.

If there is something about the appearance of one of my characters that is important for the reader to know -- a scar, a dandy, a limp -- I will put it in, but I think it is part of the collaborative experience with the reader to let them create the appearance of the character.

Anne Rooney said...

So true, Linda - what a nice post. Usually, the illustrator's interpretation is good (even if it is a surprise). But I did have one book last year that was illustrated in a style I thought really horrible and inappropriate. I've virtually blocked the book from my memory - not on purpose, I just don't remember it when I'm thinking through recent books.