How Important Is a Picture?

Books and RPGs are, as a class, not the world’s most visual of mediums. Yeah, you’ve got cover art (not that it necessarily gets it right, as a number of people could attest); yeah, there’s the whole battlemap thing, particularly when dealing with variations on D&D, but on the whole it’s as likely as not that you aren’t really going to be able to see the characters, in the way you would when dealing with a movie, a graphic novel, or a video game.

Pictures certainly seem to help the process. When you’ve got someone who can get them right, they tend to encapsulate a lot about the character that the audience, or even the creator, might not be able to figure out otherwise, particularly things that would be subtle foreshadowing on a picture but would stand out like a hummingbird in a flock of sparrows if pointed out in text. For some people, finding the picture (or choosing and painting the miniature, or using one of the numerous internet avatar generators, or putting together the Lego representation and wincing at how far it is from the original image) is as much a part of the character design process as, say, figuring out the backstory. Even I’ve been known to engage in that, on a certain level. In one game I just started, I had a love-hate relationship with my character, about whom I knew next to nothing—except that nobody was allowed to draw her except for me, and I wouldn’t know what she looked like until I did. Then I drew her, from an idea I’d gotten from a scene in the first session of game, and she got a little easier.

Similarly, they get across information and expression a lot faster than standard words can. I’d already understood this from some of my misadventures with getting across feeling, both in myself and in my characters, but what really brought it home to me was actually an observation by one of my coworkers. I’d recently introduced her to Ursula Vernon’s work, first Digger and then Dragonbreath—and then she got to Nurk, and told me, “I didn’t like it as much. I’d gotten used to there being pictures.”

There’s something about a picture that seems to jumpstart people’s attachment, too. During the Gabaldon-fanfiction kerfluffle last month, there was one observation that slipped into the comments every so often: that fanfiction tends to be more frequent when dealing with stories that have in some way a visual component. I don’t remember why, but I think being able to visualize a character with ‘perfect’ accuracy helps.

And there’s a sense in which, once an appearance is set, it might be distinctive enough to carry across the media, and when it is, that cements what traits code that character in a way that nothing else can. The art style stops mattering, the number of dimensions, whether you’re dealing with a comic book splash page or a 3D render or a costume at a convention—it’s obviously the same character. But if you haven’t already established a visual representation, using another visual representation might miss the mark: in one of my Kes-toons, I presented a completely improbable (and, as far as our narrator Kestrel was concerned, more than mildly horrifying) scenario involving one of the other side characters—which fell flat, because almost nobody except the person who’d suggested the ‘toon in the first place could identify that character through the hair-and-eye-color bad drawing that Kestrel’s ’style’ was fixed on. The image doesn’t give the character further meaning, but it does transmit the kernel of the character in less time than writing a description would.

How important is a picture to you? Would you be interested in more of mine?


  1. Michael says:

    I really should get back into drawing again :( I made a resolution to do at least one drawing per month this year, which means I’m now five behind. I wouldn’t say drawings have ever been important to my writing — I do refer to them when I do fan fiction, but only because I’ve always found it difficult to make arbitrary choices such as the colours a character is wearing — it’s much easier if I can look at a drawing and describe what the character is wearing in that. (It has nothing to do with wanting to stay close to canon — indeed, in one case I found that the right word for a monster’s skin colour was “ecru”, but I replaced it by a completely different colour just because I think it’s an ugly word and I didn’t want to use it.)

    For my original characters, I’ve never had a picture (and no, the Repton level of Kiriko doesn’t count!!!) This can cause problems — two friends who drew my character Athribar found it difficult because there wasn’t enough visual description in the text, and I just didn’t know the answers to their questions about the missing details. (It’s a first-person narrative, so I didn’t want to stop the story for him to describe his own appearance!)

    I’d love to see more of your pictures if you want to show them, in any case. Especially as I know they’ll all have interesting stories to go with them.

  2. Ravyn says:

    Interesting. I don’t think I’ve ever changed a detail just to get around the aesthetics or lack thereof of a word; I’m likelier to just to substitute in a simile or a metaphor and hope it gets the point across.

    I’ll be sure to keep the sketchbook open!

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