Friday, July 12, 2013


Looks like Jamie to me!

Diana Gabaldon, author of the mega-bestselling Outlander series, raised some eyebrows recently when she defended the choice of actor Sam Heughan to play Jamie MacKenzie in the Starz! Television version of the book.  Seems some fans weren’t happy with the way young Heughan looked.  He didn’t fit their vision of a character they had grown to know and love.

Gabaldon set them straight in her Facebook post.  She argued that, as the author, she ought to know what Jamie looked like, and, more importantly, acted like.  And an actor’s looks were less important than the skills he brought to the role.

She watched the audition tapes and summed it up:  [T]he bottom line is simply this: He showed up and he _was_ Jamie.  (You know something? I don’t really _care_ if you, personally, have been imagining Chris Hemsworth as Jamie. You’re wrong; he doesn’t look like that at all. )”

Now, Gabaldon, who single-handedly created the time-travel romance phenomenon and the Scottish Highlander romance craze with Outlander, despite the well-known facts that it is too long, takes too long to get to the romance, has too much history and too many odd details about flora and fauna and a hundred other things, and strings out the story over nine volumes, has never been known for her tact.  And she’s right, up to a point, that Jamie is her creation and she knows him from the inside out.

But she’s wrong if she thinks she can control what her readers think of him.  How they see him is entirely up to them. 

In truth we lose control of our characters before the story is even finished, if we allow our intuition free rein.  Every writer has had the experience of characters “speaking” to her, of demanding to be heard, even of taking over a story.  My African-American friend Linda had slave characters from the time of the Civil War who demanded to have their stories told in her book, Out from Egyptland.  I’ve had secondary characters literally take over and turn a story in a new direction, hijacking a book.  Backstory reveals itself, relationships turn out to have a history, even villains develop a conscience (or at least an explanation).

But once the story is locked down and presented to the world, then the real mutation occurs. Because every reader has his own imagination, her own interpretation to bring to the world you have created.  It would be a miracle if all your readers saw your world and your characters just as you saw them, no matter how well you painted the picture for them.  Of course, the idea is to communicate with your readers and you want to pass on your vision to them.  But if you’ve described your hero as tall and muscular, and your reader prefers her guys with the build of long-distance runners, so she envisions him like that, who’s going to care?  As long as she continues to buy my books, I won’t object!

For that reason, the characters’ physical characteristics are their least important aspects. Most readers will just skim right over a block of physical description and supply their own, based on tiny details of action or dialogue.  Not so long ago, however, the “rules” of romance required that you supply a catalog of physical details right away for your hero and heroine—eye color, hair color, “broad shoulders”, “trim waist” and the like.  Some contest judges will still harp on this point, but I think they’re a dying breed (or interested only in  category romance).  There are much subtler ways of getting the essence of your character across, to show people who your characters are, rather than telling them what they look like.

Who your characters are will always be a matter of debate once they enter the wide world.  I admit it’s rather odd to be on the other side of the literature class analysis.  What was the author thinking when she created this character?  What did he intend with this heroine’s story?  A lot of it, at least in the first draft, is unintentional.  The characters tell their own stories.  It’s only when you get to the revisions that you begin to consciously of goals, motivations and conflict.  Of whether your heroine is acting consistently throughout the book or whether your hero is too emotional here and not emotional enough there.

That’s when you truly get to know your characters, and, if you do your job, your readers can truly feel they know your characters, because they act consistently from scene to scene, from chapter to chapter, and, if it’s a series, from book to book.  Gabaldon could confidently say she “saw” Jamie in Sam Heughan because, after nine books, she’s created a consistent, recognizable character, that Heughan could recreate.  Her readers will have to trust her that they’ll have the same experience, but they’re uneasy, because they feel the same sort of ownership now.

It’s no wonder, however, that films have such a poor success rate in re-creating the magic of books.  There is usually no match for our own imaginations working in concert with the author’s.  I’ll never forget my first reaction to seeing Peter Jackson’s THE FELLOWSHIP OF THE RING.  As a lifelong Lord of the Rings fan, I couldn’t believe the way Jackson had captured my vision of Middle Earth and all its characters.  It was just the way I had imagined it as I read it.  His vision, Tolkien’s and mine (and, apparently, millions of others’) had all coincided in a miraculous way.  I’ve never had that experience, before or since.  I certainly don’t expect to have it if any of my books are ever adapted for the screen (Yeah, I like to dream big!)

So, given the low odds, Gabaldon and her fans (of which I am one) should be happy there is a good-looking, passionate, athletic, Scottish actor to play Jamie.  Our thoughts turn now to Claire, and who will play that smart, prickly, impulsive Sassenach.  I know my husband can’t wait to find out.  God knows what kind of visions he’s been having!

Ping Pong

--Congratulations to Laurie (as Editor-at-Large) and Pippa (as a selected author) for all your hard work in producing the first annual anthology Tales from the SFR Brigade.  The content is outstanding, the authors are stellar and the production work is fantastic.  This was a first-rate job all around, and I’m sure will be catching much attention for all involved.

--Whew, Pippa!  Just hearing about your schedule last month makes me tired!  Take a break and relax—you deserve it!

Cheers, Donna


  1. Great post. You're right about readers skimming over character descriptions--I do. As an author, I know what my characters look like. It's the reader's right to have a different image. Regarding books into movies: I couldn't believe the casting of Jennifer Lawrence in The Hunger Games. Cute, blond was not "my" Katniss. But when she spoke her first lines in the movie, her voice conveyed everything I'd imaged when I read the series.

  2. I love hearing readers' different ideas of what characters look like. When GHOST PLANET was up for review by Vaginal Fantasy, a thread was started for suggesting actors to play the characters. I really enjoyed seeing all the names that popped up (and had to look up many of them). I debated about whether to chime in with the actors I'd had in mind when I'd written the book. In the end I decided against it because I didn't want to shock anyone who had a completely different idea of what they looked like (and instead put up something on my blog/website).

    What I hope and expect readers to do is build images of the hero and heroine that feel compelling to THEM, to increase their enjoyment of the book. I was reading a book recently with a cover image for a character that completely turned me off. Two chapters in I was still battling to erase that image and replace it with my own.

    Great post, Donna!

  3. Sharon, same here - it's been interesting to hear how people see my characters, and I even got sent a piece of fan art. I've seen people complain about having faces on book covers because it doesn't leave the character to their imagination or skews how they see a character. That said, how many people see the film or TV version of a character before reading a book and have that image firmly set in their mind?
    Actors to play one of my main characters was a fun discussion with a friend once, and became a blog post. I've yet to have two people tell me they see Keir as the same actor as anyone else.
    Diane - ditto. Once I have the general description - height, age, eye colour - the rest is irrelevant.

  4. Lol, just the one piece, and from a friend. I love it because it's both my main characters, whereas most readers have only told me who they think my hero looks like.

  5. Oh, FAN ART! Love to see it. Darynda Jones has had some (*fans self*) VERY hot fan art for Reyes. And of course I love seeing fan art of my peers work, since they are characters I know so well.

    On the subject of how characters are viewed, sometimes a reader's impressions of a character can change over the course of a story.

    I recently finished John Scalzi's serial SF series (now compiled into a novel called The Human Division). Excellent read, BTW! The 'main' character is Harry Wilson, a character from the Old Man's War trilogy that I had always pictured as overweight and kind of slobbish. Not sure why. I guess because his name was pretty ordinary and commonplace. But during the course of the SF serial my image of him totally changed. He is, after all, a brilliant Colonial Defense Force soldier (muy tough hombres) with a sharp wit, as well as a Brainpal computer in his head and nano-bot embellished Smartblood. By the end of the series he'd lost about 200 pounds in my mind.

  6. My first experience of this was as a TREK fanfic writer back in the day. The cover art for my first novel THE MINDSWEEPER came back with a VERY different image of my heroine, Kate Logan, paired up with Jim Kirk. It was a shock at first, but the more I looked at it, the more I liked it. She was different than I had imagined, but she was hot! Jim would definitely have gone for that--how could I complain? :)

  7. Yes, same happened with GHOST PLANET. The first cover model we had didn't do it for me. The second one was much better - very sexy - but also very . . . pretty. I like heroes with interesting looks, which does not always mean cover model material. I realized I was going to have to compromise on this, though, since of course we'd have to use a model. In the end I grew to like Mr Pretty. (Probably partly due to the fact the cover is so awesome!)


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