Saturday, March 5, 2011

Mind Candy

By Lisabet Sarai

Compared to many writers, I'm not a very visual person, especially when it comes to my characters. I've been inspired by places (for instance, the twelfth century abbey in Thoronet, France, that kindled the idea for my story "Communion"), but rarely by seeing people, either in the flesh or in photos. Romance authors frequently share pictures of sexy guys on their blogs - often celebrities - images of men who power their creativity or serve as models for their heroes. That just doesn't seem to work for me.

My erotic short stories tend to be pretty vague about how characters look. Especially when I'm writing in the first person, I often don't have a mental image of the narrator at all - unless his or her appearance is central to the story's concept, of course. I'll describe the other characters, but again, I'm as likely to focus on the character's voice or the way he moves as on the details of his face and body. In my tales, emotion trumps sensory input most of the time.

When I began writing erotic romance, I realized that this non-visual orientation was a bit of a problem. It's not only the fact that I can't share pix of the hunky guys who stimulate my muse, the way other authors do. In addition, it seems that romance readers want to know what characters look like, in far greater detail than I'm used to providing. I've had to learn how to describe my characters with sufficient precision that my readers can imagine them.

And it's not just readers. Every publisher with whom I work has a "Cover Information Form" that you have to fill out when you sign a contract. Invariably this form will ask you to provide details about the appearance of the main characters. The first few times I had to complete one of these forms, I had a terrible time!

(As an aside, I've discovered that although I may not know exactly what my characters look like, I can definitely reject a photo that's not a good likeness. I was somewhat unhappy with the cover of my novel Serpent's Kiss because the woman does not fit my mental image of Elena at all.)

Anyway, I've recently adopted a strategy of looking for photos of my characters when I begin a new erotic romance work. That way, I have something to guide my descriptions. I can also send the pictures to the cover artist for reference. The first time I tried this was with Necessary Madness. The artist used the photos I supplied, and I was really pleased with the results - not the least because the design was didn't follow the typical model for romance covers.

I'm working now on a M/M science fiction novel. (Well, to be honest, I haven't written anything on it for about four months. But I plan to get back to it soon...) I was able to find photos that did an excellent job capturing my nebulous ideas about my characters, Rafe and Dylan, and making those notions concrete. Facial images, of course, don't say anything about the rest of the body, but that I can imagine the rest of them, given the faces.



My current work in progress is an exception to all of what I've said above, however. One of the characters was inspired by a real person. I was in a blues bar a few months ago and noticed a man sitting at the next table. I couldn't take my eyes off of him. He was black, fairly light skinned, with a shaved head, handsome aquiline features, and wire-frame glasses. He wore a white business shirt, but with the throat open, the sleeves turned halfway up his forearms and the tails outside his trim jeans. His polished leather shoes looked expensive. The thing that drew my attention, though, was his aura of total concentration. He sat there motionless, one foot on the rung of the bar stool, drinking in the music. His lips pressed together. His hands, decorated with one or two heavy gold rings, lay still on his taut thighs. He didn't move with the music. He wasn't grooving with the rest of us. But I could tell he swallowing up every note.

At the time I thought he'd make a wonderful character. That evening, I imagined him as a vampire, given his beauty and his stillness. In "Wild About That Thing", however, he's turning out to be human, but with a hard edge, an intensity that makes him difficult to resist.

I wish I had a photo of him, though. Over time, my image of him is fading. I only hope I can capture his allure before I lose it completely.


  1. That's interesting what you say about having to describe in detail teh appearance of a character. I also rarely do that, and I think its because the writers i modeled myself after, who are mostly non-romance writers, never go into much detail either. Hemingway almost never described his characters. In "Hills Like White Elephants", one of his most famous short stories, he describes the woman as wearing a hat - and that's it. But I've noticed in romance novels they also describe the woman's clothes in detail and terms I often don't even know.

    Dylan and Rafe! I remember them now. All the best.


  2. Hi, Garce,

    Yes, it's very interesting to me how much detail my romance readers seem to require.

    Working on "Wild About that Thing" at this very moment, trying to capture the essence of the man who seduced my mind that night.

  3. Hi Lisabet,

    I find the idea of a Cover Information Form truly intimidating.

    I think cover art on paperbacks is one of the great cultural divides.

    US covers are garish by UK standards while the French seem to me to present everything as if it were an academic tome.


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