Friday, July 22, 2011

Creating a Detailed Character & Setting Outline Doesn't Just Help the Author.

by Aidana WillowRaven

I'll be the first to admit that I'm not a writer. And, if I ever do successfully write a book, I doubt I'd consider myself one then, either ... lol. I also completely stink at outlines. I hated doing them in school, and hate them today. Good thing I'm not a writer, huh? But, for a writer, I've read over and over how crucial they are to the writing process, whether it be before or after the story is written. Do you know who else can benefit from your character or setting outlines? The cover artist or illustrator in charge of giving your book a visual 'life'. 

If the author is writing well, a lot of character and setting description, unless you're building an alternate world, tends to get twiddled away with editing. The more the author slips into 'show not tell,' the more the repetition of character or setting detail should disappear. This is a good thing, unless you are the cover artist having to literally dissect a manuscript trying to figure out if the main character, who's being recreated for the cover, has long or short/straight or curly hair. 

Even if you're one of those authors who just sees the whole story in her/his head before setting pen to paper, try to remember that the artist doesn't have your entire story and back-story engraved in her mind, too. It would be a great help to them, while saving time and potential misrepresentation of your character, if they were presented with an outline of the characters, scenes, and settings.

I bet your thinking, They should read the manuscript.

Truth is, except for very short books, like picture books, very rarely does the artist get to read your manuscript. In most cases, they are handed a rough outline or description by the publisher, or only get to see a scene or two before starting a project. This goes a long way to explain why a cover will often not match the text.

At smaller PHs, we may be allowed to see the MS, but rarely have the time to pick apart a manuscript for that one line of text that may tell us what the main character's hair should look like.

Not to pick on my friend Beverly, but the latest cover I did for her for a book coming out soon, is the perfect example of what I mean. First, let's compare the new book to the previous cover I did for her.

With the book Just Breeze, the entire premise of the story was based on the main character's looks, and how she perceived herself vs how others perceived her.

The book itself acted as an outline. I knew EXACTLY what Breeze looked like, and exactly how to show her personality through gesture and pose.

She has vivid, wild, gorgeous red hair, chews her nails (lacquered in blue nail polish, to match her toe nails), feels tall and gangly, and has blue rubber-bands on her braces.

I drew Breeze in less than hour, I was so confident I knew her.

When I was presented with Beverly's manuscript for Life on Hold, I was excited to be working with Beverly again, but also wanted to be sure I didn't mimic her covers, since I knew this was not a series.

I couldn't have had less reason to worry. The two books are COMPLETELY different. Not only are the characters different, but the book's focus was different. Looks were not the main topic. Emotion was.
Now, illustrating emotion wasn't my dilemma. That is done through gesture, expression, pose, and believe it or not, color.

Besides being conflicted as to how much detail to add to the scene, or even what scene to use that portrayed not just one event, but the book's mood as a whole, I didn't have a blaring detail from the text as to what my main character looked like.

I did see early on that she had 'camel' colored hair:
  • I opened my eyes and weighed the possibilities. My father was my father. I was tall like him. I had his hair—caramel brown, Mom called it. Okay, he had blue eyes; I had gray. Wasn’t gray a shade of blue? My mom’s were brown. Did eye color prove anything, anyway?

That's good, but I needed a little more.

I gathered that she was of average weight and height by the fact that it wasn't really mentioned otherwise.

But was her hair long or short? Was it curly or straight? I hadn't the foggiest. And, I had the advantage of having the rough copy of the MS, and still didn't know.

After reading and re-reading, I found it:

Cass eyed me. “You have to get ready for the concert.”
“And with your long hair, it’ll take awhile to make you glamorous,” Taffy said.
I held up my hands, palms out. “Just a sec.”
Taffy looked at her wristwatch. “A sec is up. Do you want me to curl your hair or leave it straight?”
“I’m not going to the concert. Someone misinformed you.”

 Finally. Months of trying to visualize this character was finally going to result in cover art. Whew! I was starting to sweat this one.

Once I had those two sentences (in red for you to see them better), it took one late night to do up Beverly's cover for Life on Hold. One night after months of uncertainty.

So the lesson for today?

Creating a character outline, no mater whether you need one to write or not, is a very helpful tool to have in your tackle box, when it comes to publishing.
  • It helps some authors gather their thoughts prior to writing. 
  • It helps other authors be able to pitch their books easier. 
  • It also helps the artist who has the important task of attracting 70% of the book buying population to your book in a much more efficient manner.
So what ya waiting for? Go get that outline ready for me ... lol.

Aidana WillowRaven

Art Director & VP of Operations
4RV Publishing


  1. I'm going to try and remember always to send a character chart or outline from now on. I'm one who weaves descriptions throughout the manuscript rather than having a info dump.

    Good article, Aidana.


  2. Thanks Viv. And 'weaving' is more interesting to read. I read a lot myself. Info dumps are boring. But if I'm doing the art ... lol ... that's what I need.

    So why not have a separate description or outline? It must come in handy for more than just the artist. Isn't it?

  3. All authors should have charts or something to keep track of characters, setting, etc., but not necessary for the book. I keep 3 x 5 file cards for each character and setting.

    I don't know who else would need that information other than the author and/or artist.


  4. Hi

    Just started following. Very interesting post, will be back for more.

    Moody Writing

  5. Welcome to the newsletter, Moody. I'm glad you found my post of interest.

  6. Great ideas for adding dimension and details as well as keeping organized with character traits.

  7. I agree. It is easier for anyone to work with a manuscript that he or she can feel the writer's imagination at work.

  8. Thanks for taking the time to comment, Terri and Omoruyi.

    Maybe one day I'll actually write something, but I will definitely need to outline ... lol. Yuk!

  9. Now I know. Wish I'd known sooner. Blushing. I do make character sketches, especially when there are several characters like in LOH. The thought that you could use them, Aidana, never occurred to me. Next time, (if there is a next time) you'll get one. You did an amazing job. As always. I love the cover. It fits the mood of the story perfectly.

  10. Very informative, Aidana. I never thought of that. At first, I figured the author told the artist what the person looked like, but then I read in Writer's Digest that the writer has no control over the cover. Good to know.

  11. That's OK, Beverly. The post wasn't to pick on you, just to show the example of how it could also aid in cover art, as well as writer's needs.

    AR, various publishers allow varying degrees of input from authors. But even if you have little to no input, submitting character details from the text, would likely make it's way to the cover artist at some point. Especially if they don't have the benefit of reading the MS.

    Thanks for stopping by, everybody.

  12. I know and actually, I'm glad you used my books. They're so cool I like for everyone to see them. :)

  13. Lol. That's the way to look at it ... lol. Another chance for exposure ... lol.

  14. Great information, Aidana. And, creating character sheets, outlines with descriptions that may not make it into the book is definitely useful for the author as well as the illustrator.

    And, it's amazing how an illustrator can have a vision of a cover or illo that the author didn't even write, as with Walking Through Walls.

    The dragon was originally written as golden, but when you created the cover I easily changed it to red and silver!


  15. Great insight = sharing the character sketches and notes.

    Artists, and perhaps also editors, privy to the characters' internal voice as well as external image, can use their talents to make readers want to pick up the book or magazine or download and read on to engage the story.

    Thanks for the tip - I won't trash mine when I'm done with a story ^_^

  16. Very good article, Raven. I wish I'd read it before my first book was published. While I was able to submit a description (very detail, at that) of what I desired for the cover design, the end result was very different from my mind's image.

    I use outlines extensively but it never occured to me the to provide a written character sketch for the cover design.

    I hope to use your work for some future project, as I've been an admirer of yours for quite some time. It will have to be down the road as I've promised my next cover to my middle son, who's also an artist.

    Be well and thank you, again for the wonderful article.


  17. Exactly, Karen. I've heard the author has already 'seen' the story, in many cases, before it's written. But between editing, and just the author's familiarity with the character, details can be lost, or need changed, during it's visual translation. That's what happened to Walking Through Walls, first I saw it totally different than you did, then, for marketing and aesthetic reasons, we switched from gold to red. But everyone seems to love it, so it was worth the work.

  18. Thank you, Kate.

    Although I understand why the cover artist/illustrator rarely gets direct contact with a traditionally published author, I still feel if the artist had access to and notes, outlines, or snippets the author may have, it would result in fewer misinterpretations. So even if the author doesn't have direct contact, they may still be able to influence the work a touch if those notes are ready and presented at the right time.

    Thanks for commenting.

  19. William, I already responded on BMN, but I wanted to say thanks, again. I am glad people are getting something from my articles, even though writing is not my forte.

  20. Wow, great article.

  21. Thanks, Susanne. I'm glad you found it useful.