This post is about cover art, and specifically the way characters are portrayed in it.
I want to say up front, I’m not being critical of my own covers. A cover is designed to make potential readers check out the book; once they do, it becomes the writer’s responsibility to keep them interested. It goes without saying that often the covers don’t depict the characters as the author sees them, and over time, even the publisher’s idea of what a character looks like can dramatically change:
When I was writing Wake of the Bloody Angel, I introduced a new, major character, Jane Argo. She’s a sword jockey like Eddie, but she’s also a former pirate hunter, and before that, a pirate herself. Here’s how I describe her, in Eddie’s voice:
She was my height, busty and wide-hipped but with a wasp-narrow waist. Her broad shoulders were as muscular as a galley slave’s, and she wore a large ring on every finger. Her hair fell past her shoulders, and only the faint streaks of gray and slightly deeper smile lines indicated she was older than she sounded.
One day I stumbled across this picture of musician Ginger Doss,* and realized this was pretty much exactly how I saw Jane in my head.
The publisher, or rather artist Larry Rostant, who’s done my last three covers, saw her this way.
To be fair, Mr. Rostant may never have never read the book, which is not an essential part of his job description. And again, it’s a great cover illustration as far as its function goes, which is to induce someone to pick up the book: it has atmosphere, sexiness and style. On its own, it’s a beautiful image. But I’ll leave it to you, the reader, to decide what this dichotomy represents. In professional publishing, the author has virtually no say-so in the cover. It’s decided by marketers, whose job it is to create an image that will attract attention. And certainly the slender redhead with the no-nonsense scowl does that (as several male readers have informed me).
But here’s the thing: one reason I wrote Jane as a physically big woman, with visible muscles and a hint of grey in her hair, was to break away from the idea of the “butt-kicking waif,” a trope that really annoys me. Much like the whole movie Sucker Punch, the BKW is a way to disguise male fantasy objects behind the mask of alleged female empowerment. Buffy is the prime example, maybe even the originator, but it’s become the default setting for SF and fantasy heroines by creators who want to court the Buffy demographic (and who miss the point behind Buffy entirely). So I wanted to react against that, to show a woman who is both as intelligent as the hero, but also maybe a little stronger, physically. And to have none of that make her any less attractive.
The reviews, thankfully, have noticed that. Almost all of them mention Jane, and my favorite comment so far is this one :
Jane’s an unusual character in that she’s the muscle of the operation. Bledsoe lets her be tough without ever questioning her ability to be so. There’s never a comment by another character that suggests she’s strong for a girl [emphasis in the original].
I have a hard time seeing the woman on the cover fitting that description. She’s beautiful, certainly. She’s got a great expression, too. She fully fits into the overall image. But as with Eddie, I wonder if a more visually accurate presentation would make any difference in sales. And if so…in which direction?
*Ms. Doss knows that she was my image of Jane Argo. Thankfully, she’s delighted.