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Character-Centered Book Covers: Why So Few?

Unique, character-centered cover of Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters.

Appropriate cover of Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters

First off, I’d just like to say that I was ridiculously excited to write this post. From the moment we conceived Character Cavalcade Week, I decided I was going to write a post on the 10 best book covers featuring characters. Right up my alley! Finding good design gives me a thrill, and I knew it was going to be an inspirational piece of cake.

Obviously, I wasn’t thinking about it too deeply because, if I had, I would have realized the futility of my effort.

I must have scrolled through thousands of book covers, searching Amazon, book design review sites, the AIGA, and Google Images, finally coming to an important conclusion:

Most book covers do not feature characters.

So, there went my post. But, when you stop and think about it, that fact really does make a great deal of sense. The main reason many people read novels is to be wisked away to another land, to become absorbed in the lives of the characters contained within and to be free to picture them in their mind’s eye in whichever they wish.

Putting a representation of a character on the cover kind of kills all of the mystery and imagination in that process.

Now, don’t get me wrong, some very well-designed covers do feature characters. Most that do, however, feature the character cropped or blurred in such a way that retains some of that mystery. When I talk about covers featuring characters, I mean the character’s face is fully visible and distinguishing their features is a breeze.

Some genres say “Hooey!”

In my searches, I discovered there are a few fiction genres, however, where character-centered book covers are actually semi-common:

  1. Children’s Fiction, particularly character-driven series such as Harry Potter or Vampire Academy, and books where the main character is not human such as The Lorax (and most of Dr. Seuss’ books) or Where The Wild Things Are.
  2. Romance Novels. Not only do these commonly feature characters, but usually in various stages of undress. I’m thinking the goal here is to draw eyeballs to the cover and give the reader a reason to choose one over the other (ie, Fabio looks MUCH better as a pirate than as a lion-maned scoundrel). Side note: Yes, I also cannot believe there is an Official Fabio International Fan Site. At least you’re not the one with it in your browser history!
  3. Science Fiction/Fantasy. This ties in with what we mentioned when discussing children’s fiction; that is, when the characters aren’t necessarily human it may be important to have a visual representation to associate with them, such as the books in the Star Wars or Lord of the Rings series.

And a few are just plain awesome

Finally, there are a few book covers featuring characters that are just totally awesome. I’d like to pay tribute to a few of them now:

Pride and Prejudice and Zombies. Amazing play on a classic cover. See also Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters.

The Giver. Spectacular photo that gives you an extraordinary mental image of the elderly Giver.

The Two Towers. Updated 2005 edition showcases beautiful, detailed artwork featuring everyone’s favorite talking trees, the Ents.

Have A Favorite Character-Centered Cover?

It’s your turn! Let us know your favorite character-centered cover and I might just add it to the gallery above, crediting you, of course. What are your thoughts on these character-centered covers? Are they a good thing to give your mind the building blocks by which to reference the characters, or would you rather their appearance be left up solely to your imagination?

  • I enjoyed this post and agreed with most of your conclusions. There is a desire to preserve the mystery of the hero’s face to allow the reader to imagine it. When I worked with the designer on the cover of my novel The Prospect of My Arrival — I wasn’t thinking of all that. I just knew that the character was an embryo and literally hadn’t yet arrived. So it seemed fitting we see a young man descending the escalator but his head has yet to make it into the picture. See my blog for the image — https://dwightokita2011.blogspot.com/

  • Spiral Razor

    So, most of my favorite books have character centered covers. I read mostly fantasy and sci-fi books. If I could get away with it, I would happily not have a character on the cover, but some random image and the title is not going to draw the kind of readers who would enjoy my book. I know, because I am the kind of reader who enjoys my book, and a nifty comic-book like cover on a book is one of the first things that draws me to a new author. (Sad,but true) I came across one of my favorite authors, Brent Weeks, solely because the covers of his Night Angel Trilogy freaking rocked. As with my other favs, Jim Butcher, Gail Carriger, and C.S. Friedman. All character covers.
    SO, when you can’t afford a cover artist and photographer, this is a problem.

    • What an excellent point — I hadn’t thought about the fact that your genre almost always features character-centered covers. Thanks so much for sharing your experience!

  • Brandon

    I was a hardcore Nancy Drew/Hardy Boys geek growing up, and they always featured some pretty cool character covers. A particular favorite were two spinoff series called “The Nancy Drew Files” and “The Hardy Boys Casefiles,” where they usually rendered a scene from the book on the cover. Two favorites were “Update on Crime:”
    and “Frame Up:”