I’ve lost count of the number of readers who have suggested I look like one of the protagonists of my books, as illustrated on their covers. The first time it happened was with Slow River. I was surprised, but then came The Blue Place*, and Stay, and I became progressively less surprised. With Hild I expected it.
But I think you’re all on crack: I don’t think I look like any of my protagonists. Lore, for example, is glossy as a racehorse with perfect teeth. Aud is six feet tall with eyes the colour of cement (though I admit we did both have white-blonde hair for a while). Hild has chestnut hair—and is even taller. I don’t see it. But by now I’ve become so used to the confusion that when readers comment on it I smile blandly, say, “I get that a lot,” and move on.
However, at a recent literary festival—the first time for a while I’ve done public Hild stuff—several people mentioned it. And a couple of days ago a reader, Cheryll, asked me if the fact that the painting of Hild looked “exactly like my author photo” was intentional or “just a remarkable coincidence.”
So I’ve decided to approach the question again with an open mind.
First, though, let me be quite clear about one thing: it was not my intent that the Balbussos’ painting of Hild look like me. I didn’t want Hild on the cover at all. I can’t speak to the artists’ intent but I suspect it wasn’t theirs, either. For one thing, if they even saw the author photo, which was shot by Jennifer Durham in January 2013, they must have worked blindingly fast: the cover was ready at the end of February.
Look at the eyebrows. Look at the front of the nose and the way the light catches it. Most of all, check out the coolly appraising yet open and curious gaze. Maybe you can’t see the resemblance because you’re comparing what you see in the mirror with the image on the book cover. I and the others who’ve noticed this resemblance are comparing the cover with a photograph. So I think that’s what inspired the Balbussos. Certainly they’d read the book. So perhaps it’s not so much that you look like your protagonist; it’s that they’ve made your protagonist look like (the image of) you.
Yes, in the painting Hild’s eyes and hair colour are as described in the book. But they’re not like mine. I don’t think. It’s actually hard to say what colour my eyes are, exactly; blue, yes, but they tend towards green when I wear green, and grey when I wear grey. (Compare the colours in my two author photos.) My hair colour is quite different. My stylist describes it as “dark blonde” (stylist-speak for “light brown”) and when I was younger it was blonde. Now it’s flecked with grey, and after a few hours in the sun bits can turn gilt-bronze. But chestnut (red-brown)? No.
However, it’s clear that some readers see a resemblance even if I don’t. So I asked Cheryll if that perceived resemblance helped or hindered her connection with Hild while she read. She told me neither—that she hadn’t noticed it until she was halfway through the book and had already formed her opinion.
I was glad about that. I can get irritable when readers of any stripe think my protagonist is just a Mary Sue. I’ve talked about this a bit before, for example in an interview a few years ago for Always:
What’s your relationship to Aud? How does her personality relate to your own? Is she the character in these books who’s most similar to you?
Who is the Mary Sue character? Aud, with her martial arts, foreignness, and self-defence? Yes. Kick, with her size and shape, her MS, her love of food? Yes. Dornan, with his optimistic entrepreneurship, hypothetical questions and love of philosophy? Yes. Else, with her need to change the world and adherence to simple design principle? Yes. Eric, with his cheerful love of wine and fast cars and pop culture? Yes. Corning with her hope she can get away with bending the rules and getting what she wants? Yes. Rusen, with his need to make something good even though he doesn’t really know everything he needs to? Yes.
They’re all me. The more minor the character, the more minor the facet of my own character I’ve chosen and sharpened and polished. I love them all, even the not-so-nice ones.
Aud is a path-not-taken character. I’m not American. I do understand self-defence. I do care about justice. I am practical. I have studie martial arts. I can imagine a universe where I might have ended up a bit like her if I hadn’t fallen in love when I was fifteen, if I were six feet tall and rich and Norwegian and physically able. Kick has MS and small hands; so do I. But she’s American and an ex-stunt actor. And she didn’t run a mile when she met Aud. I think I would have done.
All my fictional characters, major and minor, are infused with me and my experience to some degree. Like the people in our dreams, they have to be: imagination begins in experience. My hope, though, is that they take on their own personality.
To settle the question once and for all (also to continue my quest to learn all of WordPress’s nifty tools) I’ve created a poll. I want you to give your opinion (you will be anonymous to me, so don’t be shy); I’m braced for any result.
* A twist on this with The Blue Place: I also had a zillion readers (well, scores anyway) ask if I had the phone number/email address/name of the woman on the cover. For years I had no idea…and then I did.