To illustrate or not to illustrate?

It’s a question that has plagued many a fiction writer. Should you add illustrations to your novel? Should you include images of your characters on the cover of your book or should you restrict all imagery to symbols and leave the rest to the reader?

To be honest, I’ve heard credible arguments on both sides of the isle and they both have good points. On one hand, readers entering the world you’ve created like to use their imaginations. They like to be able to enter the world and construct things based on how you’ve described them. Showing them the characters robs them of that chance and now they have to picture your character in a world their forming around it.
On the other hand however, if you are trying to make sure that a very specific image of a character or place is conveyed, and done properly, then you an image would definitely be helpful. Admittedly though when I try to do read a book with characters on the cover, it’s a lot harder than placing a face to a character myself so I understand the argument. That said, is dropping an image of a character into your writing really all that damaging?

It really depends. I would definitely say putting a full image of a character on the cover so the reader knows exactly who they’re reading about and what the person looks like is a very bad move. However, I’ve seen covers where a character’s back is turned so you can make out a silhouette or some of the features from behind, but not the face. In most cases, I’d say that as long as the face remains hidden, then putting a character on the cover is permissible. I’ve also found that audience imagery is also very forgiving of scenery on the cover as long as the cover doesn’t completely give away where that scene is.

Now what about internal illustrations? Well if you take a look back, most older novels and poetry collections have some form of imagery -usually wood cuttings-  hidden every couple of chapters.


If you take a look even further back in time to around the the medieval times… books like the legendary Book of Hours and many Bibles looked more like picture books with words in small boxes.

bruges_1425_lg(Heh, I’ve been trying to hunt one of those down for years!)
So illustrating novels, stories, religious works, and works of fiction internally is certainly nothing new or uncommon. In my opinion, once the reader has already developed an idea of what a place or person looks like, inserting an image as a point of reference is far less damaging and can actually be helpful. Usually at that point the reader has already come up with a rough idea of what a character looks like, so an image here can help the users connect the dots to exactly what the character looks like.

In the end, it’s pretty much subjective. Personally, I would avoid placing a character’s image on the cover of a book and opt for some scenery or symbol instead. I would save the character image and insert it a few chapters in, but like I said, it’s a subjective topic and I can understand both sides of the debate so if you’ve got something that works for you, go with it.

Anyway, hopefully I’ve given everyone something to think about. Leave a comment below and let me know what you think.

Catch you on the flip side!


2 thoughts on “To illustrate or not to illustrate?

  1. Because i have this thing with book covers….. The word: “don’t judge a book by it’s cover”, has never worked for me, but after i read Destination Unknown i figured that it does not matter if the cover shows us who our main guy is or not.


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