Characters on Your Book Cover: Do or Don't?

By Saul Bottcher of, last updated 24 September 2013

Summary: Don't jump to conclusions—consider all the pros and cons, then make a decision based on what's best for this specific book.

The Typical Reactions

When it comes time for a fiction author to decide whether one of their characters should appear on the book cover, there are two common reactions:

  • Of course! My readers love my characters, they can't wait to see them!
  • Of course not! I would never want to impose on my readers' imagination!

Both of these sentiments have merit, and can be right or wrong depending on the circumstances. This article will help you decide the right approach for your book.

Advantages of Characters on Book Covers

Here are some reasons in favour of characters on book covers:

  • The human eye is strongly drawn to faces. All things being equal, a book cover with a face on it will usually be looked at before a book cover without a face. It's an unavoidable impulse hard-wired into our brains. (Note: to tap into this effect, the face will need to take up a significant portion of your cover so it's visible at thumbnail size.)
  • Faces and body language are powerful conveyors of emotion. If you want to get across the idea of joy, misery, rage, or terror, there's no stronger way to do it than through a well-illustrated (or well-posed) face or body. If a strong emotion is a focus of your book, that's a good reason to consider using a face on your cover.
  • A character with a unique appearance will immediately make your book cover stand out. This often happens in a speculative fiction book, where characters often inhabit semi-human or non-human bodies. But it could just as easily be a normal human character with a unique personal style. If your book includes a character with a unique appearance, it's worth thinking about putting that to work for you.
  • Two or more characters shown together can help to convey a relationship. There's a reason romance novels very frequently show the male and female protagonist together: it's the most immediate way to demonstrate their mutual attraction. However, you can just as easily show other relationships through the body language and position of characters: teaching, guiding, protecting, defying, submitting, admiring—all of these (and many others) can be strongly conveyed through body language. If your book is primarily about a relationship or conflict between characters, their faces and body language can help to broadcast that to your readers.
  • Faces make excellent memory labels. Again, the wiring of our brain makes us very good at remembering faces. A unique face on your book cover can make it easy for a potential reader to recognize your book (or any materials associated with it) in future.
  • Showing a character begins their relationship with the reader immediately. When we read books, we form sentiments toward the characters. Placing a character on the book cover can start this process immediately, which can make a book feel more "familiar" than a book without a character on the cover.
  • Cover art with characters translates well to merchandise. If your cover is a portrait of an important character, you may be able to use that image without any changes as a poster or t-shirt. This can help you get double-duty out of an illustration, which is efficient use of your money.

Disadvantages of Characters on Book Covers

Here are some reasons against using characters on book covers:

  • Faces and bodies aren't good at conveying other ideas. If your book is primarily about a concept, a place, a mystery, or really anything other than feelings and relationships, then a character isn't always the best way to convey those ideas.
  • Faces and bodies are distracting. Further to the above, the moment you put a face or body on your cover, it will start to draw attention away from other cover elements. A good composition can put this in balance: for example, a master thief grinning as she lifts the priceless gem, or a determined ship's engineer shutting the door against a terror of the deep. But it takes careful concepting to ensure a face doesn't overshadow other elements of your cover.
  • Depicting a character can interfere with a reader identifying with them. If your protagonist is on the cover and their clothing, body language, or facial expression is off-putting to your reader, it might stop them from buying the book. (“Off-putting” doesn't have to mean offensive—keep in mind that taste and social groupings can be both arbitrary and powerful.) Keeping your protagonist off the cover allows any reader to identify with the protagonist as portrayed in your book description.
  • Depicting your characters robs your readers of the right to imagine them. Part of what makes reading a book different from watching a movie is that our brains create the scenes, filling in the details we want in the way that we want. For some readers, the act of imagining is an important part of the reading experience.

A Level-Headed Approach

Here are some additional tips that can help you make a level-headed decision:

  • There's nothing anti-reader about wanting to make your book cover stand out. After all, you might be helping someone to notice a book they'll enjoy! If you have a natural aversion to selling (and many writers do), remember that selling probably got some of your most beloved books into your hands in the first place. Embrace the idea of selling your book with a standout cover, and if that means depicting a character, go with it.
  • Your reader's relationship with your book neither starts nor ends within the pages. The cover is often the beginning, and if a reader loves the book, your merchandise and supplementary materials are often a way of continuing the experience of the book. Consider whether you're robbing your readers of an experience they might enjoy, such as displaying a poster of your protagonist.
  • Different audiences have different attitudes toward the idea of canon. For some audiences, depicting a character on your cover permanently fixes that character's “official” appearance. For other audiences, the depiction will be seen as one possible interpretation among many, including the reader's own. Know your audience so you can predict the impact of depicting a character on the cover.
  • Don't forget the relationship between your cover and your free sample in the sales process. Your cover grabs attention, broadcasts the general idea of the book and who it's for, and gives an initial cue regarding quality. Your sample follows up on the promises of the cover by providing more depth, showing proof of the promise of quality, and creating lasting interest. It's normal for your cover to be more superficial and fleeting than your writing. Trying to incorporate too much symbolism and detail into your cover will reduce its ability to lead people to your sample.

In Conclusion

Don't let yourself fall into the trap of automatically saying yes or no to depicting a character on your book cover. Consider every angle: creative vision, business matters, and your readers' interests.

If you find yourself struggling with your decision, talk to your cover designer about your concerns. They've created many covers, seen the impact of those covers, and they know which decisions ultimately made those authors happy and successful.

Our cover design service includes the option to depict characters and scenes from your book. If you have any questions about book covers, or want some free advice on your cover, don't hesitate to contact us.