I'm writing a YA fantasy novel in my free time that I plan to illustrate myself. Most if not all named characters will have their 'picture' presented to the reader as soon as they are introduced.

Should I bother describing the appearance or most notable features of these characters even if their picture is right next to said description? I could imagine it being necessary to get a feeling of how the POV character perceives his peers, but I could also imagine it getting very redundant. On top of that, were the illustrations to fall short of the descriptions, or the other way around, the reader might become conflicted on how to view the characters.

  • Is it a graphic novel or just a book that can go with or without the illustrations?
    – Alexander
    Commented Apr 20, 2018 at 18:45
  • 1
    Just a book that can go with or without the illustrations. Think a single picture every dozen pages or so. Commented Apr 20, 2018 at 20:28

4 Answers 4


Think about people who may use a screenreader (or like audiobooks)

E-Books are very important and a lot of books are sold as hard-copies and as e-books alike. This allows people with a disability to "read" books, for example by using a screenreader. (That's also why it's important on sites like StackExchange to always provide a useful image description instead of the generic "Insert Image Description here".) These people need the description as your picture itself is pretty much useless for them, depending on the severity of their disability.

Furthermore there are a lot of audiobooks out there. I know many people who like to listen to their favourite book before going to sleep or when travelling with public transport. You are restricting your target audience by not including the mental image in your description.

The problems with the non-matching description and the illustration happens all the time. Some people will not like it, a lot of people won't care. For example I've seen many people who were furious about some things that didn't match in the Harry Potter movies (non-matching eye colours I think), but I know a lot of people who would never even bother to mention this even after someone pointed it out to them. It's normal that there are a few differences between what is in your head and what you can bring to the paper - and some people will prefer to simply ignore your illustrations and stick to their personal mental image. I, for example, like to go "Nah, that character would look more interesting if they had darker/brighter/longer/shorter hair" or similar things - it's my own mental image and my own mental world after all. You might have some ideas about how everything looks like, but many people will willfully adapt this - and many others will accidentally change some details.

Don't stress out over making everything exactly equal and include description like you would normally do in a novel. It doesn't cost you a lot of work and it will potentially help your readers understand your world.


I think there is a huge difference between an illustrated novel and a graphic novel. An illustrated novel is a novel that can stand on its own but to which the publisher of a particular edition has chosen to add pictures. There are various editions of Lord of the Rings, for instance, both illustrated and not illustrated.

A graphic novel, on the other hand, is a long comic book. The pictures are integral to the work, not an optional addition.

The picture book, for children, is a bit of a hybrid. Most, at least, are written like an illustrated novel, so that the text can stand alone, but there are definitely some where there are additional things going on in the pictures that are not mentioned in the text. This style seems to suit the highly interactive nature of reading to a child, and the progressive level of comprehension that a developing child brings to a favorite book over time. I'm not sure this model is readily transferable to adult readers.

What you are proposing sounds more like an illustrated novel than a graphic novel, so I think it would be safest to write it as a novel that can stand alone and then to illustrate it afterwards. Don't make the text rely on the illustrations, in other words.

But I would also note that the description of faces in prose is relatively rare, since a prose description can only give the most basic caricature of a face (long nose, deep-set eyes, etc.). Most descriptions of characters physical appearance tend more to the figurative. And in most cases, it simply does not matter beyond basic characteristics like the heroine is beautiful and the hero is tall.


Blind people are an important and often ignored audience for books. You will do this very large community, whose members have enough difficulties in our visual society already, a great service if you write your novel as if it had no illustrations (unless you're writing a comic book or picture book, of course).

But the descriptions of the appearance of fictional characters should usually be limited to the most striking traits anyway. There are quite a few questions on this site that discuss how detailed descriptions need to be, so I'm not going to repeat their advice here.

Some examples:


A book should be a book, first and foremost, even if it has illustrations. It needs to be able to work on its own.

Then, good illustrations add a new level of meaning and depth. The ideal is that either the text or the illustrations would be interesting on their own, but that they bring things to a new level when combined, yet without being tediously duplicative of each other. This is why, in good picture books, the illustrator often includes his or her own narrative, or features of interest, not mentioned at all in the text.

My advice to you would be to complete the book, as though it were not to be illustrated at all, and then illustrate it as if you hadn't also written it.

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.