The Composites: a new literary aesthetic

The idea is so simple. “The Composites” is a project by Brian Joseph Davis in which he creates visuals of famous book characters using police sketch software. Launched in the beginning of February 2012, the Tumblr features sketches of characters from cornerstones of high school AP Lit classes (like Daisy Buchanan from “The Great Gatsby”) to figures of newer classics (like Lux Lisbon from “The Virgin Suicides”). Accompanying the sketch, Davis includes a passage from the book giving a physical description of the character, allowing us to see the words that were incorporated into the software’s rendition.

According to an article by “The Atlantic,” Davis uses the forensic software Faces ID, looking towards the author’s descriptions to guide his search through the software’s 10,000 individual facial features. As we can imagine, he must use his imagination to fill in the gaps, but Davis’s guesswork is not arbitrary; rather, he takes into consideration the era of the book and bits of the story that might offer insight into the character’s appearance.

Though the project is young, it is already taking on an open forum-like quality: Davis frequently takes character suggestions from readers, and the author Neil Gaiman even offered input to Davis’s sketch of Gaiman’s character from “American Gods.”

In the same “Atlantic” article, Davis mentions that he sometimes has concerns about “using technology to invade the writer/reader relationship.” But I doubt Davis needs to worry. The pictures on the Tumblr are an interesting experiment, providing for us a literal translation from the verbal to the visual.

But these mugshot-like images have a flat, impersonal quality that cannot replace the people we automatically mold within our minds when diving into a novel. Whether I see the gray-and-black sketch of Daisy Buchanan before or after I read “The Great Gatsby”, it will leave a far lighter imprint on my visual imagination than the sum of Fitzgerald’s descriptions of Daisy’s voice, furniture and movements. We also cannot ignore that tidbits, associations and pictures collected throughout our lives inevitably crop up —a sketch software has nothing on the richness of these visual memories. But on this note, “The Composites” is more than a fun experiment: by giving us the bare facts of these characters in portrait form, it also allows us to appreciate the way our imaginations can make our favorite book characters come alive, far more than any black-and-white image ever can.