Some people collect stamps or old vinyl records, I collect faces. Not, I hasten to add, in a Hannibal Lecter kind of way, but so that I have a bank of characters for future books.
On the trip to London the other day, I picked up half a dozen, male and female, and all shapes and sizes. So if you were on the 10.30 Edinburgh to King's Cross and saw a furtive looking bloke intermittently staring at other passengers and writing in a black notebook, don't worry, that would be me.
It's not just about physically describing the features. Eyes are OK, because there are any number of colour permutations, and, to a certain extent, your eyes are the treasure chest of your secrets, but noses, though (see above) they come in all shapes and sizes, aren't all that interesting to record, and ears are large, small, possibly delicate, and occasionally cauliflower, but that's about it. Chins? Don't get me started about chins. No, the secret, and the greatest test for a writer, is to use the face as a window into the soul of its owner.
I've had a couple of so-so reviews of Hero of Rome lately, the kind of thing that you're always going to get if a book's selling well, because you know you're never going to please everybody. But the odd thing about these reviews is that they both took me to task about the same thing. I'd made the lead characters too handsome, intelligent or beautiful. In an odd way its something of a compliment, because I always intended Valerius to be strong and likeable. Maeve had to be striking enough to immediately grab his attention and draw him across the cultural divide. One of the fun things for me is creating characters who are my exact opposite, which is why Valerius is tall and clever, with sculpted features and hair he can run his fingers through, not short, bald with a head shaped like a baked potato. So I make no apologies for taking the decisions I did. My question is: when did it become a crime to put good looking people in a book?
The face I liked best on Thursday and Friday wasn't on any of the pretty girls or handsome blokes. She had a heavy forehead, a strong jaw and a nose that took no prisoners, in fact features that were quite mannish. Yet the moment she opened her mouth to speak she turned into a different person: it was like witnessing base metal turn into gold. She seemed to caress every syllable and turn it into a musical note, and it was only when you heard her speak that you noticed that the beauty of her voice was matched by her eyes. I don't know her name, but I suspect she'll be appearing in a novel near you quite soon.