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The magic behind The Composites—how one man brought your favorite literary figures onto the screen

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Literary description only goes so far. What do the characters in great American novels really look like? Thanks to The Composites, a Tumblr dedicated to computer generated police sketches of literary characters, we’re finally getting an idea.

It’s the latest project of artist Brian Joseph Davis. The Brooklynite is using the same composite sketch software that police use in order to turn descriptions of characters into 3D faces.

Davis told the Daily Dot that he got the idea for this project after reading true crime stories and about old fashioned Identi-kits, which once allowed detectives to mix and match a hodgepodge of facial features to create a composite sketch of a criminal.

“I did a 360 after thinking that the process must be completely digital by now,” he told the Daily Dot. “The program is available in two versions and licenses—one for law enforcement and one for the public and education.”

Davis said the public version of the program is “great,” but takes some getting used to. As an artist, he said it works in reverse of everything he’s ever learned about portrait drawing. Instead of drawing the face first and filling in the features, he might start with the nose and go from there.

“I read the description and find matches from the the features,” he said. “It's quite backwards from any traditional portraiture. Even though I had only one year of art school I still tried to start working with this program with form first, then details, as drawing is usually taught.”

After exploring the software, Davis said it came naturally to start inputting descriptions of people who didn’t exist.

“The 3D nature of the imaging begged for uncanny input. Literary characters don't exist and even in this visualized form, they still don't quite exist,” he told the Daily Dot. “People do fill in blanks about suspects and readers do the same with characters.”

After launching his Tumblr a few days ago, Davis has acquired 5,000 followers and accumulated 200 character sketch requests. However, he’s found that not every character is a good candidate for the software.

Davis recently wrote that there simply wasn’t enough facial description in The Catcher in the Rye to manifest Holden Caulfield. Meanwhile, many of Davis’ successful descriptions are of antagonists.

“I've found characters with a touch or more of criminality lend themselves readily to the process,” he said.

Davis said that he’s received postive feedback from artists and book fans.

Others, however, have written to say that his project “cheapens the imagination.” He’s just pleased that his project has started a discussion.

“I hope this project sparks talk about writing and technology in a new way but I personally think this about the power of authorial imagination meeting the desire of reader imagination,” he said.

Below: a picture from The Composites of Tess of the d'Urbervilles: A Pure Woman Faithfully Presented, by Thomas Hardy