I enjoy using Midjourney.
There’s the mindless time sink, where you roll out whatever nonsense comes into your head, as well as the more thoughtful moments of trying to churn out something kind of interesting and dazzling that could make a good wallpaper or backdrop.
Earlier this week, however, I wondered if I could use it to create something that wasn’t so spur of the moment. If it could help me illustrate something a bit more tangible.
I started wondering what would happen if I used it to try and generate portraits for the characters from my recently published cyberpunk crime novella Heist.
A few questions that came to mind were:
Would it be possible to create images similar to what I had in my head? Or would I end up only getting things that were wildly different?
And what about if I used snippets of text from the novella. Would that make it easier or would Midjourney have one of its classic misunderstandings and spit something hilarious out?
Our antihero protagonist, Barker is something of a one time criminal mastermind who’s already a couple years past his prime. He’s experienced, practically fearless, but by the end of Act 1 of the novella, finds himself broke, grievously wounded, and likely betrayed.
The first difficulty in rendering him in Midjourney was actually the scant few scenes where I described what he looked like.
While the story was told over his shoulder, most of his appearance was fed in bits and pieces when it seemed relevant (and I did consciously try to avoid an info dump with him… can’t say I did the same with the others).
In this case, I typed up a prompt describing him as a sort of elevator pitch, and the result after a couple of rolls was honestly not far off the mark of how I imagined him looking and hopefully described him enough in the novella itself.
The first of our two femme fatales in the story. Meera is another antihero who has a tangled past with Barker and is now running a crew of her own (and much more successfully than our protagonist).
She approaches him at the end of Act 1 with an offer he can’t refuse, and helps take us off to the races as our crew puts together an impossible heist against the city’s top mega corporation.
In this case, I filled the prompt with a good chunk of her description when she first walks into the book and meets Barker (who’s hiding at a rundown Neo-Manichaean temple).
Midjourney has a tendency to do wonky things with people’s eyes, and if you look closely enough there’s a bit of that here, but overall not too far off.
In the story, she’s someone with questionable loyalties and allegiance, and I think our art bot did a decent job at giving her both a sense of allure as well as danger.
Richter is our snarky, eager-to-piss-people-off corporate security agent. For much of the story, she’s a foil to Barker’s character and persona. Maybe by the end they come to somewhat trust, if not at least respect one another?
Okay, to be fair, calling her a femme fatale isn’t exactly accurate. She has some of the characteristics of the trope, but in this case she’s also a turncoat from the corporation who joins our crew in the heist.
Getting Midjourney to generate a good version of her was tough. The main issue was getting it to generate someone who looks like they’ve been around the block a few times.
Richter, after all, is also a disgruntled war veteran, so I wanted Midjourney to get me someone who didn’t quite look they were last year’s homecoming queen. Still, it took a few rolls.
“Joe” is an aging Neo-Manichaean adept who runs a run-down temple in the lower levels of the city. He takes Barker in after his run goes to shit and nurses him back to health.
The Neo-Manichaeans in these world are primarily a religious movement that’s focused on escaping the body and embracing the technological future. Many of their adherents are more machine than muscle, and Joe is no exception.
In this case, I used some of the direct description from the novella and it gave the bot some interesting things to work with. Here we have a man who’s not quite gone over to the other side, but has had no shortages of body modifications in the meantime.
I tried getting something like the above while also clothed in some old robes, but after a couple of tries I stuck with this image and moved on.
Our boy Marek here is the muscle of the crew. One of Meera’s people who carries something a chip on his shoulder, and acts like he has a grudge against Barker.
Pairing him up (or even putting him in the same room) with Barker doesn’t always go well. You can’t have cyberpunk crime noir without angry emotionless men sometimes getting into fights, after all.
Meet the tech head of the crew.
As is apparent, she’s also the oldest of the bunch – and in a cyberpunk setting where people are obsessed with youth and beauty – the fact that she looks her age is itself some sort of near criminal rebellion.
A man of few words and a sort of classic gunslinger – albeit one who’s given a cybernetic eye and drug-enhanced reflexes.
For the first few rolls, I tried my hardest to get one of him with a cigarette (he’s perpetually hand-rolling his rigs – something the others find quaint and dated).
However, while Midjourney can do a lot of things, it can’t do people smoking cigarettes very well. The closest I got was something like a vapourizer, albeit with a tube stuck up his nose. That’s a post for another day.
The patriarch sitting at the top of the city’s mega corporation.
Colburn is the progenitor to dozens, if not hundreds of offspring – a man who is impossibly aged and using all his powers to prolong his life past what should have been its natural conclusion.
Through most of the story, he’s an elusive figure – more myth than embodied person – until a pivotal scene near the end that puts most of what happened up until that point into context.
He’s also another one that gave me a hard time.
Every time I described the character using passages from the novella, he came out looking like a grumpy, possibly alcoholic, ex-university professor sitting on a bench and waiting for the last train to the suburbs.
Not quite the figure I had in mind.
The best I could get was by really changing my descriptions. In the end, I got something pretty close – albeit with strangely metallic monster hands. Not sure where Midjourney pulled those from.
Another from the Randall famo;y- Gabriel is the golden boy of the corporate can, and has an important connection to Barker’s past. Like most of his family (and even characters in the novella) he’s the type who lays plans into plans into plans.
This one actually got churned out with almost no alterations from the way he was described as looking in the novella.
And lastly, to have a bit of fun, I generated someone who isn’t exactly a character in the novel, so much as fixture.
We’re talking about the overhyped goddess whose image is seen peeking out of holograms, plastered on old-style billboards, and who everyone obsesses over in the metaverse – Minakshi Randall, the consumer-facing element of the family whose purpose is to keep entertained and shopping, rather than doing literally anything else.
She’s one part-Kardashian, one part-Bollywood star, and possibly only exists in advertising. Describing he wasn’t difficult, and the images that Midjourney churned out were as aptly gonzo and over the top as I imagine most of the advertising in this world to be.
Overall, I’m fairly happy with the results of my Midjourney experiment. Obviously, using a bot to generate character art isn’t as top tier as one would get from a professional artist.
In my case, I am neither a professional artist nor know any out in the wild. Until I do, having a tool where I can prompt out images based on some of my own descriptions from the novella has at least led to a pretty enjoyable afternoon of experimentation.