Do You See Characters When You Read?

This post is a brief response to two blog posts by the Slate and 101 Books that were so timely it felt as if the authors had been listening in on my personal conversations with friends.  I recently had a discussion with some friends about whether or not they ‘see’ characters and actions when they read.  It came up in the context of writing physical descriptions of people.

For some, physical descriptions of characters were necessary to create a full understanding of the worlds being created by the author but, for others, it was a distraction and something to be glossed over by the reader as they go in search of plot and theme. Personally, I prefer that authors err on the side of brevity when it comes to physical descriptions.


I argued that, despite being a (fairly) prolific reader, I never really see characters or places fully.  Instead, my understanding of characters and places tend to come from my emotional reactions to the novel.  I feel deeply what the characters do and sense the surroundings and locations as if I were actually there, but rarely, if ever, do I have a clear physical picture of the people themselves.


Of course, sometimes the physical descriptions of characters are central to them – Harry Potter’s glasses or Hermione Granger’s hair spring to mind – but even then, I rarely get a clear visual image of the person.  Not once, however, have I thought that reacting to novels in this way has diminished my experience of them.


I can sympathize, I think, with people who feel disappointed when an actor is poorly cast as the beloved character in the movie/TV adaptation of their favourite novel.  If you are the sort of reader who really sees the character, then the disassociation that must come from seeing a different face and body to the one you had imagined must be quite disorientating.


This is a great topic of discussion for both writers and readers.  It is one I’d love to know more about too.  For example, which is more common, those who see characters clearly, those who feel them or those who have elements of both? Also, what about people who don’t particularly enjoy reading (crazy I know but they do exist)? Is it, in part, because they don’t connect either visually or emotionally to what is on the page?

8 Comment

  1. sweety says: Reply

    Sometimes things are just not a coincidence. I wrote a very similar blog post 2 days ago.
    Must be a cosmic miracle, for so many people to get an epiphany together! Please check out
    Thank you.

    1. thenovelprojectchronicle says: Reply

      Oh I love when this happens that people the world over converge on an idea 🙂 Thanks for sharing your post. It’s really interesting to hear how you connect character and actor and how it provokes different responses.

  2. Gemma says: Reply

    This is a really interesting post 🙂 I don’t often see characters fully either, but sometimes there might be a book where a character seems very vivid to me. I suppose it depends on the book or the writing. Normally, I’d rather have a clearer idea of what the character’s feeling, than a clear picture of their appearance.

    1. thenovelprojectchronicle says: Reply

      Glad you liked it 🙂

      I think I read in the same way. For me it’s almost like stepping into the shoes of the character so that you feel them – flesh and bone, emotion and memory – rather than see them like a movie.

      Thinking about it now, the clearest way I can explain it is that, on a daily basis, you don’t see yourself, even though you have a good idea of what you look like, but you know yourself through your movements and actions and emotions. In the same way when I read about a character (and maybe it’s the same for you) I know them as I know myself, not through seeing but through feeling and being.

      This might also be why poorly written books are hard to finish – because they don’t allow us to get ‘under the skin’ of the character.

      1. Gemma says: Reply

        I hadn’t thought of it like that, but I think you’ve described it perfectly!

  3. Interesting point – like you i’m less visual and feel more of an emotional connection to characters.

  4. Really interesting post & discussion. Like you, I rarely have a fully realised image of a character’s physical appearance, just a general impression, a suggestion. But with places I’m completely different. If an author is drawing pictures of places for me, I’ll often put the book down for a few moments and mentally wander around the place, exploring the nooks and crannies. I really enjoy books that are set in places I know a little as it helps build those images; but I also really enjoy unknown exotic locations which tempt me beyond the familiar – I’ve been desperate to visit Savannah ever since I read Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, and yet am a little fearful of doing so in case it isn’t quite what I expect and I end up disappointed and no longer able to enjoy the picture of Savannah that the book gave me.

    I recently read Karen Maitland’s Vanishing Witch, which is set in Lincoln. I was literally walking up the hills and round the town with the characters, feeling their calves pinch as they reach the top of the very steep streets up to the Cathedral, and the images of Lincoln’s wharfside, albeit a middle ages one, will stay with me forever – like somewhere I can escape to whenever I like.

    Sorry, I’ve rambled…but you’ve made me think that I should gather my thoughts on the power of place in novels a little more than I have to date. Thank you.

    1. thenovelprojectchronicle says: Reply

      Great comment, thanks. Yes, some novels have such an incredible sense of place that you find yourself craving to be there. Since this topic came up I keep coming back to thinking about the psychology of reading and writing. I’m glad the post has given you some food for thought.

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