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?