Seeing What You Read

So last week I was finally spending some time really going through my Google Reader, which at been at 1,000+ posts for at least a week – seriously people, there were posts from before the Readathon in there!

Anyway, while I was reading, I came across a book review by Natalie of Book, Line, and Sinker of a book I really enjoyed, “Between Friends” by Kristy Kiernan. It seemed that one of Natalie’s biggest issues with the book was that she wasn’t able to get a good feel for the characters, partly because the author did not describe their physical appearance adequately. Natalie says:

As a reader, I like to visualize characters but had trouble doing so with this novel because physical description of many of the main characters is spartan or introduced too far into the book.  I never fully connected with Ali because I couldn’t get a bead on her appearance.

Now, this wasn’t a problem for me at ALL, but it did get me thinking. In fact, I’ve been thinking about Natalie’s review and what it means about the different ways that people read for over a week now.  I pay pretty much no attention at all to an author’s description of physical characteristics. I pay slightly more attention to landscape details, but still not a whole lot, if they’re sort of mentioned in passing.

For instance, when I first saw the “Harry Potter” movies, I was shocked to see Malfoy with blond hair. Shocked. I saw him as this dark, creepy character, blonde hair was not in the picture at all. Of course, when I went back and reread the book and, sure enough, Malfoy has blond hair. Huh.

So it isn’t exactly that I don’t picture the characters of a book in my head, but I don’t do it explicitly, and I don’t necessarily use the author’s descriptions to do it. Instead, I tend to build up a mental image of the character just from some of their personality traits (which is sort of weird, I guess, but that’s what I do).

But now I’m really curious about how others read, whether you need to be able to picture characters to feel connected to them, whether you explicitly picture them at all. Simply put, do you have to be able to picture what you’re reading?

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24 comments to Seeing What You Read

  • Amy

    I do the same as you! I don’t pay a lot of attention to the physical details and sometimes get a bit of a shock (or, more accurately, disappointment) when I see a movie adaptation.

  • I think most of us create an image of characters and places not only from how the author describes them, but from our own experiences. Sometimes I’ll be reading and realize I’m picturing the basement or kitchen from the house I grew up in. And then I’ll think, she can’t possibly be writing about YOUR childhood home!

    I just turned my Tumblr into What Lexi Reads. Will start making mini comments there on the many books I get through. Nothing like what you do here, but related!

  • I picture characters more based upon my own instincts and their personalities and less by what the author describes them as. I knew Malfoy had blond hair, for example, but I pictured Hermione to have glasses, and to be much prettier than she was portrayed in the first HP movie (but the actress who plays her is gorgeous, don’t get me wrong… you know what I mean).

  • I do tend to use the author’s descriptions to form my mental image. Of course I have to fill in any blanks and I am probably drawing on people I have actually seen to do it, but the more detailed the author is the better I like it. The same goes for setting descriptions- actually even more important to me. I have been known to love a book based more the richness of the details than the strength of the plot.

  • I think it is a fine line with descriptions. I tend to read them, but I do not obsess over them and will often insert my own mental image of said character. One issue I had with a book recently was the fact that the descriptions of both person and place were SO detailed, it bordered on minutiae and really bothered me. I do think descriptions of the setting are important because setting can and does play such an important part in the plot, in helping a reader understand the character, and so forth. That fine line can swing either way depending on the type of novel I am reading, whether it is plot-driven or character-driven, and so on. Depending on what I am reading, the descriptions can make or break a novel for me.

  • I had the exact same reaction to Malfoy in the movies — I had no recollection that he had blonde hair at all. I always thought I had a good attention span, but I think sometimes I skip over details like that when I’m interested in the plot.

  • DW

    I’m with you on this. I usually end up creating up my own image of the characters based on their personality and the way they act rather than reading too deeply into their physical characteristics.

  • It depends on how well the author describes the characters, how much and how strongly that’s a part of the book. Sometimes I imagine them differently, sometimes I don’t!

  • I read a book recently with the girl on the cover having almost black hair and in the book she had light brown hair – this bothered me the entire story!

    Did you see the Other Bolyen Girl (the movie? They left out the first born baby…I still can’t believe this…

  • I never really visualize them in a totally physical way. I think I do the same as you, I sort of think of them as their personality traits. But I can picture them if I’ve already seen a film based on the book, which I think is kind of strange.

    I think I actually had the exact same experience as you with Malfoy. I really never pictured him as a blond until the films came out.

  • It is really important to me that I am able to imagine the characters. I suppose that must be because of the way my brain works or something. Most recently I was troubled by the fact that with “On Folly Beach”, I had no mental image of Emmy. I could have missed it, but I don’t think there were any descriptions of her physical appearance. It didn’t keep me from enjoying the book, but kept me from really getting attached to her.

  • I’m going to have to think about this for a little bit. I know I don’t like overly descriptive writing, but now I wonder what parts I like to imagine. Great, thought provoking post.

  • Sometimes yes, sometimes no! It depends on the author, the book, the genre, and so on. Sometimes I have an exact image and sometimes I have a vague feeling of the person.

    Now that I’ve rambled a bit, I realize that I really do have some kind of image in my head of the character, even if it’s fuzzy. I wonder now what the correlation is between books I wasn’t crazy about or didn’t finish and my ability to picture the characters. Hummm.

  • I also don’t think I pay much attention to the physical description of a character, but I ALWAYS form really firm mental pictures of them–and then I’m upset if a movie adaptation doesn’t match my mental picture!

  • I’ve posted about this before, but I don’t visualize faces AT ALL, and generally sort of skim over descriptions of that type. I usually visualize a rough idea of height/body type, and hair color/length, and maybe a distinguishing feature like a scar if it’s mentioned, but otherwise I never picture specific facial features. It makes me very, very bad at “who would you cast in the movie version?” games. Even the “did they do a good job casting the actual movie version?” game is much more dependent on personality and attitude than looks for me.

  • i think i do this a bit unconsciously as well. Dont notice it until i see a book cover with conceptual art or a movie.
    then i am caught off guard.

    i also find i have very unusual pronunciations of character names or places.. this throws me off nearly as much.

  • Ditto what Fyrefly said.

  • I’m always carrying a large number as my Google Reader count, but I’m learning to use the “mark read everything older than a week” function. =)

  • I’m with you, in that I usually go with personality traits as opposed to physical descriptions. Don’t really pay attention to what the characters look like. Like Fyrefly,I’m really bad at the who-would-you-cast games! *L*

  • I had the same reaction with Malfoy. Blonde? Really? Crazy!

    I don’t know if I truly picture characters in my head all fleshy and sorts. It’s more their essence, which doesn’t really explain anything other than the characters are never truly tangible to me.

  • I always remember the physical description if there is one and it does bother me if there is no guidance. Hair color and an outstanding characteristic or two help me visualize the character the author is writing about.

  • […] and, if so, if you use the author’s descriptions to do so – in my post entitled: “Seeing What You Read.” This post emerged from divergent opinions held by Natalie and I about the book […]

  • […] with author descriptions of characters. Basically, it all boiled down to whether or not you need to see what you read. Well, that whole discussion was brought up by Kristy Kiernan’s recent book “Between […]