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On the visual imagination of the literary character
August 14, 2014 7:11 PM   Subscribe

If I said to you, “Describe Anna Karenina,” perhaps you’d mention her beauty. If you were reading closely you’d mention her “thick lashes,” her weight, or maybe even her little downy mustache (yes—it’s there). Matthew Arnold remarks upon “Anna’s shoulders, and masses of hair, and half-shut eyes … ” But what does Anna Karenina look like? What do we see when we read?
posted by shivohum (24 comments total) 14 users marked this as a favorite

 
Ok, so am I strange in that when I read a book, I imagine almost nothing visual? I think the problem was that when I was young, I kinda bought into the whole "novels allow you to be creative, while movies and TV stifle creativity" thing, so while I loved all three of the media, I would try to let my creativity free when reading. Which resulted in this, over and over and over again, until I stopped using my imagination when I read:
The door creaked open. A shaft of light fell across the floor, highlighting some motes of dust.
Ok, I'll picture that. An old, dusty office, like a Phillip Marlowe office.
In the corner stood an old, heavy bed.
Ok, wait, never mind. Not an office. A bedroom. So, with the dust, maybe like an attic bedroom?
Sheets lay tumbled across the floor, papers were strewn here and there
Ok, never mind, more like a bedroom in a dirty motel, inhabited by someone with PTSD or schizophrenia.
Above the bed, on the wall, was an old painting of a unicorn, faded. A stuffed animal lay on its side on the pillow.
Ok, fuck you, imagination. No more visualizing things in this novel, I'll just pay attention to the story, characters, themes, and the like, but visually, fuck it.
posted by Bugbread at 7:39 PM on August 14 [14 favorites]


Blinker alert: the article has a large image that, if you're like me, will destroy your optic chiasm.
posted by sylvanshine at 7:43 PM on August 14 [1 favorite]


Ok, so am I strange in that when I read a book, I imagine almost nothing visual?

Right there with ya. If Diaz or Lee or whomever is described as tall and athletic with rumpled clothing on page 6, I will have forgotten this totally by page 12. Once in a while I have tried to overcome this by mentally casting roles with some performer who seems to fit the description offered by the author but after a chapter I have forgotten whom 1956-vintage Lawrence Tierney is in this story and whom 1985-era Kelly McGillis and I am just going by the names as always. We are not alone in this affliction, though -- Robertson Davies, fiercely intelligent as he was, once wrote that he disliked literary travel works because, "I have a poor visual imagination and descriptions of foreign scenes baffle me."

Some years ago I read Jeffrey Ford's The Portrait of Mrs. Charbruque, in which a struggling painter is offered a handsome commission: he is to execute a portrait of the title character without ever seeing her. She will sit behind a screen and he will ask questions of her and from that, paint her. As I recall, it addressed this gap between our imagination and what the author has in mind (maybe kind of obliquely... it has been a while).
posted by ricochet biscuit at 7:55 PM on August 14 [2 favorites]


Tiny moustaches on women are to Tolstoy as ears are to Murakami.
posted by betweenthebars at 7:59 PM on August 14 [2 favorites]


Part of the fun of reading good fiction is the multiplicity of associations it engenders, like a dream. Thus, who would want to peg, in their mind's eye, exactly how a character looks even if they could? That character may remind you of a relative, remind you of some character in some other book, and remind you of an archetype reinforced by the visuals of cinema. To pin down the visuals of a novel exactly is to leave no room for improvisation—the reader's contribution to constructing the novel. And since the reader must constantly modify, constantly improvise the scenery with the next descriptive passage (as Bugbread points out), it can be just plain inefficient and jarring to visualize too specifically.

We read because it's like a dream controlled by two people.
posted by sylvanshine at 8:00 PM on August 14 [11 favorites]


I kind of see Delta Burke from Designing Women.
posted by discopolo at 8:06 PM on August 14


Ok, so am I strange in that when I read a book, I imagine almost nothing visual?

You're definitely not alone. I have the same problem. I only really visualize a scene if I'm rereading or if it's a really well-rendered description of a place. I find it easy enough to build a picture of a place based on a novel's description, but as soon as you add people, I stop bothering to visualize. Only a few of my favorite scenes in books, ones I've read over and over again or which are especially vivid, play out like a movie in my head.
posted by yasaman at 8:18 PM on August 14


I think it is interesting that this article focuses on how people visualize (or don't visualize) characters in novels, rather than discussing visualizing when reading a novel on the whole. I find that, for me, I have a murkier picture of characters as I read as opposed to the events or setting of the novel, which often seem very vivid. I, too, have the frustrating experience of having to morph one's perception of what a character looks like as details are revealed further in the novel.

Reading for me, in general, is usually a very visual experience. I tend to enjoy books with more visual cues in them, as well. I love sylvanshine's comment above -- "a dream controlled by two people" -- that is a very apt way to describe what reading feels like to me. I think the most vivid novel I have read is The Quiet American by Graham Greene. I felt like I had been subsumed in the world of its pages. (This may partly have been aided by the fact that I was sitting outside, under a canopy in the summer rain for a good part of it, somewhat mimicking my mental image of Vietnam as a humid, tropical place.) The Plague, a book that made a huge impact on me, is a very close second. And I was delighted when the actors cast in The Lord of the Rings trilogy looked just like I had imaged them when reading!

I think how you visualize a novel depends on the way it is written, but also about the way one's thoughts are structured. I feel my reading experience is shaped by the fact that my memories and stray thoughts are all like film clips. Or maybe it is more how immersed one is in the world of the novel or its ideas, regardless of textual cues. Maybe it is even vaguely analogous to the way you remember your dreams? It is interesting to read of everyone's reading experiences. I find it so fascinating how the landscapes of one's mind, the texture of one's thoughts can vary so widely from person to person.
posted by sevenofspades at 8:39 PM on August 14 [2 favorites]


You know by bugbread, the philosopher Roman ingarden wrote about what you describe, and in some ways it was expanded by Gadamer.

Ingarden said reading was a collaborative process between author and reader where construction was shared . The author creates the "object" - a cat, say. And the reader then chooses the aspects, which are infinite - it's orange, it's miaowing, it's old - until the author contradicts one, which the reader then incorporates seamlessly, and on and on and on.

Gadamer talks about "horizons" - your totality, for lack of a better description. An authors and readers horizons can never meet, but they can be expanded to incorporate elements of the other.

Fwiw I always thought of Anna as voluptuous, sensual even. Kinghtley seemed like such a weird casting choice.
posted by smoke at 8:51 PM on August 14 [4 favorites]



We read because it's like a dream controlled by two people.
This is exactly how it feels like. I too, read very visually, but it's never a firm or set visions. Things shift and change and become hazy like in a dream. I know who that character IS, but actual hard specifics are rare.

I'm also very acutely aware of interior spaces described in books, but that may be cause I read a lot of books by frustrated antique collectors.
posted by The Whelk at 8:54 PM on August 14 [3 favorites]


Kinghtley seemed like such a weird casting choice.

Utter derail. It's the eyes, for me. Big searching eyes that can't stay in their own head.
posted by The Whelk at 8:56 PM on August 14


This is interesting to me because I just had someone read a manuscript of mine and she sent me back a long rant about making the main character a pretty white girl and making another character a worn older black man and how stereotypical it was.

What is interesting to me is that I didn't ever specify race and never really did that block of exposition where the author goes over what they look like and are wearing (because UGH). So I asked her to cut and paste the passages where I described the girl as white and the guy as black and she got madder and madder flipping through the pages because she knew, she just KNEW I'd written it that way (that being the entire thesis for the rant).

She eventually admitted defeat but is still convinced I described them that way somehow and pulled some kind of shenanigans to yank it out of the manuscript. So I was just thinking about how interesting it was people fill in all kinds of blanks on their own.
posted by Ghostride The Whip at 9:16 PM on August 14 [17 favorites]


And I was delighted when the actors cast in The Lord of the Rings trilogy looked just like I had imaged them when reading!

Amen! Best casting ever, at least for me personally. I remember seeing the first teaser and calling out the names of all the characters as they appeared on-screen.
posted by Harald74 at 3:08 AM on August 15


Ok, so am I strange in that when I read a book, I imagine almost nothing visual?

Not alone at all. I enjoy novels but I have almost no ability to visualize anything ever. I can't even make a picture of my own house or car appear in my head, and certainly don't have pictures of characters or settings in the fictional world. I still follow it just fine though.
posted by mmoncur at 3:33 AM on August 15


"One should watch a film adaptation of a favorite book only after considering, very carefully, the fact that the casting of the film may very well become the permanent casting of the book in one’s mind. This is a very real hazard."

Or, in the case of The Age of Innocence, make you so angry that you can't appreciate a really good film because you're so hung up on how wrong wrong wrong and backwards wrong that Madame Olenska and May were.

But it's such a delight when the film gets it right, like in Lord of the Rings as mentioned before, or Hagrid and Snape in the Harry Potter movies.
posted by Mchelly at 3:37 AM on August 15


Interesting. I hardly visualise scenes in books at all, although I dream fairly vividly in images and I can visualise scenes from memory pretty clearly. It's like that part of my brain is not working when I'm reading and in fact I quite often skip over quite specific visual details of characters even when they are given.
posted by crocomancer at 4:24 AM on August 15 [2 favorites]


When I was younger, reading was an extremely visual and aural experience for me. I would read, and it was like watching the world's most immersive movie with narration. It was awesome, and so I spent almost all my free time reading.

Sometime in my teens, I lost this. I still read, but I don't 'see' much apart from the words on the page. I can hear a narrator, and if you ask me what a character looks like I can maybe give a vague description, but what used to be an image of a living, breathing person is now just a faded sketch.

Of all the things that have changed in my life since childhood, this is one of the things I mourn the most.
posted by Gordafarin at 5:26 AM on August 15 [1 favorite]


Tolstoy never tires of mentioning Anna’s slender hands. What does this emblematic description signify for Tolstoy?

This is a question that I enjoy contemplating as well -- can't think of a specific example at the moment, but once in a while I smile when wondering "Dude, what is it that you find significant about [whatever]?"
posted by mr. digits at 5:28 AM on August 15


I frequently 'cast' people I know irl as characters in novels, involuntarily and often not very appropriately.
posted by Segundus at 6:54 AM on August 15 [1 favorite]


Like some of those above, I do not visualize what I am reading very much. That is why I usually do not have a problem with who gets cast in a movie, because I don't have a clear picture in my head of what I think the character should look like. However, I do notice details. For me the most striking recent instance was the Jack Reacher movie. In the novels it is mentioned over and over that he is really tall and big. So, even a non-visual person like me found it funny that Tom Cruise played him in the movie.
posted by bove at 8:30 AM on August 15


I've always found this subject fascinating. I have a really good brain for visualization, and when reading, the pages disappear and i "see" everything. It never occurred to me that it's not like that for everyone, until a certain English class in high school. We got into a lengthy discussion about whether The Lord of the Rings is "the awesomest book ever" or "so freaking boring it hurts." I was the leader of the awesome camp and this very politically-minded kid was the leader of the boring camp... we continued bickering about it for days, and I eventually realized that no, when he reads the first chapters of The Fellowship of the Ring, he doesn't see the countryside around the Shire, or the foggy hills, or the murky Old Forest, or Goldberry's sweet rack. He doesn't imagine what it would feel like, in a purely sensory way, to spend a night in Tom Bombadil's living room, as the sky goes dark and the crickets begin to chirp. He just sees the words, the information, and the plain information that Tolkien provides seems dull because there's nothing clever about it, no humor, and nothing revolutionary or political.

He begged me to read his favorite book -- Daniel Quinn's Ishmael, because it was "ten thousand times better" than Tolkien. You know, that book that's just an extended lecture by a sapient gorilla who tells the narrator to reject technology, and whatever.

I found it boring. And I'm glad i have my brain and not his brain.
posted by ELF Radio at 8:44 AM on August 15 [3 favorites]


Man, so glad that other people don't visualize as they read. I do it sometimes when I'm stuck on a plot point or something where it only makes sense in reference to a visual image, but when I'm reading books I'm primarily verbally processing, with very little visual or auditory invention. I retain details, but they're always as part of the text, and it's rare that I think through what things would actually look like.

It's odd too, because I do photography and have to manage designers at work, and there I can very much think about what an image should look like before seeing it — like, with photography (and I know other photographers do this too) I can picture what the ultimate image will look like depending on camera, film, lens, etc. And with illustration or design work, I can picture how I want it to come out (the frustrating part is actually making my dumb hands get to the point where I'm satisfied).

But with the reading, I always felt like I was a weirdo, and it's nice to hear that other people have the same frame of reading that I do.
posted by klangklangston at 1:00 PM on August 15


"I was the leader of the awesome camp and this very politically-minded kid was the leader of the boring camp... we continued bickering about it for days, and I eventually realized that no, when he reads the first chapters of The Fellowship of the Ring, he doesn't see the countryside around the Shire, or the foggy hills, or the murky Old Forest, or Goldberry's sweet rack. He doesn't imagine what it would feel like, in a purely sensory way, to spend a night in Tom Bombadil's living room, as the sky goes dark and the crickets begin to chirp. He just sees the words, the information, and the plain information that Tolkien provides seems dull because there's nothing clever about it, no humor, and nothing revolutionary or political. "

I'm with him on the deadly, plodding dullness of most of Tolkien's work. It's just not evocative for me. Though I hadn't really assumed that was because I wasn't trying to place myself in it, but rather (much like the Beatles), a lot of the novelty has been worn off by the many fantasy works that explicitly borrow from Tolkien.

But I also think his dialogue is stilted, his characterization is thin and his plotting is plodding. I am firmly in the camp that the movies were better and that a big part of that was editing out a lot of meandering fancy.
posted by klangklangston at 1:06 PM on August 15 [1 favorite]


It never occurred to me that some people don't "see" the characters and the setting (or feel the cold, or smell the rain...)

Maybe it's because I see the characters so well that I hate when authors don't insert a character's description until the second chapter, by which I already have an image in my mind. Someone I'd pictured as tall, thin, and dark, turns out to be short, chubby and pale. It confuses me!
posted by LauraJ at 2:59 PM on August 15


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