I got to thinking today about the reader’s role in creating characters. When we aren’t told what a character looks like, for instance, or what a character is wearing, how do our minds fill in the blanks?
Now, I’m no scientist or psychologist. I’ve done no kind of heavy (or even light) research here. What I’m writing is speculation based on my personal experience. But thinking about this is really fascinating…. What aspects of our life experience DO we use to craft our images of characters when we’re reading?
For me, image creation comes down to these things, which are pretty typical I would think. It’s useful to keep these things in mind when writing if you, as an author, want to influence how readers picture your characters.
Genre and setting will obviously play a role.
1. I WILL THINK OF PEOPLE I KNOW. Do we all do this??? We think of people we know who physically match what sparse detail we’re given, or whose personalities we can see reflected in a character. I’ll sometimes see a character resembling that person physically.
2. WHAT ACTOR COULD I PICTURE IN THE ROLE? I totally hate this, but it sometimes happens against my will. It’s even worse, of course, when the book has already been made into a film. Then all I can see are the actors in the movie.
3. BASING FASHION ON PERSONALITY. Our clothing choices are often reflections of our personalities and/or the image we want to present. So we all go from there…. In a contemporary novel, a very feminine woman I’d probably picture in a skirt or a dress. Probably with long hair. A gruffer, career woman, I might see in pants or a dress suit. Is a character a bit air headed? Maybe missing a button or two, maybe clothes are wrinkled. I would see that idea of not being well put together reflected in appearance.
4. ECONOMIC SITUATION. A character who is poor will not have as many options for dressing. Their clothes might be older, not as fashionable, or not fit as well. Depends, of course, on the character and the specific situation. But these are things a character being poor might lead a reader to envision.
5. PERSONALITY AFFECTING MANNERISMS. This is so huge…. If you’re like me, you don’t think about this too much as a writer when you’re not specifically describing mannerisms. But when a scene is light on mannerism and descriptions of gesture, etc, a character who is animated I will see with hand gestures. Lots of them. A character who is quiet and withdrawn in personality might look tense, or have crossed arms. A character who takes charge might take up the whole room, moving here and there, flailing about somewhat…. things like that.
6. I THINK OF HOW I RESPOND PHYSICALLY TO CERTAIN EMOTIONS. Once I know a character well enough to guess, or it’s pretty clear what emotions a character is experiencing, I’m pretty sure my brain has them physically respond and act the way I do when I feel that way. This isn’t necessarily what the author would envision, and doesn’t necessarily even make much sense if subjected to analysis, but…. I’d think my brain does this.
What things do you use to craft an image of a character? It’s so subconscious, so instantaneous often, that we don’t really think about it much. And this post, I admit, mentions the more obvious things. I’m curious to see what other people have to say!