How Do Readers Envision Characters? 6 things we do….

silhouette-1180300-mI 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!

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12 responses to “How Do Readers Envision Characters? 6 things we do….

  1. If the book has a cover picture, I will often base my image on what the person on the cover looks like – if no cover picture then my mind usually goes straight for people I have seen before on television or in movies even if they were not the main character on the show or in the movie. I don’t know why but I have never been good at creating faces from nothing or from mere descriptions. Even when a character is described completely, I will often still see whatever person came to my mind as representing that character even if the hair and eye color are different.

    • I do this too. I read somewhere that our brains aren’t capable of making up faces, at least in our dreams. We can only see faces we have actually seen in real life: passed in the street, seen on tv, or in magazines, etc. SO WEIRD!

  2. Not sure if this fits into the first category, but I sometimes think of characters with similar personalities/roles. It’s usually connected to my personal favorites, so I don’t know if this is a smart thing or not. Comparisons tend to be messy.

  3. This is one of those things I hadn’t given much thought and now I’m really interested in figuring out!

    I guess I envision the book in a way similar to a dream; snatches of detail here and there, areas of blanks where no detail is given. Some characters are so specifically described that I might pull from mind the closest representation from visual media such as TV/film and use them as a surrogate. But when I truly think back on any story I’ve read my visual mind-impression is very dream like – enough to gather an understanding but abstract enough that it wouldn’t transfer it direct to a consistent visual.

    Or maybe that’s just my bizarre mind?

  4. I think we all “project” when we read and write. I see my characters, but I feel them even more. I live in their skin the entire time they allow me to tell their stories. If a reader doesn’t like one of my fictional people, I feel as helpless as a parent who is unable to change a child’s basic personality. I want to say, “But it’s not my fault…it’s who he or she is.” LOL.

    • I feel the same way!!! I know my characters DO come from me and reflect me in a lot of ways, but the parts of me they reflect are very concrete. I can’t change what that is. It just IS. 🙂

  5. I lean heavily toward minimal description of characters. In “On Writing,” Stephen King gives Carrie White’s description as an example of this: a high school outcast with a bad complexion and a fashion-victim wardrobe. That allows the reader to fill in the blanks from their own experience. Personally, I skip-read detailed descriptions in stories. I find them laborious, but then, I am very weak at “picturing” images in my mind. I think less is more.

    • That is such a great description. Like you said, it provides a good guide to keep the reader from straying too far from what would make sense, but also gives the reader control.

  6. Ryan M. Church

    Reblogged this on The Way of the Storyteller:.

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