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Sunday Salon – Picture Me This… or Don’t

September 20, 2009

The Sunday Salon.comHappy Sunday, all!

My brother is not much of a reader. He is a wonderful, intelligent person, but the last book that I know of him reading was Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, which I loaned him many years ago. Not long after that, I was driving him and one of his friends (who was a reader) somewhere, and talking to his friend about Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter and books and movies in general. And then my brother pipes up with “I like books better when I’ve already seen the movie, because then I don’t have to imagine what the characters look like.”

And at the time, I was thoroughly appalled. How could I possibly be related to someone who not only didn’t read, but preferred not to use his imagination when he did so?

But I spent yesterday afternoon reading Living Dead in Dallas, and all of a sudden, (six years later), I begin to see his point. I’m a big fan of the True Blood TV show, and I have to admit, there’s something bizarrely comforting about reading a book where I already know exactly what all of the main characters look like. (The fact that the True Blood casting department did their job exceptionally well doesn’t hurt.) I’m not saying that I’m going to shut off my imagination permanently, but for a brain-candy comfort read? Heck yeah, it’s nice being able to really see the characters in my mind’s eye.

Almost certainly related to this is the fact that, most of the time, I don’t picture characters’ faces when I read. Like, at all. I don’t need a lot of character description in my reading – height, body type, and hair color is generally all I picture anyways, so excessive prose describing romanesque noses and cupid-bow lips is almost always totally lost on me. This makes me very, very bad at the “who would you cast in a movie version of this book?” game. Even when playing the reverse – the “does that actor look right for the part?” – it’s much more about personality than actual appearance.

So, while normally it doesn’t bother me at all to have a bunch of faceless automatons moving through the stories in my head, actually being able to put faces on them is a refreshing change. I suppose I should call my brother and apologize for being so appalled all those years ago.

What say you, readers? How well do you really know what characters look like? Are there other descriptive details you skim over instead? And do you suspect that this whole topic was just an excuse for me to post a gratuitous picture of Alexander Skarsgård?

20 Comments leave one →
  1. September 20, 2009 8:22 am

    I like picturing people in my head my own way, but i don’t like big descriptions of them. Like you said, just a basic description of body type and hair color, and my imagination fills in the rest. I like to have a minimal detail or two that makes that person unique (a scar, a long nose, an overbite, etc), but beyond that, description isn’t necessary. Even the little details like that only matter if it a character’s got them.

    On the other hand, I don’t generally like movies replacing the images in my mind. Because I imagine very abstractly – I don’t see the people as photographs – it gets in the way to have movie-pictures in my head and sometimes I lose my original images.

  2. September 20, 2009 8:34 am

    I prefer to picture characters in my head while reading. I recently finished The Last Song by Nicholas Sparks and while reading I learned Miley Cyrus will be the main female character. She is not at all how I pictured the main female character. After reading this, unfortunately, my image faded and all I could see was Miley.

  3. September 20, 2009 10:37 am

    I love picturing characters in my own mind, so I will get cranky about a piece of casting I don’t agree with. On the other hand, I love it when someone gets a part, and they don’t necessarily look like how I imagined the character, but when I see them do it, they are the character so much that I can never imagine that character any other way. Like (an unoriginal example but I love him so much!) Gregory Peck playing Atticus Finch.

  4. September 20, 2009 11:05 am

    I just started watching True Blood and I love it so far! As for your questions about characters… hmm, well I guess I like a little bit of both. I like to have my say in what a character looks like and I get frustrated when movies or tv shows get it totally wrong. But! I don’t mind when I have a clearer picture either. Like Harry Potter. At this point I don’t even remember what I originally pictured them to look like. And I think they did such a marvelous job casting. Except for Sirius Black; I never thought Gary Oldsman was right for the job, even though his acting is superb.

  5. September 20, 2009 12:18 pm

    I am in complete agreement with you Fyrefly. When I’m reading, my internal pictures are fuzzy at best, and the way people in books look is rather irrelevant to me. Images will change upon re-readings and sometimes even within the same reading..which makes sense since the images are pretty vague to begin with. I will say, however, that there are times when a distinct image of a character kind of ruins the book for me. Hello Twilight…I wish I could get the actors/actresses out of my head while I was reading.

  6. September 20, 2009 12:20 pm

    What bothers me, actually, is when I read a book and then watch the movie and the person they cast for the role is not what I pictured because then I see that person and not who I imagined for the role! It doesn’t help when they put the stupid movie posters on books covers. I hate that… As to the other way around, I can see your point, but I am not sure how often I have done that!

  7. September 20, 2009 1:04 pm

    If I’ve read the book before I see the movie, I am almost always disappointed. If I see the movie first, I usually enjoy both, so you’re brother might be on to something.

  8. September 20, 2009 1:18 pm

    My images of people are usually pretty fuzzy as well. The best I could describe it is that I see a general outline of them, but their facial features aren’t very defined.

    I started reading the Sookie Stackhouse series before True Blood, and the characters were all that way, fuzzy around the edges. I still lusted after vampire Eric, but even moreso now that I can imagine Alexander Skarsgård… yummy. Also, I think they did a very good job casting the characters for the tv show.

  9. September 20, 2009 1:57 pm

    I’m in favor of the theory that you just wanted to post a picture of Alexander Skarsgård!

    I like to read a book first, then movie, because movies are too easy, and then I won’t read the book, even if I know it is different than the movie. So it really doesn’t have anything to do with picturing the character. But if I happen to see the character in a movie or movie ad, that’s what I picture whether I want to or not!

  10. September 20, 2009 5:08 pm

    I like picturing characters in my own head but really appreciate good casting and actors who take the time to study and portray a character well.

  11. September 20, 2009 7:24 pm

    I really don’t picture characters in my head either, so I tend to skip over all descriptions in the books. Even so, when I see movies based on books I can tell if they characters don’t look ‘right’ to me, even if they are based on the author’s descriptions. Would you believe that I NEVER noticed in the Harry Potter books that Malfoy was blond? I always pictured him with jet black hair.

  12. September 20, 2009 7:25 pm

    I’m the same as you: I picture characters vaguely at best, and I NEVER know what to say when playing the “who would you cast?” game. I can see the advantages of having a movie or TV series help you imagine a character, but sometimes, if someone I don’t like gets cast, I just can’t disassociate their face from the character. For example, I don’t want my Lestat to look like Tom Cruise, but I can’t help it, he does :(

  13. September 20, 2009 11:01 pm

    I usually have a face in mind when I read a book. It might not be a face that matches some of the descriptions that the author gives to me, but it’s a face that I imagine would go with a character. Then I’m annoyed when I watch a movie and those face do not match the ones that I had in my head, but how can the casting director know what’s in my head? Thus the dilemma…

  14. September 20, 2009 11:09 pm

    Hmmm. Generally, I prefer reading the book first before seeing the movie. The exception are the Harry Potter books. I like the movies, but I have no interest in reading the books.

    As for picturing characters: If the descriptions are too long, then I tend to skim them and just picture what appeals to me. But generally, I like picturing the characters. My favorite one is Harry Dresden of The Dresden Files.

    With Dresden, I watched the tv series first because I happened to channel surf to it and it looked interesting. At the time, I had no idea the Dresden Files was actually a long series of books. When I’m reading one of the books, I use the tv Dresden as a base and then my own imagination adds to it. I like how Dresden is pictured on the book covers.

  15. September 20, 2009 11:47 pm

    If the story’s written in first person, it’s like I’m literally in their shoes, so I don’t really know how they look like. But if the story’s written in third person, I usually have this shadowy image of who he or she looks like, but, like you said, it’s totally about the personality. I don’t mind if the movie or TV version of the character looks physically entirely different, as long as he meets the personality requirement.

  16. September 21, 2009 8:48 pm

    I’m a visual reader; I generally have a fairly clear idea of what the characters and their environments look like. I do recycle faces, though; for example, Sirius Black from the Harry Potter books and Lasher from Anne Rice’s Mayfair books look the same in my head. Sometimes I’ll picture characters as figures from art, too. I don’t put a whole lot of stock in cover illustrations, but I’ve been known to latch onto them from time to time.

    Because I’m a visual reader, I have trouble with film adaptations of my favourite books. I can usually handle plot changes, but it bugs me when the characters and settings don’t look like they do inside my head.

  17. September 22, 2009 8:20 am

    I never picture characters from books. I never picture ANYTHING from books. I try it sometimes and I’m impressed if an author has written a description that enables me to picture the scene, but it takes me out of my reading, if that makes sense. I have to try to picture things. In that respect I kind of like what your brother has said. I am able to picture the characters after I’ve seen a film/TV series and it adds something to the book. I don’t really miss it if I don’t have it but it’s a cool experience.

  18. September 22, 2009 3:42 pm

    I have a somewhat idea about what a character looks like and when a movie or TV show comes out, if that actor fits with the character in my head I slightly alter them but only slightly. He sure makes a yummy Eric though he’s not quite the Eric I’ve always pictured.

  19. September 23, 2009 7:52 pm

    I wouldn’t say I actively try to “picture” things from books, although if the description sounds like something or someone I’ve already seen, I’ll picture that in my mind.

    However, this proves problematic for me when I see movies/TV shows. Sure, Eric=Skarsgard is great, but now I can’t read Twilight without picturing Rat’s Nest RPatt as Edward! And it drives me freaking crazy!!! Oh, and Prof. Langdon novels–now I can’t help but see Tom Hanks as Langdon, and it’s like, No no no no.

  20. September 29, 2009 7:41 pm

    How odd, I never quite thought of it that way. I know what all the characters look like but I don’t people them with actors. That would be like trying to describe my family by the closest actor they resemble. Weird.

    That said, I will always see the movie before I read the book because otherwise, I’m just trying not to throw things at the screen. They cut huge swaths of vital scenes, combine characters, change their ages, their professions (remake of Bourne Identity for ex. Love the movie but that girlfriend? Not in the book).

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