What do you ‘see’ when you read fiction?


What do you see in your mind’s eye? When you read, is it like watching a movie in your head? Are you one of those rare people who don’t ‘see’ pictures in their mind at all?

I’ve been thinking about this more since seeing an exhibition at Exeter RAMM. Extreme Imagination: Inside the Mind’s Eye features the work of visual artists and writers with aphantasia (no inner visual imagery) and hyperphantasia (its opposite) alongside their thoughts on their creative processes.

When I read I see visual images but they’re not vivid and clear, more impressionistic. Perhaps that’s why I don’t like a lot of description in books. (Interestingly a writer in the exhibition echoed this, citing Elmore Leonard’s 10 rules of writing.) Similarly, with characters, I find I usually form my own idea of what they look like, perhaps based on someone I’ve met that looks like them, or a figure from another art form, or other random details. If I ‘see’ them as having spiky blond hair and the author keeps referencing their flowing auburn curls it throws me.

Some authors like to plan their characters using detailed crib sheets that include specifics such as eye colour and weight. I don’t even know what I weigh! Why would I need to know the weight of my characters? What I would want to know is how it feels to inhabit their body, and how others react to them.

Many of the artists in the exhibition with aphantasia say that they don’t plan their work. They start a project and see where it takes them. Conversely, the artists with hyperphantasia tend to know exactly what they want to achieve before they start. This is interesting to me because of the fierce debate between writers on whether it’s better to be a pantser (as in ‘by the seat of your pants’) or a plotter. Maybe the difference depends on what the author can ‘see’ in their head?

I read one plotter describe how she outlines her novel before she writes a word and then runs it like a video in her head, checking for flaws. In Elon Musk, biographer Ashlee Vance says that Musk can design, build and test a machine in his imagination, making modifications and seeing how they affect its performance, before committing to making it in real life.

Conversely, pantsers (also, more elegantly, called discovery writers) create the work as they write. Perhaps that’s because it’s difficult for them visualise it? Although I’m towards the middle of the pantser/plotter spectrum I find that as soon as I start writing, I think of aspects of the story I hadn’t envisaged when I was outlining.

Of course reading isn’t just about seeing. I’ve heard it said that there are some authors who see their novels and others who hear them. I think I’m definitely one who hears first. The rhythm and the tone come to me long before the actual words. Perhaps that’s why some people say they don’t care about the writing as long as the story’s good, while I can’t bear clunky prose.

The best authors employ all the senses (thought I did recently read a thriller where every character was introduced by their smell, which was a bit disconcerting). Stuart MacBride writes viscerally about the sensations which his characters experience. If his detective protagonist Logan McRae is examining a mutilated corpse, or crawling through exhaustion fuelled by greasy takeaways, or being punched in his already scarred stomach, I literally have a gut reaction.

Readers are always going to have to make things up in their head. I once wrote a review where I unkindly suggested the author’s description of a house read like a landlord’s inventory, but even he couldn’t tell you everything about the physical appearance of a room. What was the precise shade of pink of the curtains? What was the angle of the sun through the window at three in the afternoon?

For me, the best books give us enough of a sense of mood and tone to fill in the gaps ourselves, to create something new from the shared imaginations of the reader and the writer. When we watch a movie, we all see the same thing, even though we react to it differently. Perhaps, though, when we read, we’re all seeing a slightly different book.

What do you ‘see’ when you read?


  1. I tend to “see” extremely vivid and detailed images when I read. And I like a lot of description, if it’s well-done. On the other hand, I also have very strong “feeling sensations/impressions” when I read. And I’m somewhere between a plotter and pantser when I write myself.

    Interestingly, in real life I’m not very good at recognizing faces, but I do have synesthesia, where I experience sound as taste and touch.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I struggle with faces too! I said to my partner that the Mary Queen of Scots movie would be confusing because the two protagonists looked so similar (red hair, fair skin, blue eyes) but he said they were actually quite different. I’m fine with people I know well but with acquaintances I tend to rely on general indicators like hair style and colour and that can mean I greet the wrong people at times!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. What I see when I read fiction and what I see when I write creatively aren’t necessarily the same. When I’ve written short stories I have an idea what I’m going to focus on and then let the characters wend their ways through incidents and obstacles: I ‘see’ through their eyes. On the other hand, when I read I want to visualise characters with some distinguishing feature at least (age, behavioural tic, temperament) and some indication of the environment they’re in, so long as it’s not irrelevant.

    But mostly it’s use of words that matters to me, in the same way that when I read musical notation I can ‘hear’ what it might sound like, however few performance indications there may be.

    Interestingly, when writers give lots of supportive detail, especially in fantasy, I find I’m drawn to recreating family trees, timelines, maps and motifs to give myself a mental map of what’s going on. A sort of mood board, or (as you will appreciate) the pinboard used in investigating a major crime…

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I like the idea of a mood board. I know some authors do include maps and family trees, especially in historical fiction. And in crime novels the author will sometimes summarise what’s known at a given point through the voice of the protagonist, which can be useful for the reader. Of course what the reader and the protagonist know might not be the same thing…

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  3. How interesting that there are so many different experiences to seeing and reading. My partner reads much more slowly than I do and one reason for this is the time he takes to visualize what’s on the page. He seems, to me, to be a much more attentive reader than I, in an ongoing way, to visuals, although if I do feel that the writer is particularly attuned to creating the visuals in a scene, I do slow and attend more closely (or, as you’ve mentioned, if I feel that it’s more about rhythm of prose or pacing then I look to that instead). Do you know Peter Mendelsund’s What We See When We Read?

    Liked by 1 person

  4. I hadn’t heard of Peter Mendelsund but I’ve just taken a look at the sample – looks interesting and beautifully produced too (as you’d expect from a designer!). Thanks for the tip.

    Liked by 1 person

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