Every once in a while on twitter, people talk about how they visualise a character, or how a casting choice didn’t meet their expectations, or their dream cast for a book. And I just don’t get it, because I don’t picture characters with that level of visual detail. Not even my own. I can describe them, make choices about their overall shape, but I can’t match them up to a fully fledged three dimensional physical human. Now, if something’s wildly off about a physical representation (whitewashing), I’ll notice, and I’ll definitely notice if the character doesn’t match how the character on the page behaved, but otherwise, I’m just sort of “eh”. In my head, characters have about as much physical detail as if I’d drawn them, and I’m a terrible artist.
It’s not just people either. I apologise to anyone who’s spent days labouring over their worldbuilding of physical details, but when I’m reading, it’s mostly generic “building” or “forest” or “lab” or “market”. I almost never picture the physical landscape in specific detail, which of course is probably why I struggle with adding these bits to my own writing. My default is “they went to the house”, not “they went to the ancient mansion, its green paint now faded an unsettling shade of grey”.
Weirdly, the only time I seem to really see a landscape is when that landscape is, in theory, more barren. Like in The Tombs of Atuan: I could picture the desert where the Place was, and the almost lightless underground tombs. Or, now I think of it, in The Farthest Shore, when LeGuin takes her protagonists out on the open sea. Maybe when there’s less to imagine I can manage better? Don’t know.
All of which to say, when I say “I’d never really thought about what they looked like”, I really mean it!