Monday 3 March 2014

Mind’s Eye

The other day when I was listening to the Archers someone started talking to me. Nothing unusual there. My children are unable to understand, it seems, that in order to know what’s going on in a radio programme you have to be able to hear it. There are no visual clues to keep you going for the duration of whatever vital exchange they need to have right that minute. You can imagine, can’t you?

Me: deep sigh

Child: “Blah, blah, blah.”

Me: flaps hand towards the radio

Child: “Blah, blah, blah-di-blah.”

Me: grabs remote and turn up radio

Child: “Oh, err, sorry. I’ll come back later.”

Me: “Well, if it’s not important...”

So the next day, we’re all sitting there and somehow the Archers comes up again. They want to know why their dad and I listen to it. Nothing ever happens, they say, and they’re right. In fact, on the occasion when there has been a Big Story, you know, Ruth having an affair (or not, I can’t remember if she actually Did It), Nigel falling off the roof, those things irritate me. What I like about the Archers is the buzz and hum of life, the mundane nothingness of the everyday. I used to like that about Coronation Street until it turned all Eastenders and I stopped watching.

OK, so by now maybe you’re thinking this is supposed to be a blog about books, why’s she wittering on about soap operas. Well, what happened was this: I had a little moan about the kids interrupting when I was listening to the Archers, and one of them asked if I had a picture of each character in my head, if I actually knew what they looked like. And I had to say no, not in the way that they were imagining. Their idea, I suppose, is that you sit there with a sort of Archers movie playing in your head. It isn’t like that at all though, any more than when you read you have the movie of the book playing in your head. However I do think that if a book or a radio programme or an audio book captures you sufficiently, in some way it must stimulate some visual sensors in your brain as well as the auditory and understanding ones. Even though you can’t see it, you have a sense that you have seen it. Think of it like this, you know what your husband or your mother or your dog looks like, don’t you? But when you’re not with them, you don’t have an actual image of them in your head, just a sense of them.

There is one downside I have found with this whole inner visualisation thing. Sometimes when I’m driving, if I’m listening to something interesting, or making up stories, there are moments when I have to remind myself to focus on what’s ahead of me on the road instead of what I can see with my mind’s eye.

Does this make any sense to you? What I’m talking about is the imagination. It’s the same thing you get when you write. You don’t need a photo of your character to know you’d recognise them if you came across them in the street. And what you’re hoping to do as you write is to implant that visual sense of the character in the mind of your reader.


  1. It's the "is Darcy blond?" thing. I read P&P at 11, long before we had a TV, long before I saw my first screen Darcy (Laurence Olivier, since you ask) and there was never any question in my mind that he was dark-haired. The visual sense of character, as you put it, was so strong.

    But there's a side plot. I've read a couple of books recently that I enjoyed hugely, right up to the ending, which disappointed me. So now, when I'm driving somewhere, I'm replaying the ending, rescripting, reshaping. But, in order to do this, I turn out to need to visualise the characters in much more detail than I did when I was reading. It's as if I needed to give them a local habitation and a name in order to direct them.

  2. Maybe in order to work with them in your own imagination you have to possess them more fully yourself. When it's the author driving the narrative you can sit back and trust them to give you all the information you need, but without that you need more to make them 'real' to you.


What do you think?