"Don't tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on the broken glass."
— Anton Chekov, 1860-1904
There are two kinds of people in the world: those who are visual thinkers and those who are not.
As writers, we are taught to use all our senses to describe the worlds we create. Show, don't tell. Readers want to see, hear, smell, taste and touch everything our characters experience, but how do we convey those rich sensory details with mere words?
In early critiques of the manuscript for my children's novel, readers commented that they liked my main character, but couldn't see him. I knew everything about this third grader — his thoughts, feelings, friends, passions, parents, siblings, and even his pet — but I had no idea what he looked like.
In my mind, he was an average-sized third grade boy with a pixellated face, like the blurred mugs of the world's dumbest criminals in those reality cop shows. But my readers would fill in the visage that I couldn't envision, right? Wrong. "What does he look like?" one young reader asked. Good question.
We live in a visual world and the human eye is an astounding organ, processing up to 36,000 bits of information per hour and nearly 24 million images in a normal lifetime. We see as many 10 million colors and can distinguish 500 different shades of gray. (On the other hand, the octopus does not have a blind spot, so maybe we should leave parallel parking to the cephalopods.)
But among humans, some of us are more visually oriented than others. I've started carrying my camera around to train my eye to capture visual details and then translate them to the written page. To keep from becoming distracted, I've focused mainly on color and have been pleased enough with my amateur efforts to have a little flickr set on the subject. Just when I was feeling good about these optical exercises, I clicked on a link to my friend Matt Dinnerstein's magnificent professional photos and was vividly reminded that my visual skills are rudimentary at best.
Time for a new exercise. I stand in awe of visual artists, and thought maybe I could steal borrow some of their work to help me "see" my character. One of the instructors at Off Campus Writers Workshop advised us to "create a visual map — a poster with images of our characters and settings," so I took to perusing magazines. I tried, I really did, to find a photograph that would bring my character to life, but instead of pictures, I found myself cutting out descriptive words in interesting fonts.
That's when I realized that I'm not a visual thinker. I rely on a sixth sense — my sense of language — to interpret my world. It all comes down to the meaning, rhythm, subtext, context and order of the words — and there is nothing "mere" about them.
The roughly quarter million distinct words of the English language can be combined and recombined to create meaning, nuance, irony, description, poetry, humor, tragedy, drama, fantasy, romance … in other words, all the sights, sounds, scents, tastes and feelings our physical, emotional and imaginary worlds can generate.
I recently sat down and removed the mask that was hiding my main character so I could take a good, long look at him. Turns out he's a real person after all, and it only took a couple dozen words to paint his picture:
wavy, chocolate brown hair
freckles sprinkled across a perfectly ordinary nose
long, thin fingers
hooded blue eyes
a shy, wide, close-lipped smile
and a mouthful of shiny new adult teeth, still a little too big for his face
Well, can you see him? Click here to let me know what's missing, or to discuss which sense you count on most navigate your world.
Ed. Note: 6/5/09 8:18 p.m. — I just found these great tidbits in some correspondence between F. Scott Fitzgerald and his editor, Max Perkins, on an early draft of The Great Gatsby. Perkins wrote:
"Among a set of characters marvelously palpable and vital — I would know Tom Buchanan if I met him on the street and would avoid him — Gatsby is somewhat vague. The reader's eyes can never quite focus upon him, his outlines are dim."
After first claiming the vagueness was intentional, Fitzgerald responded:
"I myself didn't know what Gatsby looked like or was engaged in and you felt it."
It's nice to know that my initial vagueness about my main character puts me in good company. Read more about this fascinating relationship between author and editor here.