Watching the novel

When I read a novel, it is like watching a movie. Sometimes it’s a really long movie that runs sporadically over a few weeks, and occasionally some of the characters look a bit different when they come back on screen, but I ‘see’ it all happening in my mind’s eye. Which is why it really bugs me when an author purposely blinds me.

I was reading a novel by an author I really like, but they refused to show me the main protagonist. There was clearly something up with his appearance, and I watched him walk around dark streets and avoid people, but I didn’t get to ‘see’ him. This went on for three chapters. How am I expected to craft the movie of this novel if I can’t even see the main character?

I think I’ve bemoaned the unreliable narrator before, but this is different. This is wilful omission that both author and reader are aware of. It’s like someone pixilated the lead in the film and expected everyone to just go with it.

I have to confess I put the book down. Who knows, maybe in the next chapter the author did the big reveal, or maybe I was going to be forced to go through the whole novel so I could have an a-ha moment at the end when suddenly it all made sense. Regardless I’ll never know. For me, the appeal of the novel is being able to get into the skin of the main protagonist and learn with them along the way. If they have some kind of physical issue that impacts every facet of how they live their life, then I think I should know about it on page one.

Clearly that is just my opinion, and there will be loads of people out there who love that kind of book (oh wow, all this time he was actually the pet dog!) – which makes me wonder, do some people actually read books and not make their own movie?

2 thoughts on “Watching the novel”

  1. I am a slow reader, really slow. Unless there is some action happening in a book I take my time to build a mental picture of the people and places that are part of the story. I will go back and reread passages that describe detail to make sure I have constructed the characters (personalities, walking style, appearance and speech patterns are just the start). If the author doesn’t provide enough detail for me I am unlikely to make it past the first chapter. This has made me very selective of what I will read and I am sure I have missed out on many good books due to a lack of descriptive language.
    I recently read Ready Player One and had built up a very vivid visualisation of the people and scenes in the story. This was partly helped by the use of 80s video game and pop-culture, allowing me to weave memories with the book’s narrative. Then, I went to see the movie. The movie drove me crazy for two reasons; the story was changed for Hollywood and the movie didn’t look the way I had constructed it in my mind. It makes me want to read the book again to flush the movie version out of my brain and replace it with the book version.
    The opposite happened recently, I watched the first season of a space opera on Netflix and was taken by the story and the main characters. So, I started reading the book series. The TV series deviated from the books, which was slightly frustrating, but I could deal with that, I suspect because of the following reason. The TV show had already provided me with detailed living characters that my mind now used while I was reading the book. The books described the characters and scenes in good detail and this mostly matched the TV versions (even exaggerated characteristics described in the books were accurately cast in the show).
    One of the reasons I find this topic so interesting is that a close friend of mine recently told me that they experienced Aphantasia. Aphantasia is the suggested name for a condition where one does not possess a functioning mind’s eye and cannot voluntarily visualize imagery (thanks Wikipedia). I find this hard to imagine, not being able to build these mental scenes, character interactions (with voices) and ‘brain TV’. I don’t think this makes character descriptions any less important, if anything this condition may require better descriptive narrative to tell a story that is compelling. Back when The Hunger Games was originally released I read the books and enjoyed them. While my imagination didn’t compare with the intense colours and costumes of the movies, I found the books to be very visually stimulating. Perhaps good young adult authors care more about describing a compelling story than odd twists?

  2. I had a friend who must have had aphantasia (she didn’t know the name of it) but she said she never dreamed in images, and couldn’t picture things in her mind unless you gave her a lot of detail. e.g. if you said imagine a tree, she would just hold onto the concept of a tree. She could only visualise a tree if you said picture a pine tree weighed down with snow – but even then she wasn’t sure if she was seeing it or just drawing on her concepts of a pine tree with snow. That blew me away. I asked her if she liked to read fiction, she said she read less than one book a year – she didn’t enjoy it. I can’t help but wonder if the two things were connected.

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