Monday, May 12, 2014

A Picture is Worth a Thousand Words

"A picture is worth a thousand words."

I cannot pinpoint the first time I heard this old, clichéd phrase, but I do remember my young mind spinning to decipher it. It is true, I told myself. A picture can be more descriptive than a thousand words. I realized that most of the picture books I read at the time did not even have one thousand words in them, and that I could often follow their plots by looking exclusively at the illustrations. What a fascinating thought.

Now I read books full of thousands upon thousands of words and almost always devoid of any pictures. After entering the world of chapter books, I had to begin picturing characters and settings in my own mind. This requirement does not make reading any harder, but it does leave miles of room for interpretation, allowing everyone to see things differently.

Recently, I started thinking about the way I imagine my books' worlds and wondering about other people's picturing patterns. So I decided to write a discussion post about it.

I am extremely egocentric when imagining fictional people and places. No matter what a character's conflicts are, I subconsciously alter her life to mirror mine, molding every possible detail to match.

This habit is especially strong when it comes to house settings; rarely do I read a book in which the characters' home does not look exactly like my current residence or one of my old ones. My brain knows no logic on this topic. It places New York City-dwellers into full-sized houses, it forces wealthy and poor people into middle-class abodes, and it keeps futuristic and historical stories firmly locked in present-day architecture. I have tried to train my brain into rationality, but it will not budge.

My unintentional egocentricity also manifests when I imagine characters. Because I am white-skinned, and most of my family and friends are as well, I automatically picture characters as Caucasian unless the author emphasizes another ethnicity. This habit is as illogical as the last, but my efforts to break it have yet to succeed. For now, I stick to seeking out multicultural novels to remind myself that the world is not as pale as I am.

Although I would never want to see my instinctive imaginings in a movie adaptation, I love being able to picture worlds on my own. Everything I imagine may be unrealistic, but it is mine. Even when I am reading thousands of words that thousands have read before me, I get to create my own version of them and keep them tucked away in my mind forever. That ability is one of the many magical things about reading, and I would not give it up for all the accurate and descriptive images in the world.

Unlike my previous discussion posts, this piece's main purpose is not to assert an opinion, but to ask a question. How do you picture your settings and characters? What trends do you notice? Let me know—I am curious!


  1. I really, really love this post, Emily! It is interesting to think about settings and characters and how everyone imagines them to be. I don't *think* I mirror settings like my own (although that would make sense because it's all we DO know), but I admit that unless otherwise stated, I automatically picture the characters as white. I guess I feel like because it's not stated, it's implied they're white, which is RIDICULOUS. I love how you said that not everyone is pale as you and I feel the same. I really don't think "minorities" are so rare and so it's silly for me to think that every character is white. If the narrative is in 1st person, the main character's skin isn't usually mentioned unless they're unusually pale, trying to tan, or being black (or another ethnicity) is part of the plot/conflict. Man, I love thinking about this now!

  2. Wow! This is such a great idea for a post Emily! :D I love visualizing books like movies, but that's just me. Can't wait to see what other people think! :D

    ~ Zoe @ The Infinite To-Read Shelf

  3. Now I'm thinking about how I visualize my settings and characters. And I've realized that although I'm not white, most of the time, I picture characters to be white, which is really unfortunate because I know that the world isn't all one color, but it just seems like a bad habit I can't break. As for "mirroring" my own life, it happens when it fits. Like I usually picture schools to all look like mine. Again, great post that really got me thinking!

  4. Okay I need to put your button on my page and just worship you. Because this post is fantastic.

    I definitely relate. When I read I picture it happening in my head. I will say that I have a varied cultural group and I'm part Cherokee (though I am the palest white girl ever-my legs....people think I'm wearing white tights when I show my bare legs. o.O) I don't always think of everyone as caucasian. I picture blank canvasses until descriptive words come in. And then I dreamcast it. I love to dreamcast books.

    I love how honest you were about it. I definitely identify with the characters in everything I read whether it's a situation I've had or a friend....I can put myself in anyone's shoes.

    You are so articulate. I really enjoyed reading this and thank you so much for your comment on my blog.

    Rebecca @ Vicariously!


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