Think of your favorite literary character. Now picture their features, the way they look, the shape and characteristics of their face. Chances are that the picture you have falls into one of several categories. Maybe it is shaped by the character’s depiction in popular cinema. Perhaps they resemble the artist’s sketch in an illustrated edition or on the cover of the book. Maybe you’re a purist who is constructing the mental picture from memory of the book’s descriptions and the character’s actions alone. Regardless, all of these depictions likely fall short in one way or another. The first two likely only hold to a small set of descriptive factors established in the book and flesh the rest out with the choice of actor. The latter will only be a shadow image, a collection of described traits that would be nondescript or incomplete if sketched out. How then can we achieve visualization of characters?
In an excerpt from What We See When We Read, Peter Mendelsund discusses the mental process of visualizing literary characters. He notes that, “Literary characters are physically vague—they have only a few features, and these features hardly seem to matter—or, rather, these features matter only in that they help to refine a character’s meaning. Character description is a kind of circumscription. A character’s features help to delineate their boundaries—but these features don’t help us truly picture a person.” He attributes the construction of visualization to a combination of subconscious action and a melding of the described features with familiar faces, those of friends or relatives. In this way literary characters become an amalgam of features that are different from those the author pictured when they first wrote the character.
Can the digital humanities help scholars depict literary characters? Not in a literal sense, no. A program built to sketch characters based on their textual descriptions would crank out characters missing crucial figures, a man with a set of particularly obtrusive ears and no eyes or a woman with only a head and torso. However, the digital humanities can help construct a visualization that surrounds and supplements the character. Analyzing and visualizing crucial details in the novel allows a scholar to create a network within which the literary characters play. Although their visual features will always remain underdeveloped, a visualization of the environment they exist in can lead readers to a greater understanding of how they exist within their textual origins.
Mendelsund, Peter. What We See When We Read. Vintage Press, 2014. Online.