The Ghost in the Text- Visualizing Literary Characters

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.

Works Cited

Mendelsund, Peter. What We See When We Read. Vintage Press, 2014. Online.


Exchanging Ideas: the Reader, the Text, and Digital Humanities

Peter Mendelsund explores the relationship between the reader and the text in his essay “What We See When We Read.” Noting the gaps in our mental pictures of characters, Mendelsund explains that characters really become more like a set of rules: “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” (7-8). In revealing the truly vague descriptions of characters, as well as the ways readers might build their own images, Mendelsund’s essay illustrates a distinct transaction taking place between reader and writer, between the reader and the text.

Continue reading “Exchanging Ideas: the Reader, the Text, and Digital Humanities”

Sometimes, Less is More

Peter Menelsund’s article “What We See When We Read” offers a compelling insight to close reading in literature. Some may argue that an author’s writing ability depends on the complexity of the images they are able to project into a reader’s mind; however, “Most authors … provide their fictional characters with more behavioral then physical descriptions.” Therefore, Mendelsund believes that the idea of “seeing” in literature is something that generally does not happen as vividly as we might at first think. Instead, he argues that “You may feel intimately acquainted with a character … but this doesn’t mean you are actually picturing a person.” Thus, “We fill in the gaps.”

In this respect, we learn from what is not there. Our experience with the texts we read depend on the unseen and the unclear. As Mendelsund notes, when trying to obtain a clear picture of a character, “The closer you look, the farther away she gets.” In fact, the critic argues that the physical descriptions that we are given “hardly seem to matter,” and “don’t help us truly picture a person.” Therefore, our idea of a certain character is not necessarily an image. We understand them by their behaviors in relation to other characters, in which they become “a set of rules that determines a particular outcome.” In other words, we understand them, can even to some extent predict their next move, without ever really “seeing” them. Mendelsund argues that “It is precisely what the text does not elucidate that becomes an invitation to our imaginations.” We then learn from what is not on the page.

Extending off of this idea, we can further complicate the notion of “seeing” when we bring the digital humanities into the picture (no pun intended). With DH’s emphasis on the visual and their wide array of digitally enhanced visual tools, they may be able to allow literary readers to finally “see.” The idea of a digital program that sifts through a text, interprets all of the words that are physical descriptors, and translates them into a visual correspondence of those words, one may finally be able to see a character and provide meaning and significance to the physical descriptors that, according to Mendelsund, previously did not matter.

However, in light of Mendelsund’s argument, do we need to see? Arguably, Literature is the only discipline in which we do not need to see in order to learn or understand. In Math, we need charts and numbers. In History, we need maps and artifacts. In Science, we need chemicals and graphs. Literature does not work in this way. We know a character, a house, a landscape, without seeing it; and we think critically in order to do this. Thus, in some ways, the idea of “seeing” can actually hinder the extent of our learning in literary studies. The gaps, arguably tell us more than anything else. If DH would provide us with the visual, would we then be taking away from the uniqueness of the literary discipline where we feel and understand a particular aspect of a text without seeing it? I believe this is the question that we need to consider when incorporating the Digital Humanities into our traditional literary pedagogy. We must be careful when it comes to bringing in new forms of teaching literature and be aware that sometimes less is more.

Works Cited:

Excerpt from What We See When We Read, by Peter Mendelsund

Image from same source

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