Aphantasia and writing

Topher

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Hi all,

Bit of a strange question really, and not sure if this is the best section to ask it in?

I found out only a couple of years ago that a have Aphantasia - I have no internal mind's eye. (Well, I think I dream in images, but I can't form pictures in my mind at will, and don't ever form pictures in my mind when I'm reading.) Obviously I always knew I didn't do this, but I hadn't previously realised that other people could - I always assumed they were talking metaphorically or something!

Anyway, I don't really see it as a negative thing, because it just means i imagine and think in a slightly different way, and it hasn't ever affected my love of reading, but have been wondering what effect it might have on my writing. When reading I find I often don't pay a whole lot of attention when authors describe what characters look like - I obviously pick up on traits and descriptions that tell me what the character will be like, as a person, but don't tend to pay much attention to physical attributes like hair colour etc. But I suppose other readers probably appreciate descriptions like that more, to build up a mental image of the character? So it's probably something i should consciously try to make sure I don't overlook in my own writing.

Anyway, just curious if anyone else out there has had a similar issue, or if there's anything else you think I might want to look out for when it comes to my own writing as a result of it.

Thanks!
 

Jo Zebedee

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Yes me too. I’m incredibly face blind which I found out is very linked. I think it’s why my description is always so sparse and why I’m mostly happier using settings I know :)

Oh and yeah it’s in my editing list, always - add description :)
 
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HareBrain

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Funny you should bring this up, because a couple of days ago I was "arguing" with a friend about why I resisted her efforts to get me to do the cryptic crossword in the paper when I do many of the other puzzles. And one reason that eventually occurred to me is that I seem predisposed to take language at face value, and my brain imagines the cryptic clue literally, as a picture, and I find it hard to get beyond that.

I obviously pick up on traits and descriptions that tell me what the character will be like, as a person, but don't tend to pay much attention to physical attributes like hair colour etc. But I suppose other readers probably appreciate descriptions like that more, to build up a mental image of the character? So it's probably something i should consciously try to make sure I don't overlook in my own writing.
I'm not sure. I seem to have a very vivid mind's eye, at least when I focus it, but as a reader I don't pay much attention to character descriptions either. If I'm given a hair colour, say, I try to work it into my (very vague) mental image, but I'm mostly just as happy without. And too much detail seems to fight against what my brain seems to want to do naturally.
 

Venusian Broon

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Hi @Topher, welcome to Chrons!

I think I have extremely vague "mental picture" facilties and therefore can understand your position to a degree! For me, mental pictures are mostly constructed out of memories, even the fictional ones that are painstakingly constructed from reading, but even then they are 'stripped' down to basics afterwards. Dreams, as you say, are images but somehow I find them 'grey' and difficult to hold onto, not lucid and striking. And I find it rare that I have memories that I could wax lyrical about - there are some but these are a few moments in a lifetime.

I think I am much more organised to think about ideas and relationships between things etc. , which I hold much more vividly, and are much more difficult to explain because they are not images. But of course I will use images as metaphors to try and get these ideas across. As an aside I find it much more fun and easier to think about mathematics which I see as a 'boiled down' language of ideas/relationships.

I think this clearly effects my reading & writing as I much prefer reading that is chock full of ideas, whereas descriptive writing can work sometimes, but usually I will gloss over more ornate (<cough> purple) passages. I think that is why I was attracted to SF as a child, as I see it as a literature of ideas
 

The Big Peat

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Interesting. And welcome!

In terms of your own writing, I'd say look at how other writers with sparse description do it. Maybe build up image libraries for important things? But certainly, there are enough writers who work in sparse description that I don't think it will be a big issue.

My personal downfall in this situation is a very bad sense of smell. People keep saying it's important, and I'm always slightly "what the hell are you on about". However! I learn to cheat by a) noting down when other authors invoke smells and b) skipping what the smell is, and going for the emotional links, which is slightly telling for some readers but for other readers allows them to insert their own description (which is also a big strength of sparse physical descriptions) i.e. not "there was a faint sickly smell of jasmine" but "the room smelled of grandma's perfume".
 

Venusian Broon

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My personal downfall in this situation is a very bad sense of smell. People keep saying it's important, and I'm always slightly "what the hell are you on about". However! I learn to cheat by a) noting down when other authors invoke smells and b) skipping what the smell is, and going for the emotional links, which is slightly telling for some readers but for other readers allows them to insert their own description (which is also a big strength of sparse physical descriptions) i.e. not "there was a faint sickly smell of jasmine" but "the room smelled of grandma's perfume".
Are you sure you don't have covid??? :unsure:

;)

Seriously, I'd be surprised if this isn't commonplace, as I can only really smell something which is in my mouth (thankfully, otherwise eating food would be just textures, salt and other weird sensations) and smells from outside need to be really, really strong for me to register them. If I were to 'make' a room with a faint sickly smell of jasmine, then I would have to drench it in jasmine juice. :) Then dab jasmine just underneath my nostrils to be sure.

I know that I have a cold/flu virus oncoming because it always knocks out my feeble sense of smell so that even drinking coffee becomes alien - rather than the rich taste of coffee, it tastes like some sort of metallic liquid to me.

And yes, I find myself not really making much about smell in any writing because of this!
 

Ashleyne

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I have a vivid imagination, but it actually means I write sparse descriptions too. When reading, I don't need much information to picture made up things and I don't like being slowed down by details. When writing, I tend to describe more when a character finds something particularly interesting, new or unusual.
 

jd73

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I've read some writing by people with aphantasia and it's pretty good, some of it, largely because it doesn't focus on all that internal vision stuff. For myself, I have a pretty overactive internal viewing system which is great in its way but it's also too easy to get lost in it at the expense of compelling plot elements.
 

Topher

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That's really helpful and interesting, thanks all! I'll not worry too much about adding in extra details, as it sounds like people at both ends of the spectrum are fine without it, and see how it reads once I've got a bit further into it. Any recommendations of books with effective but particularly sparse description i could look at?

@Venusian Broon - very much the same (which is probably why I ended up studying philosophy/political theory!) I definitely find texts with excessive description pretty tough going.
 

goldhawk

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I'm the complete opposite. I can see a mental image of anything I read. But I don't like detailed descriptions. Sparse descriptions that leave a lot to the readers' imaginations are better. Consider the following.

sh*t, thought Matt as he climbed out of the deep-sleep chamber. The tactical board was alight with the red dots of enemy craft. I'm screwed.
Note the only clues are "deep-sleep chamber", "tactical board", and "enemy craft". From those clues, readers will imagine the rest.
 

Ursa major

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Well, I think I dream in images
I do dream in images, but for decades only in black and white (which I, only half-jokingly, have put down to watching a lot of TV when there was no colour TV available -- and there were still a lot of B&W films back then). It's only recently -- I'm in my 60s -- that I get dreams that are mostly in colour (but colour that is as far from being Technicolor as possible).

What my dreams always lack is sound. Not a peep... except in a single dream**, a "delirious" childhood dream that I had when I was very ill (an influenza-induced fever). When information is provided -- this doesn't happen very often -- it just arrives soundlessly in my head (so one could say that I'm a telepath in my dreams).
I seem predisposed to take language at face value
I'm not too good at cryptic crosswords, other than the very easy ones (which people might find odd given how fond I am of puns and word play). But where this is really a problem is in filling in forms. Questions*** that, if barely glanced at, might elecit a valid answer from most people, send me off into a logical minefield of working out what it is they want to know.

It can also be a problem when reading less than clearly expressed specifications (which I used to do a lot as part of my job, as was writing them), but that's another matter entirely... except that, when writing SF, my first drafts (and "possibly" :whistle: later ones) have a lot of nailing down of every detail of how something is working/happening if it happens to be technical, even if it doesn't happen to be useful to the reader.)
as a reader I don't pay much attention to character descriptions either. If I'm given a hair colour, say, I try to work it into my (very vague) mental image, but I'm mostly just as happy without.
Same here.


** - Not that it really matters, but the sound was important in this one dream: I was on a beach (a nice pale grey beach, you'll be pleased to know, with a slightest darker grey sea). The sound was that of crashing waves and, in the dream, I knew that they were crashing down hard on the beach... only the sea was made of concrete -- so the colour was correct! -- and was not moving up or down the beach and the waves were not crashing down on the beach, not according to what I "saw". But I believed they were, because of the sound that their (visually absent) crashing was making. (It was quite terrifying: there was no logic to it at all. :eek:)

*** - Sometimes there can be a serious problem with a question, in that it doesn't -- it can't -- elicit a useful answer. There used to be a couple of questions on HMRC's Self Assessment Tax Return form where the only allowed answers were Yes and No. Working one's way logically through these tortuous questions (always a sign that the questioner isn't being clear) would give only one answer (I think it was No, but I can't now recall), whatever the circumstances. People who gave the other answer can't have been paying attention... and I have no idea what those reading the answers (whatever they were) expected to achieve by doing so. (I reported this a couple of times when the HMRC website asked for feedback. After a few years, these two questions were no longer being asked.)
 

Topher

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** - Not that it really matters, but the sound was important in this one dream: I was on a beach (a nice pale grey beach, you'll be pleased to know, with a slightest darker grey sea). The sound was that of crashing waves and, in the dream, I knew that they were crashing down hard on the beach... only the sea was made of concrete -- so the colour was correct! -- and was not moving up or down the beach and the waves were not crashing down on the beach, not according to what I "saw". But I believed they were, because of the sound that their (visually absent) crashing was making. (It was quite terrifying: there was no logic to it at all. :eek:)
This does sound terrifying!!
 

.matthew.

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I'm the same, can't picture anything in my head. Though, if I get really tired I do start seeing line drawings on surfaces (which I suspect is sort of like cloud gazing where people pick out shapes from them).

When reading it doesn't affect me much as I get the 'gist' of the scene while pretty much instantly forgetting what colour the flag was or similar details.

In my own writing I do think I probably go too sparse at times, but knowing that fact I may also go into too much detail to compensate. This is a tricky line to walk as I can't easily tell if I've stepped off it myself, since I don't visualise it as most people would.
 

Wayne Mack

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Personally, I have become pretty adverse to detailed visual descriptions. I tend to use a minimalist description of a character's physical appearance and let the reader fill in hair color, age, race, etc. I tend to focus a bit more on describing clothing as I feel that is a character choice that better describes the character's internal beliefs and attitudes.
 

tinkerdan

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Aphantasia aside: [I can't claim to having that since my job includes often creating manufacturing drawing for something that doesn't exist until the fabrication department gets my drawing.]

When I was young(in grade school)When tasked with writing something from my imagination; I flopped around like a fish out of water and usually was lucky to get the minimum passing grade.

It took a lot of effort to craft my first two manuscripts that have never been published. After a lot of hard work, it is much easier now.
Oddly enough it became easier once I focused on the character in the world and how they react to the world.
Point by point description of a character in blatant blocks of paragraphs is to me like fingernails on chalkboard.
The most relevant decryptions are achieved when you compare attributes.

Her blue eyes were a bit lighter than mine, but they went well with her darker skin tone.

Why they mistook her for me is a mystery since her tangled straw-like wheat-colored hair was darker than my thin straight locks.

She was five foot two so I was looking down on her.

Stuff like that.
 

Biskit

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Like @Jo Zebedee, I am significantly "face blind". I'm also relatively hopeless with a camera and on those rare occasions I use the posh camera (as opposed to the phone) the Biskitetta usually complains that I've not centred the subject properly, cut off heads/feet/important detail. My head just doesn't handle visual information particularly well.

The funny thing is, I've had people comment on my writing and praise my "visual imagination". I put it down to minimal description so that people fill in the blanks.


I have a crazy sense of smell so smell works well for me :)
I live in the countryside - it's best to shut down the sense of smell at times.
 

Biskit

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*** - Sometimes there can be a serious problem with a question, in that it doesn't -- it can't -- elicit a useful answer. There used to be a couple of questions on HMRC's Self Assessment Tax Return form where the only allowed answers were Yes and No. Working one's way logically through these tortuous questions (always a sign that the questioner isn't being clear) would give only one answer (I think it was No, but I can't now recall), whatever the circumstances. People who gave the other answer can't have been paying attention... and I have no idea what those reading the answers (whatever they were) expected to achieve by doing so. (I reported this a couple of times when the HMRC website asked for feedback. After a few years, these two questions were no longer being asked.)
That reminds me of a news item a year or three back where someone was having to jump through hoops to get a US visa for their holiday (might have been a wedding) because when they tried to do it online they accidentally ticked the box that asked "Are you a terrorist?"

ETA - OK, it was a cancer patient's bucket list - The woman who accidentally ticked: 'I am a terrorist'
 

Montero

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I've always dreamed in colour and been puzzled by the whole black and white thing for dreams in films - hadn't realised that some people really dream in black and white. My dreams are usually very vivid colour - lush green fields and trees on a sunny summer day, brilliant white houses beside a bright blue sea with sun sparkling off the waves. People are in the dreams but are usually not really seen - they are there, they are talking to me, I know who they are, but they are always just out of shot.
In reading I like enough detail but not too much - and that urban fantasy/paranormal romance trend to go in for the full description of every tassel on the expensive leather jacket has me flipping pages.
I think the best descriptions ever are by Fritz Leiber. One of his shorts starts with a description of a city on a bay and he paints it in its entirity and vividly with about three paragraphs.

With people what I care about is character with just a touch of description - as in how a smile might light up someone's face, whether they were stronger than they looked - but not a great lump at the start. Describe stuff when it is needed and relevent. Books that do a big set up description of the stage and the actors on it and then set them into motion - seriously not for me.
 

Ursa major

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The HMRC** website Self Assessment software was rather odd in some respects.

For instance, if you were due a rebate (which I was at various times in the past), the software asked if you wanted to be paid by cheque or have it transferred to your bank account. (I wanted the former and told it so.) Fair enough, but the paper form didn't give one this option, and as the output of the website produced a pdf version of a form that was identical to the paper one, I wondered how it did this.

It did so by lying on my behalf. o_O

There was a box under Question Q19B:
If you do not have a bank or building society account, read the notes on page 29 of your Tax Return Guide, and tick box 19B.8.
If I had been filling in the paper form, I could not have ticked that box: I was reporting, elsewhere on the form, that I was receiving interest from a building society, which sort of depended on me having a building society account. (Okay, I could have closed the account in the meantime, but I was getting interest from it every year which, over time, rather gave the game away.) My only defence against an accusation that I had been incorrectly filling in the form (if I'd had to offer a defence), would have been that the HMRC software made me do it. (Would that have made it worse... because I was conspiring with the HMRC...?)


** - For those not in the know, HMRC = Her Majesty's Revenue and Customs (so it's the UK's equivalent of IRS in the US).
 
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