Imagination and the senses

About half of the writers in our study said that they experience their characters from inside their perspective. Some were much more explicit, though, about getting their own imaginative experiences to overlap with their characters’. In other words, they would be their characters in the storyworld – seeing what their character saw, hearing what they heard, touching, smelling, and tasting as they did.

‘I see with their eyes, so I can see what they see, feel what they feel –when they touch something or do something, I can smell with their nose – I feel the temperature of the room they are in…’

A few writers also mentioned actually trying out physically doing what their characters said and did – in other words, acting it out – to see whether they’d imagined it ‘correctly’.

Usually we only focus on the five classic senses, but we’ve actually got quite few more. Senses such as the sense of balance, sense of temperature, sense of pain, and the sense of the position of your body (proprioception), are all also parts of our experience, and sometimes writers would overlap with their characters in these senses too, as a kind of imagining with the whole body. These bodily imaginings also play a significant part when it comes to emotional overlap, since emotions are felt in the body – they’re not just ‘mental’ things.

However, sensory overlap with characters was only reported by about half of the writers we surveyed. For some, since their characters felt separate – as if being watched on a film screen – they were ‘observed’, but not ‘enacted’.

‘It is often like letting a video run, stopping it, rewinding it, fast forwarding it. Each time I run it again I see it slightly differently.’

Yet there were quite a few writers who said they experienced both enactment and observation, sometimes because they were switching between one mode and the other, and sometimes because the line was rather blurred.

‘I have a dual experience – I still have my own POV [point of view] but I have my characters’ too.’

As with the question of whose ‘voice’ is speaking in inner speech, the distinction between observing and enacting our imaginings becomes rather tricky when we start to probe it further. After all, no one is literally watching the characters on a little screen in their head – this is just a handy way of talking about it. Instead, one possible explanation for how we are physically and emotionally affected by watching things happening to other people – both real and fictional – is that we essentially simulate those things happening to ourselves (such as when we instinctively wince when we’re told about a nasty injury). Therefore, there’s a sense in which sympathy and empathy are intertwined, as are observing and enacting.

Another way of looking at it is to think about how much we both are ourselves ‘from the inside’, but at the same time have a sense of how we appear to others ‘from the outside’. It’s one of the essential guides to how we interact with other people, and affects what we say and do. So in a way, if we’re already flitting back and forth between inside and outside in our everyday experience, it’s perhaps not too strange that we might do the same thing when we imagine characters.

EXERCISE 4: Being in their shoes

Taking on the role of your character from Exercise 3, imagine inhabiting the place they were in before you ‘interviewed’ them. Using their senses, explore the environment. Write down their experience of the place.