Bookish Musings: Wow, People in Books Sure Are Observant


I’ve been doing a lot of serious discussion posts lately, so I thought I’d do one a little more light and fun this week. So…

Have you ever thought about how observant characters are? I mean, for everywhere they go they seem to notice all the different paintings on the walls, the types of plants, the pattern in the carpeting, and for every person they meet, they seem to notice everything from the color of his shirt to the shape of his nose.

I obviously understand why—we as readers need descriptions—so I’m not complaining about this. I’m merely poking a little fun because, you know how we sometimes talk about why we could never be book characters? Well, I could never be a character because everyone reading my book would never know what anything or anyone around me looks like.

That’s right, I’m about to share with you all my woeful lack of observation skills and then have a quick discussion about description in books, so here we go!

As Promised, Some Anecdotes about My Woeful Lack of Observation Skills…


I am TERRIBLE at remembering faces. You know how most people say they’re bad with names? Well I’m bad with faces. And names. I’m a double threat, guys. Watch out!

See, I’m observant of people in general, of what they think and feel and like and dislike, that kind of thing (which makes me sound creepy, but we’re all readers and writers, so I know you all know what I mean), but I’m really bad when it comes to being observant of what things and people look like.

When I started college, I got my roommate assignment ahead of time. It was an apartment with three other people, so we all friended each other on Facebook. I literally studied by going through all their pictures and making sure I could pick each of them out among the other people in the photos, just to make sure I’d be able to recognize them and tell them apart when I moved in.

During my first year of college, I was walking back to my dorm one day when I met a guy. We exchanged numbers and made plans to meet up for lunch a few days or so later. That was when I realized I had no idea what he looked like. (In case you’re curious, I managed to find him and he turned out to be cuter than I realized, but we never saw each other again after that.)

I once thought someone was someone else because I had just recently met them both at the same place, and I basically just ended up confusing the crap out of him when I referred to something that he said… because he never actually said it.

I probably couldn’t tell you the eye colors of the friends I’ve known for 20 years.

I also have this weird tendency to think everyone is my height. And then sometimes I’ll see a photo and suddenly realize someone is actually an entire head taller than me.

Don’t even get me started on tattoos. I could probably tell you whether someone has tattoos or not, but I couldn’t tell you where or what they’re of.

The weird thing though is that I’ve gathered from other discussions that I’m apparently good at picturing characters in my head even though many other people are not. You’d think if my brain is good enough to create and imagine faces, it’d be able to remember them, but apparently not!

Now Let’s Talk Description!


Even though I’m sure you all have been highly entertained (or not) by my stories, I figured I should probably include some sort of actual discussion, yes?

As I mentioned above, I really am glad for description in books. There is definitely such thing as too much, but I like being able to get a clear picture of characters and places in my head.

For characters, generally the more detail, the better. It means I can make a better picture. It also means it’s less likely they’ll end up looking generic, as characters sometimes do in my head. And when the basic details, like hair color, aren’t even given, that just drives me nuts because my mind doesn’t know what to do and keeps changing the picture or making some blobby thing, trying to hold off getting too attached to anything in case it comes up later. But as I also mentioned above, I like to picture characters clearly in my head, so I don’t want them to be blobby.

For settings, there’s definitely such thing as too much description, but I still like to have enough if it’s a significant setting. Sometimes the setting can have a major impact on a scene or can set the mood for the whole book, but settings tend to fill themselves in more naturally without descriptions, for me at least. Sometimes less is more, and a well-placed detail can work wonders.

So my overall point is, it might not be entirely realistic for a character to notice all these things, but I’m ok with that since it’s for the good of the story.

*P.S. Ten points to anyone who caught the really vague Hey, Arnold reference that inspired the title šŸ˜›


Talk to me!

What about you, are you like a book character with super observation skills?
Are you like me and forget what people look like five minutes after you meet them?
(If you are, tell me your own stories so that we can commiserate together!)
How much description do you like for characters and settings?
Do you tend to picture things vividly in your mind when you read?


Your Thoughts


39 thoughts on “Bookish Musings: Wow, People in Books Sure Are Observant

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  1. Melissa @ Quill Pen Writer

    I am sooo horrible at remembering faces too! Which is pretty bad, because in the line of work my parents are in, they dragged me to a lot of different places. This means sometimes a person I remember nothing about pulls me to the side in a random place, and asks “Do you remember me?” And I feel awful, because I really don’t.
    Anyway, you’re totally right. Characters are super observant (unlike me) but I don’t mind it that much, because I like to have a good description of people/places to help me go through the story smoothly. Great post! šŸ˜€

    1. Kristen Burns

      Haha, I’ve had people pull me aside too and ask if I remember them, and I would just be like, “…No?” But yeah, I agree, I definitely don’t mind that characters are more observant than I am šŸ˜› Thanks!

  2. Christy LoveOfBooks

    I actually super observant about my surroundings, studying people and what’s going on. I’m so not one of the people that goes around with my phone constantly in my face. BUT, names .. I’m terrible. I’m better though, because I made myself try harder. I definitely remember faces much better. Haha -I honestly could care less about the description of characters. I tend to see them how I want anyway. šŸ˜€

    1. Kristen Burns

      It’s not even that I have my phone in my face, it’s that I just don’t remember visual things. I can sit and have a conversation with someone for three hours in person, but I still would probably not be able to describe what they look in other than their hair color lol. But haha, I like to try and see characters how the author intended, partly because otherwise they all just look like Barbies and Kens, just some generic person, in my mind!

  3. Nicola

    I like *some* description, but not too much. I really suck at picturing characters and settings, so I kind of need the writer to throw me a bone with things like hair colour or room layout, but at the same time because I suck at picturing these things in my head I find that too much description makes it harder, because then I have to try to stitch together the hair colour and the nose shape and the cheekbone height and the lip fullness, rather than my brain filling in “generic curvy woman with long brown hair” (which will probably be based off a curvy, brunette actor). I do best with broad strokes, so I have a starting point, and then just letting my subconscious fill in the rest.

    It’s the same with settings. 99% of houses in books are based off one of the two houses I grew up in, and 99% of apartments are based off the one I live in now. It’s likke like my brain throws a few salient details into my childhood home, but when constructing an entire house is demanded of it, it chokes and throws together something that wouldn’t look out of place in a Picasso painting.

    1. Kristen Burns

      See, I’m kind of the opposite because if all I get is a generic description, then I end up with a generic person. Then my mind is just full of Barbies and Kens, but with different hair colors and like three different stock body types. So that’s why I prefer a bit more description, in order to avoid that.

      That’s too funny about the houses, haha. My brain is actually great at filling in the details and layouts and whatnot for houses. The ones I imagine generally aren’t based off of any I’ve lived in or been to. The only exception is that if characters live in a dorm that’s apartment style with separate bedrooms or, or like once when the characters lived in an apartment but were in college, it just ends up being my dorm in my head lol. And then in that one book suddenly the characters were on a balcony, and my mind was like, “Crap, there was no balcony in my dorm! What do I do?!” and so literally the balcony scene just existed in some other realm or something. It was just a cutaway in my mind since I still couldn’t figure out where to put a balcony in relation to the apartment lol.

  4. Jordon @ Simply Adrift

    Haha aw no! I actually just read an article about someone that has this condition of face blindness, they cannot at all remember what people’s faces look like, they just don’t recognize anyone. They don’t recognize their friends or family even. So all of her friends and family know to tell the girl who they are before they just start going into conversation etc. It’s so interesting! I couldn’t even imagine it.

    I love description of characters in books too, but sometimes I also like it when the character doesn’t have a lot of description so you can completely make up and imagine what they look like and you’re not limited to the authors description. Of course this only works if there is no description throughout the whole book, I mean finding out at the end the protagonist has blonde hair when you had been imagining they had black hair the whole time would be really jarring.

    1. Kristen Burns

      I’ve heard of face blindness—that would be awful! I just have plain old bad face memory lol.

      Oh goodness, that’s the worst when you picture a character one way through half the book or sometimes even all the way into the second book of a series or something only to find out you had something like hair color wrong. Then it becomes this total stressful conundrum because do you change it in your head? Do you stick with it? How much have you already read vs. how much is left? Because if his blonde hair is gonna keep being mentioned for the next four books, it’s gonna get weird picturing it as black lol. It’s definitely happened to me.

  5. AngelErin

    Haha!! So true!! I’ve thought about this while reading books before and obviously it’s necessary. I like when it’s not too crazy though. What cracks me up the most though is when a character has knowledge of exactly what species of bird they see is, plant, and etc when it doesn’t make sense to the character. Normal people don’t know these things! I’m not very observant myself to be honest. I don’t SEE things sometimes, I’m more of an I know how you FEEL person. Also, I’m horrible at remembering names. I have lots of anxiety about it because when I first meet people it takes me ages to remember their name. But I’ll remember how they were sad the day I met them, or they had a fight with someone, or that they were really happy they saw a movie that day, and so on. lol. So yeah I’m super weird.

    1. Kristen Burns

      Lol that’s so true. I feel like that just happened to me recently, I was reading a book and paused like, “How the hell does she even know the name of that thing?” or whatever because it was so specific and obscure.

      I totally get you though. That’s how I am too. I notice a lot, I’m very intuitive, it’s just not usually the *visual* things. At least, not like the color of someone’s shirt or something, but I might notice, maybe even subconsciously, how they’re fidgeting or something. You get me? And yeah, I remember lots, like emotions and conversations. So I don’t think you’re weird for that!

  6. Lola

    I am actually one of the weirdos that notices a lot of details around me, I am always watching other people or my surroundings. A few months ago I visited my sister her new house for the first time and we were walking to the shopping center and I was all like, heh did you know you had a sushi store here and oh look there’s a cemetery there. And my sister was all like huh never noticed that even though she had walked there multiple times. I am also pretty good with remembering my surroundings and usually can find my way back if I have been somewhere once.

    I am horrible at remembering names, I remember someone’s face maybe, but not their name. Especially not when we first meet. Then again I couldn’t tell you the eye colours of most people I know as I don’t pay attention to that. So there are also things I don’t notice. It would be fun to show a character their personality by showing what they do and don’t notice. I think it says something about a person what they pay attention to.

    When reading a book i am horrible bad at creating a visual of characters, it’s more a feeling than an exact image. The surroundings though I can visualize really well especially when the book describes things well. While it might be a bit unrealistic to have every character notice those details in books, i do like getting the descriptions as it does make things easier to visualize and I like being able to visualize things. Although when it comes to characters I can sometimes get stuck with a wrong image in my head and then can’t correct it when I learn the real hair colour for example. I also fill in details that aren’t given, as long as there’s enough of a basis my mind fills in the rest, but I do like some details or a feel of the place to get my mind started. So yes I agree with your point that while it might be unrealistic characters all notice these things I do like having some details and descriptions.

    1. Kristen Burns

      Haha, I love how we’re SO similar in some ways, and then SO different in others. I would be like your sister, not even knowing what places I drive by every day.

      As I said, I can’t remember faces or names, so you’re still doing better than me if you at least remember faces, haha. Actually, sometimes I’m pretty good with names. I don’t know. It depends? But you’re right, it is interesting the way different people notice and pay attention to different things.

      I agree that’s the worst when you get one image only to be told later in the book you have it wrong. That’s why description should come near the beginning, I think, close to when a character is introduced. My mind does fill in the details even without much description, but the more I have, the less likely the characters will all look alike and generic. But I know how you like world-building and settings, so I imagine you probably would be good at picturing that.

  7. S. J. Pajonas

    Lol. Lola, you are not a weirdo! šŸ™‚

    I’m the opposite of you, Kristen, in that I never forget a face, but names? Hoo boy. They go in one ear and out the other. Now, I tell people when I meet them, “I’m repeating your name out loud because I will probably forget it. But I forget everyone’s name so please don’t take offense.” Lol. But the strangest details will come into focus for me. I’ll remember a smell but not the color of the walls. Or I’ll remember a song, but not where I heard it. Etc. I think that’s the thing with the human brain. It has its own patterns.

    I like to write those things into books too. It’s fun to write the same scene from two different perspectives and see what each of the characters noticed. I did that with the companion book to my series. Experiencing events through Jiro was so much different than through my heroine, Sanaa.

    1. Kristen Burns

      Ok your comment has just, like, made me think about all these things, so I’m probably about to type a whole novel in response lol.

      I feel like my other senses fare a little better than my vision. It’s weird—I’m very much a visual learner, that’s why I can’t even listen to audiobooks, yet I’m so visually unobservant. But then your remark about writing different characters and showing how they notice different things in their perspectives made me wonder how many authors are actually abiding by that since the readers just kind of need some details, regardless of whether the character would actually notice. So then I thought, maybe to some extent we all do notice the basic things at least? It’s just maybe that we don’t remember them? Like, if I’m sitting in a room, I probably do notice that the chairs are green, and the carpet is beige, etc., but as soon as I’m out of the room I just forget because it wasn’t important. But my brain still noticed it while I was there… Kind of like how I notice the stop signs and the double yellow lines while driving, but I couldn’t tell you afterward exactly which streets had them. Does that make sense? That probably doesn’t sound like it relates to what you said, but it connected in my mind, haha. Anyway, maybe it’s just the things we remember, or the things that stand out, those say something about us since they either had some significance.

      Then again, some people just are more observant of details. I remember once I showed a photo of a guy to my friend on FB, and she immediately started talking about his tattoos and could list like all of them without even looking at the photo again, and I was just kind of like, “…I couldn’t tell you what a single one of his tattoos was if my life depended on it. How are you doing that?” So I guess that’s real life proof that people notice different things. That’s cool that you take that into account in your writing though. I don’t know if I’d have thought to really keep that in mind, but I will now if I ever get around to writing anything!

  8. Tiffany

    I think I’m pretty good remembering faces, but can’t say that for names though! I often forgot people’s names like 5 minutes after they introduced theirshelves. I’m also really really bad at description! I’m pretty good at imagining characters, but oftenly the ‘imaginations’ didn’t fit with the descriptions. For example, for 2 years I thought Maxon from The Selection series has brown hair, but turns out his hair is actually blond. That’s why recently I start searching for fanarts to help me remember the characters’ appearance!

    1. Kristen Burns

      Haha oh no about the Maxon thing. That’s the worst. That’s ok though, I recently read two books in a series, and I didn’t realize until halfway through the second one that I had the wrong skin color for one of the characters -_- And it also happened to me once that I thought one character in a book was blond, another with black hair, but I had them reversed. I’ve never looked for fanart, but I do like when covers have an original painting or a cover model *who’s not on any other covers* because then it’s really easy to picture the characters.

  9. Laura

    I’m absolutely terrible with faces too. I work in a shop and sometimes a customer will ask me to check if we have something in the back, and by the time I come back I have completely forgotten what the customer looked like (which can make locating them in a large supermarket pretty hard!).
    I think I’m ok as far as imagining what characters look like, but whilst I don’t want too much description, I do like to be reminded of what the character looks like every so often throughout the book, because otherwise I do forget! šŸ™‚

    1. Kristen Burns

      Hahaha, oh no. That would definitely be me if I worked in a store.

      Huh, I don’t know if I necessarily need to keep being reminded, I just need to have it laid out for in the beginning so I can form the right picture to start off with!

  10. Molly @ Molly's Book Nook

    I would say I’m somewhere in the middle. People I’ve known for a while, I’ll remember details. People I just meet, nope. I’ll try to describe how they look and it’ll be “i don’t know, sort of thin, blonde hair? maybe dirty blonde?” haha xD But then with book characters, their faces are usually just a blur to me. I can imagine everything, except the face. I don’t know why.

    I do think it’s funny when characters literally notice EVERYTHING. It makes sense, because we need descriptions, but it’s just like really? you just noticed a random crack in the ceiling that’s like 4 inches? haha

    1. Kristen Burns

      I mean, I suppose I do know some details about people I’ve known for a long time, but in general, I’m visually unobservant. Especially for people I’ve just met. I get it though, faces are the hardest thing to visualize in your head, maybe because they’re so detailed? I used to just see blobs, but I guess I got better with practice lol.

      I feel like sometimes it actually is too unrealistic, like if they notice some random 4 inch crack in the ceiling lol, but for the most part, I like having description, even if normal people wouldn’t notice that much.

      1. Molly @ Molly's Book Nook

        Maybe I’ll get better xD I noticed that sometimes they’re not blobs BUT they’re all similar. So like, the guys face for book X will be the same face but a different body for book Y. Maybe I’ll get better at differences lol

        I do LIKE details because it helps visualize the scene. But sort of a side note that I forgot to mention earlier, is that sometimes there is too much detail. For example, in Game of Thrones, sometimes Martin goes into a full page detail of what they’re eating at the feast. I feel like that could be explained in a paragraph or less xD I’m not stupid, I can fill in the blanks hahah

        1. Kristen Burns

          That’s exactly the problem I have if characters don’t have enough description—they all the same face and sometimes hair style but different hair colors. Lol.

          Oh, I agree, there can definitely be TOO MUCH detail. Especially in settings. That’s where authors sometimes go overboard. A few good details can work wonders for settings I’ve noticed.

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  12. Becky @ A Fool's Ingenuity

    I know exactly what you mean. I think I’m alright at remembering things about people but then I see them again a few weeks later and realise I have retained nothing about what their face looks like and they look very different second time around. I am also terrible with names but more with bookish names than real people. I will read a book and know who people are but as soon as it comes to talking about the book every character name has gone. Sometimes I will pick up a book and be halfway through before I realise I have no clue what anyone’s name is.

    I think characters are either really observant or it’s like we’re little people in their head and we are told all the information they see but they don’t actually retain all the detail they spot. It’s the only sensible explanation for it.

    1. Kristen Burns

      I’m worse with names in real life. I used to be the same way with books, literally the second I closed the book I couldn’t remember a single character’s name, but now I remember them pretty well.

      Oh my goodness, I was literally saying that exact same thing in my reply to someone else! Like, their comment made me realize that maybe we all do notice all these things around us, for example we notice that we just drove past a tree while driving, and that the car in front of us is silver, and that there’s a double yellow line in the road, but once we’re done driving we just don’t *remember* those things because they aren’t important anymore. So I completely agree that when you think about it like that, it makes sense for characters to point things out.

  13. Michelle @ Pink Polka Dot Books

    You have great ideas for discussions!! I love them! Anyway, I hope you are never a witness to a crime. You would be a very unreliable eye-witness. And please never go in for a police line-up. You’d definitely point to the wrong person. LOL. But seriously, I need descriptions in books, but I kind of hate long descriptions about the setting. Especially when it’s at the beach… I know what the beach looks and feels like, I get it. Those parts I always end up skimming! I’m really really bad w/ names. And numbers. Which has kind of nothing to do with this post, but if you tell me you spent $140 dollars on something… later that day I’ll be telling someone that it cost $110. I’m constantly changing numbers and thinking I’m right about them šŸ™

    1. Kristen Burns

      Thank you!!! Oh goodness, I’ve actually thought about that before, haha, that I could never actually be a witness. And if I was ever attacked or something, I wouldn’t even have a description to give. But I’ve read studies about that actually, and it turns out they really try not to use police line-ups in real life because they’re highly unreliable. Most people pick out the wrong person, or something like that.

      I agree, I don’t like *too much* description when it comes to settings. If the setting is really significant or really affects the mood, I don’t mind maybe a few paragraphs, but I still don’t want the author going overboard. But hey, maybe all those poor people who’ve never been to the beach need those elaborate beach descriptions šŸ˜‰ I’d probably just skip over long beach descriptions if I ever came across them though lol.

      I don’t even know if I’m bad with numbers? I am terrible with dates though!

    1. Kristen Burns

      Haha, that’s the worst. It really is tough out there for us people who can’t remember faces well šŸ˜›

      It seems a lot of people don’t picture characters that detailed in their minds. That is annoying when the cover is all wrong though.

  14. Nicole @ Feed Your Fiction Addiction

    I am a horribly unobservant person. I can literally drive down a street I’ve driven for many many years and suddenly look up and think, “Wait, where am I? Has that always been there?” It’s a very disconcerting feeling! I’m also not great about remembering faces. I mean, I’ll see someone and know that they look familiar, but most of the time I can’t tell you where I met them or why I know them. That can be embarrassing for sure – especially when they remember me and I stare at them blankly. (That happened to me at BEA for someone I’d sat at a table with – I swear she changed her hair or something. Or … maybe not.)

    1. Kristen Burns

      Haha, I’m the same way. It’s so tough for those of us who aren’t observant and don’t remember faces well! It’s embarrassing not to recognize people and then just makes them feel bad probably lol.

  15. Wendy

    I’m pretty unobservant, I think. And I don’t do a lot of visualizing while I read. I don’t need a scene to be clear in my mind–I don’t care at ALL what color the walls are–in order to be engaged. I do think it’s hilarious how characters can read each other’s faces though. They can pick up on emotions as expressed by the lift of an eyebrow, and detectives catch the slightest change in tone. Maybe we do really do that, but subconsciously. Authors have to make it overt for the reader. But it still ends up sounding kind of funny.

    Fun discussion!

    1. Kristen Burns

      I’m unobservant in real life, but I do do a lot of visualizing while reading. But haha, yes! It is always so weird when characters can tell exactly what each person’s facial expressions mean, can see the way something flashes in their eyes for a moment before it disappears, etc. I get it, I do, because facial expressions are so nuanced and we usually just notice and understand them on a subconscious level (like, I can’t tell you in what way someone’s eyebrows move if they’re feeling a certain emotion, but I could recognize it if I were looking at a person), and since the reader can’t actually see them, we need the simpler version with the emotions. It does always sound so extreme and funny though.

  16. Michelle @ FaerieFits

    1) I am super bad with faces too. I’m actually better with names than faces, just because I’ll associate the word (name) with the place I met them or whatever. Or I can see it in writing and therefor remember it. But faces? No luck. In fact, when I see random Facebook posts from old high school friends who happen to have married and therefor changed their last names, I find myself squinting at their pictures trying to figure out who the hell they are, because I don’t recognize them. *sad face*

    2) I skim over descriptions in books. Even when I bother to READ the description, I still picture characters however the hell I like. Which, honestly, means that most protagonists and antagonists end up looking eerily similar in my head. I remember when I was younger and obsessed with Tamora Pierce, I was in the third book of one of the series and she mentioned some guy’s ponytail and I was like “WHAT?! He has LONG HAIR?!” … Yeah >.>

    3) Since I’M unobservant AND I don’t really care as a reader, I have to go out of my way to REMIND myself when I’m writing that OTHER people care about descriptions. I’m good at writing them. When I think about it. Usually I’ll write a draft the way it feels natural to me, and then the first thing I do when I sit down to edit is go through and add descriptions. Which is difficult, because I don’t actually know WHAT most of my characters actually look like. *fail*

    BTW – I’m really enjoying your blog overall (if you haven’t noticed by the series of comments on your posts these last couple of days). You’re a great writer!

    1. Kristen Burns

      It always makes me feel better to know I’m not the only one bad with faces. I also can’t figure out who people are on FB sometimes lol. But I think I have that kind of visual memory that you mentioned about seeing the name in your head. It doesn’t even make sense because when I would study, for example, I could often remember facts by remembering where the words were on the page of notes and stuff like that, which is a visual thing, yet I can’t remember faces, which is also a visual thing. Maybe our visual skills are specifically related to words.

      Oh, I get characters wrong plenty, and it always aggravates me. But I think sometimes it might be because the author waits too long to put that info in, and I’m already trying to create an image the second a character is introduced. But I DO like to visualize characters because, without them, all the characters also look similar in my head lol.

      That sounds like a good method, to go back and add description. You could always just go find some photos of random people on Pinterest and describe them šŸ˜€

      Thank you so much!!! You’re so sweet. Now if only I could put that writing into a novel instead of just blog posts, haha.

  17. Alice @ Arctic Books

    Ah, this post is so funny! I totally agree, when main characters observe everything about a person they meet, it does seem too forced and very unrealistic; I usually prefer when a character’s appearance is more so hinted at, like a feature mentioned every so often so it doesn’t seem too unrealistic. I agree, I like to picture characters in my mind, so fan art is really helpful to me! Lovely discussion! šŸ™‚

    1. Kristen Burns

      Haha, thank you! It is so funny how characters notice EVERYTHING. I actually don’t mind though. When the description is scattered throughout the book, I always end up getting things wrong and then I have to change them later which aggravates me lol. Using fan art is a great idea. Unfortunately there is no fan art for most of what I read šŸ™ Thanks!