The Paris Review has an excerpt from Peter Mendelsund’s book What We See When We Read that questions what we think we know about characters. Mendelsund points out that many of us feel like we know our favorite characters intimately, but when asked about what they look like don’t have specific answers. And maybe, he suggests, authors have something to do with 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.