Naked people in books






Read the following passage. There will be a short quiz afterward.


Augustus was intently writing at his desk when there was a knock at the door. With a low growl he thrust the quill pen into its holder, rose from his chair, strode to the door and threw it open.

Before him stood Abigail, twirling a parasol over her shoulder.

“There you are, you grumpy bear,” she said. “I’m here to inform you that I’ve brought a basket filled with all manner of picnic goodies and your presence is requested on the green to share them with me, forthwith.”

Augustus stroked his handlebar moustache a moment and then burst into a chuckle.

“My dearest Abigail,” he said with a warm smile, “I confess that when I heard the knock I thought it was one of those pestiferous fanatics who read my books obsessively and disturb my work at all hours to talk to me about them.”

“I am one of those fanatic readers of yours, Augustus,” Abigail said, bending her head shyly, “but I do hope I have some special claim to your affections.”

To prove to her that she did, Augustus took her arm, and the basket, and they repaired to the green, where they spread a blanket and spent a wonderful time in each other’s company.



  1.  Is Augustus writing on banana skins?


  1.  Are Augustus or Abigail wearing clothes?


  1.  Did you notice that Abigail is a talking chimpanzee?


  1.  Why is Augustus’ moustache floating in midair?


  1.  Why is the couple picnicking at midnight?


The point of this exercise in silliness is to demonstrate that the reader’s imagination does half the work in making a narrative come to life. As you were reading, you likely took it as a given that Augustus was writing on paper, that both Augustus and Abigail were wearing clothes, that Abigail was a human female, that Augustus’ moustache was on his face, and that the picnic took place in daylight. Among many other assumptions you made instantaneously as you read in order to fill in the world of the story.

Pick up any modern novel and read the first page or so, and there will likely be nothing stating explicitly that the characters aren’t walking around in their birthday suits. We just assume they’re clothed unless told otherwise. (19th-century authors usually take the time to describe their characters in detail at the beginning, including what they’re wearing, since it tells so much about social class).

This is how we read. Actively. Taking our cue from the text and building the rest in our heads. It’s also a matter of reading conventions. What we take for granted based on clues and hints and everything else we’ve ever read.

We don’t necessarily picture all of these things to ourselves as we read – the clothes, the paper, the time of day – we usually form a very hazy picture in our heads, a series of images that morph and change depending on what new material comes at us from the text at any given moment. Certain details leap to prominence and then fade again. For example, Abigail’s twirling parasol probably popped into your head vividly for a moment. I know it did in mine as I wrote the scene.

Whereas Abigail herself was probably just a blurry figure filled in vaguely by your own memories/assumptions about what someone called Abigail who talks like this might look like. Likewise with Augustus’ moustache – you may have briefly pictured a disembodied hand stroking a disembodied moustache because that was all you needed. The underlying, unvisualized assumption was that hand and moustache were attached to Augustus.

The students in my writing classes often worry that they haven’t given enough detail to make their characters memorable, and so they over-describe. Or they over-explain how the characters feel, what they want, etc. With description as with explanation, less is usually more. You want to leave something for the reader’s imagination to do.

This is one of the pleasures of reading – imagining, filling in the blanks, pondering implications…. Readers are eager to participate in creating the story, rather than having everything done for them. As with too much direct, simplistic explanation (“he loved her, she loved him”), too much description gives a reader nothing to do and leads to boredom. (Sadly, yes, there are plenty of lazy readers who want a book to spell everything out for them. Hence the popularity of Nicholas Sparks).

Writers: choose a few vivid, meaningful details and leave the rest for your fellow creator of the story, the reader. The reader will put clothes on your characters even if you don’t.





  1. Okay, based on the title, I thought this might go in a different direction. Should have known better. Enjoyed it nevertheless.

  2. I could have saved myself the $20 or so I spent on What We See When We Read. Seriously, you pretty much summed it up here. Augustus made me think of The Fault in Our Stars so I was picturing a teenager with a handlebar mustache 🙂

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