I’ve noticed a lot of people have a difficult time to understand what it’s like to have aphantasia, which is something I have. Aphantasia is essentially the inability to create images in your mind voluntarily.
You can still make out some very vague images and have aphantasia. It’s as much as a spectrum as anything else.
I personally don’t have any images. No colours, no shapes, no memories. I can’t even recall images from my dreams and sometimes I end up wondering if I just don’t dream at all.
So I’ll let you in on a secret.
I can still “imagine” things.
Alright, I get it. This won’t be an actual update about my writing, but I suppose it’s a writing “behind the scenes” kind of post, at least. I’m going to explain my process of creating things mentally as an author and illustrator with aphantasia.
When I first get an idea of a character, I “place” the character next to me. It’s like they’re sitting on a chair beside me.
I think about how tall they are in comparison to me as a person, and how their hair would feel like. I think about how their clothes would feel when touched. I try to get an idea of the pitch of their voice, but I can’t actually hear it. How would their face feel like? Long lashes, big nose, square jaw? How does their body feel to touch? Muscular, chubby, soft, slender? What’s their skin like?
Then I let them walk around.
How do their steps sound? What sounds do their clothes make as they walk? Is there anything else making some noise? A backpack? Accessories?
Do they have any certain characteristics in their movements or do they do certain things as I conceptualise them? Maybe they sigh or chuckle. Maybe they’re talking, but I can’t really hear them, having no clue what they’re chatting about.
This is, essentially, my entire process, though it changes from time to time.
Note that I think a lot about the things I can feel physically. This is how I figure out what they would look like since I, as someone with aphantasia, can’t see my characters when I create them. I genuinely have no idea what they look like.
The same goes for the surroundings. Think of it as me being blind and am hard of hearing. I use my sense of sensation to understand what my surroundings are.
Though, while I say hard of hearing, I’d maybe say that I don’t process the “notes” of what they say once I put them in a story. I know what they say, just not the note they say it in. And by note, I’m speaking in musical terms.
Case Study: Kári Hjálmar (When the World Falls, I’ll be Safe From the Wrath of God)
I created Kári Hjálmar (Kári) several months ago, before I even had an idea of writing sections of When the World Fall’s, I’ll be Safe From the Wrath of God (WWFSFG). The reason I choose him now is that there was more or less nothing in the WWFSFG world when he was “born”. I only knew one thing: I needed a person who was in love with the MC. I’ll use Kári’s name here, but at the time I had none for him. I chose that after he came to exist.
Kári’s taller than me. His voice isn’t necessarily deep, but it’s clearly a man’s. If I stand up, I need to reach up to touch his shoulder and face. I can feel that his hair is soft and curly when I touch his shoulder, because he has let it down while I get to know him.
He’s kind of considerate then, because he puts his hair up once I’ve become familiar with his hair.
I can feel a bit of stubble on his chin as he stands straight, but once he realises I can’t quite reach, he sits down again while I get familiar with his face. His eyelashes aren’t long. Nose average.
I notice an itchy sensation when I touch his clothing. Turns out it’s wool. Sucks to be him. He laughs at the comment. I feel around his arms and chest, and I notice he’s also wearing leather.
He’s pretty muscular, but not bulgy, and I suppose he’s physically active, but with a variety of activities. As I’m about to touch his waist, he stops me, carefully places my hand on the hilt of his sword, and placing my other on a knife.
Turns out he’s armed.
He walks around and I can hear the steps are light, but I get a sense of pride and authority from it.
Aha! He’s a noble, isn’t he?
He lets out a single laugh. This makes me realise he can be quick to laugh, but how he laughs varies.
I guess on knight, but he laughs again and I realise why. He’s clothing is not particularly “knight”-like.
I ponder for a while, while he continues to walk around. When his steps are heavier, I hear something. I find out he has silver bells on his boots.
Kári fights beast or monsters regularly. The bells are to scare some off, and for people he knows to not mistake him for an animal while in the forest. He neither laughs nor gives any confirmation that’s the case, so I take it as silent yes.
I decide to think about seasonal changes on a whim and when it snows, he starts laughing at me. He gets a fur cloak and puts on a hat. He’s used to the cold.
I know enough now.
Kári’s a man who lives in a colder climate, up north, in an area with lots of risks. He’s a leader of some kind, and he wears a longsword on his left hip. He’s right-handed, and he’s used to keeping his step light for hunt and fighting. He’s prideful, but not unkind. As he lives in a cold climate, it’s likely he’s fair and blonde. Blue eyes. He keeps his hair up in a ponytail to keep his curls out of the way, and he shaves sometimes, but might keep a beard in the winter. He has a pouch with something at his waist and carries several knives of different lengths. The knives are less difficult to draw than the sword. Despite being important and often making sure he seems important, he laughs easily. He’s younger than me, I’m sure, but not by too much. He’s in his 20s, for sure.
Case Study: The Great Hall (WWFSFG)
Let’s move to another kind of mental creation: places. I obviously can’t see the places I create for my stories either, and this might be even more mystifying for some, because I don’t always have some brief description of something.
I’m sitting. I touch the surface underneath and feel soft fur. It’s a pelt. I put my hand further away and feel an almost icy sensation. It’s a stone floor. No wonder I’m on a pelt. I don’t need to touch anything in front of me to feel the fire burning. I know I’m indoors, because this is the great hall with the throne for the King or Queen of the North.
I hear people laughing and chatting. Some further away, some closer. I smell the familiar smell of wood burning. Clearly not too new, because the fire is burning well, but not so old I can smell it.
Though it’s nice to sit by the fire and friendly circle with a very welcoming atmosphere, that’s not what I want to know. I choose to stand up and walk as far as I can in one direction. I come to a stone wall with wooden beams. I keep walking around, finding some tables here and there and weapons on display on the walls.
I smile when I notice a place empty where there should be a weapon of some sort. I know exactly which weapon it is and where it is.
While walking around, I can hear groups of people, and smell food cooking. They’re having a meal, cooking in groups. I realise some are guards, some are from the royal family, some are orphans, or siblings or children of guards.
They’re a people that cherish the community and the royal family is like anyone else, because I did find the royal family as well — including Kári, though not with his family — and I understand they are seated in groups on the floor instead of using tables.
I can’t help but wonder how they’re not dying from lack of oxygen or anything, but once I examine the roof, I figure they have a ventilation and some kind of chimney system.
The great hall connects several other areas, and it’s the first thing I enter from the outside, so if I was to go anywhere else, I’d have to walk across the hall. The throne is on a platform to be raised. No one’s sitting there during the mealtime. It’s a fairly simple wooden throne. It’s more like a chair than a throne actually, but a throne nonetheless.
I feel like I have the basics. I’d go further into the architecture of the building at a later date.
So yeah, these are how I “imagine” things. I create more concepts from assumptions and physical experience as I try to make something up. Before I have anything, all I know it’s a person or a thing or place. It’s like knowing a person exists but you don’t even have a name for them, or that you stand somewhere you and know you stand there, but no one tells you what to expect, so you only have touch, smell and to some degree of hearing to figure things out.
I have the concept of things, but I don’t have the picture. I conceptualise, rather than picturing things. My way of immersing and creating needs my other senses, not my (mental) sight.
I hope that gives you an idea of what it’s like to have aphantasia. This is my experience though. Other people with this may have very different experiences with “imagination” and “conceptualising”.
Quote of the Post
I was staring down into his dark brown eyes. Up close he reminded me even more of a masterless mutt terrorising the calm hills and meadows of the Priestdom.
— When the World Falls, I’ll be Safe From the Wrath of God (narrative)