I wonder whether we also ‘thin-slice’ the characters we ‘meet’ in books. Is the initial impression so crucial? Or does the leisurely process of an unfolding narrative change the nature of our perceptions? We don’t, after all, have the direct, instinctive signals of body language to help us and anyway we know we’re collaborating in a fiction. Then again, if we’re assessing a real person in the real world, then just looking for evidence to prove we’re right, aren’t we just moulding reality to our own ongoing fiction?
And, from the writer’s point of view, does it mean that we should make sure that the way we choose to introduce a character puts his/her essence right up front and leaves little room for misinterpretation? If that’s the case, it seems to me that the best way to achieve it is through letting the characters speak for themselves. The moment we start describing their hair, eyes, clothes, bulk, etc. we’re offering archetypes. However much we then refine them to the specifics of that individual, the risk is that the reader’s already decided that he’s seeing a fat slob or a peacock.
Because, in a way, reading is as creative as writing. A quick anecdote – a while back, I had an email from a reader in the USA, saying that he was halfway through and enjoying Material Evidence very much. I wrote back to thank him and, in the course of the email, asked 'OK, whodunit, then?'
A couple of days later, I got another (600 word) email in reply. He’d only read a few more pages but was confident that he knew who the perpetrator was. He then named the character and, in great detail, mapped out motives, the web of relationships that triggered and justified them and the various ways in which the investigating policeman unravelled them. He was, of course, 'wrong' but, as I wrote that word, I knew I had to put it in quotes because his reasoning was flawless. If my mind had worked in the same way as his, I could have written the book as he saw it and, assuming that my style was consistent and the publisher saw no other flaws, it would have worked as well as my own version (but I still think mine’s better).
The fascinating thing about the experience is that it confirms the mystical collaboration between writer and reader. The act of reading is a creative act. The characters in novels, even though their histories are laid out far more precisely than those of any 'real' people, are still far from lifeless, predictable beings. Their paths can diverge and introduce complexities which may not have occurred to their creator. This isn't to question the authenticity of the writer's vision and achievement - on the contrary, the fact that the finished article is still capable of multiple interpretations confirms its dynamism, its life and its 'reality'.