Friday, February 01, 2008


The other day a friend told me a story that led me to remark on his sense of hearing. His aural acuity seems to have actually gotten stronger as he's gotten older. "Odd," I said. "Isn't it usually the other way around?" He agreed but said he thought it had to do with his failing eyesight. His hearing had developed to compensate for his decreasing ability to see.

Hmm ...

That led to a general discussion about differently he and I "see" the world. My eyesight is pretty terrible, too -- always has been -- but I tend to have a very strong sense of smell. It didn't used to be that way. As a child, I never noticed odors, but as I grew older and my eyesight worsened, my sense of smell bettered. It also got a jump when I was carrying my daughter. I could smell certain restaurant chains two blocks away. The sensitivity was so strong that I'd have to run in the opposite direction. My sense of taste was very acute then, too. I couldn't stand the taste of packaged sweets because I swore I could taste every lab-concocted chemical they contained. Yuck!

What does all this have to do with writing? It has to do with characterization.

There are so many ways to differentiate your characters, to make them memorable -- an odd name, an accent. Obviously, a character's driving motive or overarching concern will define him, too. But one of the most overlooked, and simplest, ways of delineating characters is the use of the basic five senses.

Make one character acutely sensitive to sounds; another to textures; and another to taste. One character walks into a room and notes the background noises: the television or radio playing in an unseen room, the sound of a truck going by outside, the cry of an infant in a neighboring apartment. Another character walks into the same room, nervously stroking her dress because it's made of velvet and the softness of its texture makes her at ease. She prefers steel to wood or vice versa. She chooses her husband's jackets as much because of the way they feel under her fingertips as how they hang on his shoulders. A third character has a sensitive palette, so sensitive that he can not only taste bitterness in food, but "taste" it in the air.

Most of us, whether we realize it or not, depend upon one or two senses more than the other three. Why not use that fact as an easy way of setting your characters apart?

Taking it a bit further, you can also use this to define your spaces, your settings. Some places are overwhelmingly loud; others hit you first because of the odors (a fish market, for example). What's very interesting about this, however, is the interaction between the objective description of a setting and a character's perception of it. I live in the city so I rarely notice its noise, for example. However, when my friends from the suburbs visit, it's the first thing they comment on, even feel overwhelmed by.

Many times, writers wrack their brains trying to find ways to describe or delineate a character or place. Using the five senses is one of the easiest ways to do it.

Wishing you day after day of happy writing,


Persia Walker


patricia sargeant said...

Great post, Persia, and a wonderful suggestion. Thank you.

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