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Using ‘5 senses’ to reveal character

A lot of writers (including me) have written about using the 5 senses (taste, touch, smell, sound and sight) to create believable and textured worlds in storytelling.

And here I am again, to reiterate how important it is to bring a world to life in multiple ways! Not only does it help to give the physical location of your story atmosphere, but you can use sense to enhance plot development (especially in the ‘leaving clues’ department) and to reveal things about your characters’ histories and connections.

Human beings don’t all experience sensations in the same way. This is most obvious when you have characters who may not have the ability to experience at least one sense either fully or at all. For example, if a character has difficulty hearing or seeing – how much impairment do they experience? What assumptions do others make about the person with more limited ability in one area, and how far does the character engage with other people’s assumptions in how they interact with the world?

Using the five senses to reveal character can be applied much more broadly (and less literally) too.

Characters might all hear/see/smell/taste/touch the very same thing yet have very different emotional reactions.

A chiming clocktower might remind one character of a person or place they have loved, while reminding another of trauma – and that might even relate to the exact same shared experience, if they perceived it differently. Two or more characters responding to the same stimuli might uncover a lot about each other – how they differ and what they have in common – by their reactions.

Consider which sensations might help to reveal your character’s back story, in both positive and negative ways. What history may be hidden behind how they respond to a touch on the neck, or to taste of pears? How do these things reveal, hinder or develop their relationship with another character? Might the perfume one person wears set off a positive or negative response in another? (And if so – was the use of that scent deliberate or chance?)

Different perceptions of the same sensation might suggest someone is lying about their background; alternatively, a person with a different viewpoint might be able to spot a problem or an inconsistency that others have missed.

These elements don’t need to be in every chapter. Paint details with a light brush. The watchword, as always, is ‘moderation’ – unless being immoderate is the point!

Explore sensation both immediate and remembered, and it may not only reveal something about your world and your characters, but offer a point of connection with your readers as well.

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