Sunday, 25 March 2012

The Five Senses and Character Development

Sense of Touch
There are many things to keep in mind as we create our characters and move them through their stories. I believe that one of the most important of these is that to breathe life, they must do so through all five senses. Our characters must taste, smell, see, hear, and touch as we do.

What images come to mind when we focus on any one of these senses? Let’s start with taste. For me this brings immediately to mind my favorite fruits. A fig, the big purple kind, its skin bursting with ripeness, its sticky syrup trickling down its sides. I bite into it and the lush dark interior is as much a feast to the eyes as to the tongue.

Strawberries. Not those gross ones that live up to the straw part of their name. I love the tiny wild strawberries, the petit fraise du bois one occasionally finds in outdoor markets in Europe. As small as the nail on my little finger, they burst on the tongue with a fragrance and flavor never to be forgotten.

Peaches from Sonata by Blair McDowellPeaches…when they are so ripe that their rosy skin slips off and their juices run down my fingers. Luscious, wet, sloppy peaches. I chose peaches for the first tentative love scene between my Japanese-Canadian heroine, cellist, Sayuri McAllister , and her would-be-lover, Vancouver Cop, Michael Donavan in the book I’m currently writing, Sonata.

Michael reached across the table and took her hand in his. Slowly, deliberately, he licked the peach juice from each finger. Then without releasing her hand he took the dripping fruit and fed it to her, slice by slice, watching as its burst of sweetness hit her tongue.

Sayuri shuddered. What was happening to her? Michael was there, pulling her to her feet, his arms around her, his mouth taking possession of hers. He licked the peach juice from her lips and then ever so gently kissed his way into her mouth.

Sonata by Blair McDowellSayuri trembled and broke away. She took a deep breath and tried to steady the nerve endings that seemed to be jumping out of her skin.

“I’m not sleeping with you Michael.” She wasn’t sure whether she was saying that to warn him or to convince herself.
He frowned. “Do you mean not now, or do you mean not ever?”

Sayuri burst out laughing, suddenly in charge again as she preferred to be. “I can’t be sure about not ever, that’s a long time. But I am quite sure about now. I think it’s time you took me home, Michael.”

Blair McDowell booksThen there is the sense of hearing. The laughter of a friend, uninhibited and lusty, the soft breathing of the beloved, sleeping. The heartrending sound of weeping, the cry of any animal in distress. Voices, all kinds of voices—deep and rumbling, high pitched and grating, melodious and dissonant.

In Delighting In Your Company the sense of hearing holds a special and important place. Jonathan Evans is an eighteenth century ghost who whistles a fragment of the tune, Greensleeves, endlessly:

From the distance, a melancholy tune wafted up on the air. Someone was whistling. Amalie looked down the beach. A man walked at the edge of the waves. She could only see him from the back, but somehow, from the way he strode along, head down, shoulders slumped, hands clasped behind his back, she had the impression that he was not a happy man. His hair was long, tied loosely at the nape of his neck. She walked over to the railing to get a better view. He was dressed strangely for a walk on the beach. He wore a white shirt with billowing long sleeves and tight trousers tucked into knee high riding boots. He was walking in the surf with seeming unconcern for the waves splashing over his boots. The melody he whistled came to her clearly. She recognized it but could not at the moment name it or put words to it. It seemed so familiar. Something from her
childhood perhaps?

As she stood staring at the man, pondering on the tune he was whistling, Josephina joined her.

Delighting in Your Company by Blair McDowell“Good. I see you found the coffee. Elvirna will have breakfast ready in about a half hour. I usually have it out here.” She indicated a small table and chairs at the far end of the veranda.

“That will be lovely.” Amalie paused. “Who is that man on the beach?”

“What man?”

Amalie turned to where the beachcomber had been. No one was there.

Blair McDowell's booksThe sense of smell is pervasive in our lives. Lilacs in a vase in the living room, their scent invading the whole house. The smell of salt air, of kelp washed up on a beach. The aroma of bacon and eggs and coffee in the morning heralding breakfast.

Of course, scents don’t have to be pleasant. Perhaps a story might include the stench of an overflowing ash tray or the acrid all-pervasive smell of a pulp mill? But pleasant scents are more fun to work with.

The scent of a flower is a thread connecting the entire story in The Memory of Roses:

In September, Ian returned to Palo Alto. He was more quiet than usual, but his face had lost the lines of stress that had become habitual over the past years. He enjoyed the company of his daughter more each day. She, for her part, tried to find small ways in which to please him, to make him smile.

The Memory of Roses by Blair McDowellOne day, when she had been helping Aunt Em in the garden, Brit brought a handful of roses into the kitchen, arranged them haphazardly in a glass pitcher and took them up to the study where her father sat working at his desk. Their scent caught him before he even saw them. He had to blink to keep tears from forming. He took his daughter onto his lap and pressed his face into her hair.

“Thank you,” he said when he could trust his voice. “I love the scent of roses.”

After that, as long as they were in bloom, Brit saw to it that there were always fresh roses on the desk in her father’s study.

I’ve spoken about only three of the five senses here, but they are the ones we tend sometimes to overlook. Tasting and hearing and smelling are not as easy to write about as seeing and touching but they can be used effectively to make our characters more real in every way.


This is the 7th in a series of articles on craft by Blair McDowell. For the others go to the Category, The Craft of Writing Fiction.
  • Which Comes First, Setting, Characters or plot?
  • On Voice
  • The Influence of Place on Plot
  • I Don’t Follow Umbrellas
  • The “O” word and Character Portrayal
  • On Plotting

Buy Blair's books today at The Memory of Roses Web Page, and Abigail's Christmas Web Page.

Abigail's Christmas was awarded Four Hearts by Sizzling Book Reviews!

"Abigail’s Christmas is a sweet and special story that honors both love and the holidays."
Read the full review......

Watch for Blair’s newest book, Delighting in Your Company , to be released by Rebel Ink Press in April 2012.

The Memory of Roses Abigail's Christmas by Blair McDowell Delighting in Your Company by Blair McDowell

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Blair McDowell