Smelling Your Character’s World

baconQuick, think about the first thing you smelled when you woke up this morning. Was it bacon frying for breakfast? Or the pile of clothes on your floor from that extra hard ball practice last night?

Either way, chances are you had a physical and mental reaction to whatever the smell was.

  • If it was bacon, your mouth might’ve watered and your stomach might’ve growled.
  • If it was the sweat-soured clothes, you might’ve coughed or held your nose. Or buried your head back under the covers.

We’re so used to seeing, hearing, and feeling everything around us that we sometimes forget about how much we smell every day. But did you know that …

  • On average, human beings can accurately recognize more than 10,000 different types of smells.
  • Research shows that humans can accurately recall a photo or visual image only 50% of the time, three months after seeing the original image. But we can recall odors with 65% accuracy over a year after having first smelled them.
  • Your sense of smell is directional, just like your hearing. That means you can tell where a smell is coming from around you.
  • Our ability to detect odors changes from one day to the next. So even if you smell that same type of coffee every morning, some days it might smell a little different.

sPretty interesting, huh? That’s why it’s just as important for us to think about smells when we’re writing — we need to smell our character’s world. Where is your character? What kinds of smells are around him? Do those smells remind him of something? Those are the kinds of questions you need to ask yourself as you’re writing or editing.

But — don’t think that including smells in your story means you need something in every paragraph. Just like some of those perfumes at the store, sometimes a little goes a long way!

Here are two examples to help you see what I mean:

  • And through the sounds, the smells: climbing into every corner, every cart, every cloak. The rich scents of ground cinnamon and chili powder, the sickening sweetness of bricked molasses, the dusty aroma of carved oak and pressed cedar. Sage and garlic, petals and powder, feathers and fur. (Aurelia by Anne Osterlund, p. 32)
  • I turned the sandwiches over and pressed them down as flat as I could with my spatula. They sizzled as the buttery and cheesy aroma rose to the ceiling. (Carrying Mason by Joyce Magnin, p. 89)

See? (And speaking of seeing, you can also check out my post on using sight to write better descriptions.) Can’t you smell all the things in the market? Does the thought of that grilled cheese sandwich sizzling in the pan make you hungry? Just a few well-placed words can build an even more realistic picture of where your character is or what he’s doing.

Your turn: What’s the best (or worst) thing you’ve smelled in the last couple of days? How would you describe it to someone else?

One response

  1. […] more on including the senses in your writing, check out my posts on sight, smell, and making sense of […]

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