Memorable Sensations and Believable Characters

Toast. This is one of my favorite smells, not for its odor, but for the memory it provokes of me as a young child sitting on my grandma’s knee enjoying a snack of toast strips dipped in ketchup, and seriously milk-diluted tea. Comfort. Security. That is what I feel when I smell toast.

Smell is only one of the six senses critical to good fiction (the others being touch, taste, hearing, sight, and “sixth sense”, or intuition), sensations important not only for immediate experience (nerve to brain communication), but for the memories, or emotions, the sensation evokes.

I watched a movie once [the name of which escapes me] where the main character was being ‘trained’ as a secret agent/spy. He was isolated and forced to adhere to a strict regime, which included porridge at almost every meal, every day. It took him a few months–where he first assumed the porridge was some sort of test to break him that he was determined to outlast–before he finally lost it. His revulsion for the gooey breakfast food was so strong, that he exploded in a rage and flung the porridge across the room, ranting that he hated the [expletive] stuff and ‘they’ couldn’t make him eat another bite again or he’d be sick. Literally. Which, of course, was exactly what ‘they’ wanted.

‘Their’ plan for him was to have him impersonate someone who, as a child, due to extreme poverty, had been forced to eat porridge for almost every meal. This person had grown into a man that experienced strong negative emotional and physical responses to porridge. If the spy was to safely–in other words, realistically–portray his target, he needed to not just fake the reaction, but live it.

Live it. That is key in fiction. A character’s reaction, or experience, to a ‘sense’ must be believable. In other words, if a character hates watermelon, there should be some supporting background experience to explain or support the aversion. The stronger the background for the aversion, the stronger the character. A character who dislikes watermelon because of its texture, or taste, is not nearly as interesting as one who hates watermelon because as a child he was forced to pick watermelon that weighed half his weight, twelve hours a day, under a baking sun for weeks at a time, and beaten severely with a cane if he didn’t pick an arbitrary quota, or dropped any of the fruit. The watermelon doesn’t represent a taste, or texture, but a horrific time in the character’s life, which strengthens his ‘character’ in the reader’s mind.

One of my favorite authors for evoking the senses and creating ‘strong’ (believable) characters, is Diana Gabaldon. She’s a master a lifting characters and settings off the page in such a way they “feel” like real people.

What about you? Do you have any feelings around certain sensations–an odor or sound–that ‘relives’ an experience in you? If so, are they fond, or negative memories? If you’re a writer, what unique quality or experience have you developed in your character to lift him/her off the page for the reader? What is your character’s worst fear? Favorite smell? Relaxation ritual or token? Please share. I look forward to your comments.

Oh, and if you know the name of the movie I described above, please let me know. I’d like to rent the video.

Take care,


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  1. She is. And that movie will now haunt me – at least until I discover it again. 🙂

  2. Unfortunately, I don't know which movie that is. But I do totally agree that Diana Gabaldon is the master of evoking all the senses.

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