Selecting character senses

This entry is part 8 of 10 in the series Writing the senses

Last week, I read an excellent article by author Jade Lee (aka Kathy Lyons). It was called “Setting as Character,” but the underlying message is that characters always interpret the setting through their internal lenses (or precepts, the term the author uses in the article).

To help her remember her characters’ internal precepts, Jade assigns them images that reflect (and control) their internal states, external behaviors, clothes, movements—and even what senses they tend to rely on. One of her examples (emphasis added):

The heroine of Cornered Tigress was a skittish cat. That gave me her colors: black and gray. It also gave me how she moves: on her toes silently, or she pounced or stalked. Cats don’t see as well, they’re very texture and taste oriented. So she became a cook and whenever she entered a room, she tasted the air and noticed the fabrics. When she grew frightened, she hid in tiny closed spaces like a closet, but she would fight like a demon when cornered. The hero made her feel safe. When he caressed her, she wanted to stretch and purr.

In the comments, Jade helps others find these images. One thing to remember is not to focus on events, but behaviors and characteristics—internal factors rather than the action of the story (or backstory). Focus on adjectives and describing your characters’ personalities (even if you only have a sketch), then look for something that matches—something in nature, or something man-made, but ideally something that can grow, develop or change. This can even fill in blanks for you as you’re creating a character.

The most instructive comments even give a guide for finding these, and several examples (emphasis mine, again):

Think of your heroine — is she powerful take charge like a race horse? Fiesty, never say die even though it’s stupid like a small terrier? Cold and stand offish like a frozen fountain? seething beneath in anger like a volcano? Get some general words associated with her — three or four key characteristics. You gave me her main baggage issue, but I don’t have a feel if she’s a do-er or a be-er (action first or feel/fit into a situation first before you act) If she’s afraid or angry or determined first. That will lead to more imagery that will lock it down in your head. . . .

[B]ackstory and plot [are] not what makes him unique. And that certainly isn’t what DRIVES him. What are his internal precepts? What gets him out of bed in the morning? What does he believe he has to do in this lifetime before he dies? That will tell me what kind of man he is. And then we can begin fleshing him out with an image.

If you need a different way to look at it—think this…Name one core belief that he lives beyond all others.

Granted, if the best image for your character isn’t an animal, this may not be as helpful in the sensory writing. But it can still help to focus on their senses and the way they interact with their environment.

What do you think? What kind of images spring to mind for your characters?

Photo by Chrissy Wainwright

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4 thoughts on “Selecting character senses”

  1. I did a similar exercise and I came up with “ambitious, frustrated, and brave”
    So she’s tired of her life, thinks she deserves more, and isn’t afraid to seek it.

    1. The adjectives are just a start. And here, we’d probably need a bit more information about the character. But just going on those, I’d think of something aspirational—perhaps something that literally climbs.

  2. Great post! I’ve used figurines to represent my characters (I have a large collection of dragons), but it might be easier to assign the appropriate animal to underlie each personality.

    1. Thanks, Deb! So you use figurines you already have? Interesting! Other animals might give you a little more variety, too.

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