Seeing Beyond Sight

It’s easy to forget when we’re writing that description is more than what a character sees; it’s sound, smell, touch and taste too. Alternatively a character may be missing a sense, or have an impaired sense, and, particularly if we’re writing in first person, this will inform the description. A hearing impaired character will focus less on sound and more on their other senses, a blind character may focus more on sound and we may have a character who simply has a sense preference. For instance, if I was to change the perspective of Victorian Mistress to one of the vampire characters scent may take on more importance.

Perhaps before I begin discussing different methods to of description having mentioned sensory impairments I should observe that simply because a character has lost one sense doesn’t mean the rest become heightened. It’s common cliché in fiction that seems to stem from things people infer from characters like Daredevil. Sometimes people forget that Daredevil’s heightened senses have nothing to do with the fact he lost his sight and everything to do with the fact he’s a superhero and heightened senses are part of his superhero powers. Nor does having a sensory impairment mean a character can’t hear or see or smell at all, there are degrees of sensory loss so a blind character, for instance, may still have enough sight left to see shapes or a hearing impaired/deaf character hasn’t necessarily lost all their hearing. If we are writing disabled characters we need to consider who they are as much as any other character.

As for basing description solely on sight I’m not saying that we have to veer completely away from what characters see. People are heavily influenced by what they see but using the other senses can add extra layers to a scene. At the same time it doesn’t mean we have to use all the senses at once all the time. Each character is different and we may be writing a character who pays little attention to the world around them or we may be writing one that pays a lot of attention. For instance, we may expect a soldier or a policeman to pay more attention to sounds as well as what they see because they may be wary of people sneaking up on them. Or we may be writing a character who has got used to a particular setting and pays less attention to what is always there. If they work in a soap shop perhaps they describe the scent of the shop the first time they introduce the reader to the setting but in future they don’t mention the intensity because they are used to it. Or we may be writing a character who works in a second-hand bookshop and loves the scent of old books so they often enter the room and think how much they like that scent.

As with anything else in a story the senses characters focus on can tell us a lot about the character without large paragraphs of explanation. We can use a character’s senses to show who they are but at the same time we have to be aware of the risk of over describing and causing sensory overload because, while using other senses can add to a scene, we can overwrite them as much as any other form of description.

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Published by Jesse

I'm a writer and academic specialising in fantasy fiction and creative writing theory. I'm allergic to pretentiously talking about fiction and aim to be unashamedly ‘commercial’. Surely all fiction is commercial anyway, or what’s the point in publishing it?

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