This post, by Jodie Renner, originally appeared on The Blood-Red Pencil on 4/18/12.
Fiction writers—one of the fastest ways to bring your story world and characters to life is to portray the setting through the senses, feelings, reactions, and attitude of your protagonist.
Enhancing your fiction by filtering the description of the setting through your viewpoint character’s senses is a concept I instinctively embraced when I first started editing fiction about six years ago. I was editing a contemporary middle-school novel, whose two main characters, a boy and a girl, were both eleven years old (details slightly changed). The author had them describing rooms they entered as if they were interior decorators, complete with words like “exquisite,” “stylish,” “coordinated,” “ornate,” and “delightful.” Then, when they were in the park or the woods playing and exploring with friends, each tree, shrub and flower was accurately named and described in details that were way beyond the average preteen’s knowledge base or interests.
Besides the obvious problem of too much description for this age group (or for any popular novel these days), this authorial, “grownup” way of describing their environment would not only turn off young readers, but also create a distance between any reader and these two modern-day kids. As a reader and editor, I didn’t feel like I was getting to know these kids at all, as I wasn’t seeing their world through their eyes, but directly from the author, who obviously knew her interior design terms and flora and fauna! Through this unchildlike, out-of-character description of their environment, the author puts a barrier between us and the two kids. If we don’t get into their heads and hearts, seeing their world as they see it, how will we get to know them and bond with them, and why will we care what happens to them?
I advise my author clients to not only show us directly what the characters are seeing around them, in their words, but to bring the characters and story to life on the page by evoking all the senses. Tell us what they’re hearing and smelling, too. And touching/feeling – the textures of things, and whether they’re feeling warm or cold, wet or dry. Even the odd taste. And don’t forget mood—how does that setting make them feel? Emotionally uplifted? Fearful? Warm and cozy? Include telling details specific to that place, and have the characters react to their environment, whether it’s shivering from the cold, in awe of a gorgeous sunset, or afraid of the dark. Bring that scene to life through your characters’ reactions.
As Donald Maass says…