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Ground Your Characters with All Five Senses

When I’m writing—these articles, for example—I often compose a kind of first draft in my head, and I usually do it when I’m out on a long walk [1] with the dog. For this article, I knew I wanted to get across the idea that writers can introduce elements from one or all of the five senses to make settings and characters more realistic. So, on my walk, I thought about how I could approach this.

Then I noticed my dog, Dexter, was nowhere to be seen. This is very usual. We both get caught up in our thoughts as we wander along and lose track of each other, the time, the place…you get the idea.

He wasn’t far away. He rarely is. He’d got stuck sniffing a single blade of grass. I wondered what was so interesting about it, and how he was perceiving what seemed to be a single blade of grass but which was clearly much more to him.

I remembered reading or hearing somewhere that dogs might be capable of “seeing” smells, that their brain interprets scents in much the same way as our brains interpret light. Were they still colorblind, I then wondered. And this made me think of my own colorblindness, and I thought about the time at school when I got into big trouble from the teacher for coloring the grass brown. (I went to school in Scotland where, regardless of the time of year, the rain makes sure the grass is never, ever brown. Brown grass was a foreign concept to even the teacher.)

I then realized that this had nothing to do with the article I wanted to write. My mind had done that thing that all minds do—wandered off, just like Dexter and I do. No big deal. Dexter soon got fed up with his blade of grass and joined me again, and we were back on track.

Sometimes though—and we’ve all experienced this because, as I say, it’s what minds do—these thoughts can wander off into less useful places. You might start to think about what you should have said to your boss the other day instead of accepting his criticism. Maybe you’re wondering how to bring up some of those points raised in that argument with your partner last night. Or maybe you’re wondering how you can win back that lost love. Can it really be over, you ask yourself.

Thoughts, in some cases, can drift into more troubling areas that lead to anxiety, recurring feelings of anger, sadness, loneliness—or worse.

Bring back the focus

Therapists have a technique they use with patients to help them deal with these cycles of thoughts we can often get caught up in. It’s known as grounding. There are various ways to ground your thoughts, to bring yourself back to the present moment rather than drifting off into that all-too-familiar spiral.

One technique can be useful for writers to apply to their characters too—or even themselves. It works like this:

When you notice that your thoughts are wandering, perhaps into that same old cycle that you’d rather not get into, then you can ground yourself by paying attention to your senses. Wherever you are, take a moment to find:

Right now, I can see a computer screen (obviously), a bookshelf, an empty coffee mug, the radio and, because I have such a tidy desk (!), out the window is an oak tree losing its leaves.

It’s a warm, sunny day, so that window is open, and I can hear a starling whistle, a crow caw, an old diesel car rattle past on the rough-surfaced road outside and, if I listen carefully, I can hear my watch tick.

I can feel the click of the keyboard as I type, the softness of the cushioned chair I’m sitting on and a slight breeze coming through that open window.

I can still smell the soap on my hands from when I showered earlier and, despite the warm weather, my elderly neighbor must have her log fire burning.

And I can still taste that coffee I just finished.

From this, can you get a sense of where I am as I write this?

Multiple perspectives

You can apply this technique to imagine what your character is experiencing in any given setting, whether it’s a new place to them or even somewhere familiar. And it doesn’t have to be your main character; it could be the antagonist or even a minor character. Each might perceive the same setting in different ways.

Whatever character or characters you choose, note down those five, four, three, two, one things, but not in your manuscript. Keep them separate because you might not want to use them all.

It’s important to only use what’s absolutely relevant to the story, or to give the reader a sense of this place. Description is so easy to overdo, to give the reader more information than is strictly necessary. Too much description can lead so easily into flowery language and so-called purple prose.

It’s a delicate balance. For example, instead of describing what I could sense at my desk, I could have described my setting as a sparse office space in a rural house. More concise, but that’s too much like telling and not enough like showing.

It’s still useful to note each of the sensations your character(s) experiences. It will help you to become familiar with the setting, to imagine it more like a real place, even if you don’t end up using all of what you’ve written.

This technique certainly helped me with this article. On my walk, as I noticed my mind drifting, I took note of the trees around me, the autumn leaves on the dusty path, the tinkling of Dexter’s nametag on his collar as he moved to the next blade of grass, and I could bring my focus back to what I wanted to write.

It also worked now, to describe my office setting; it helped me keep my focus on writing this article rather than drifting off to social media or another cup of coffee.

So this works not only for your characters, but can also be useful for you too. Although, writers should use these techniques sparingly—if your mind didn’t drift off so much, how else would you come up with all those ideas?

What techniques do you use to bring realism to your settings? How do you stop your mind from drifting into less useful thoughts and get back to your writing?

About Jim Dempsey [2]

Jim Dempsey (he/him) is a book editor who specializes in detailed analysis and editing of novel manuscripts through his company, Novel Gazing [3]. He has worked as an editor for more than 20 years. He has a master’s degree in creative writing and is a professional member of the Chartered Institute of Editing and Proofreading [4] and is a trustee of the Arkbound Foundation [5]. Jim is fascinated by the similarities between fiction and psychotherapy, since both investigate the human condition, the things that make us uniquely human. He explores this at The Fiction Therapist [6] website. If you have a specific concern with your novel, send an email to jim [at] thefictiontherapist.com, or visit the website to ask for a free sample edit. You can follow Jim on Instagram @the_fiction_therapist [7].