How Smell Can Enhance Setting and Develop Characters

Yesterday I stepped onto an empty elevator and was greeted by lingering traces of a sweet, musky perfume. I don’t know the fragrance’s name but it was very familiar to me. It used to be worn by the owner of the bookstore I frequented as a child. Every time I come across it I reminisce about that wonderful little store. Books littered the floor there in teetering stacks and overflowed from the shelves into which they’d been crammed. It was a reader’s dream!

That trip down memory lane and the perfume that triggered it got me thinking about the role smell plays in building out character and setting in a story. 

The use of smell in writing can enhance setting and develop characters.
Enhanced Setting

No setting is complete without the sensory detail that helps readers imagine their way into the story. But many writers, myself included, often forget to include smell in this process. This can result is settings that are only partially formed.

Consider how flat the following scenes would be without the accompanying smells:

  • A campsite without the woodsy, comforting incense  of the campfire
  • A backyard without the scent of freshly cut grass
  • A movie theater without the butter-laced aroma of popcorn
  • A car shop without that whiff of gasoline and rubber

Smells like these, that are familiar to so many people, transport readers into the scene just like I was transported back to my childhood bookstore.

Character Development

Writers looking to take their sensory weapons to the next level also use smell to paint a distinct image of who their characters are. Consider the scents above from the perspective of different characters:

  • The acrid, sickening stench of campfire smoke burned his nostrils, forcing him to turn away.
  • She opened the car door and was pummeled by the scent of the neighbor’ freshly-cut grass. Like she needed a reminder that her own grass was in desperate need of a good cut!
  • The odor of over-cooked popcorn offended his nose. He was only two steps into the movie theater doors and already it had soaked into his hair and clothes.
  • She breathed in the fragrance of gasoline and rubber, savoring the memories it called forth. If “autoshop” was a perfume, she’d wear it daily.

Clearly, the perceptions characters have of the smells they encounter can say a lot about them or the elements/characters that surround them. 

Personally, I love using unique twists on scents to add a touch of reality to my characters. After all, each of us has that oddball smell that we love or hate for individual reasons. An example for me is  mothballs. Most people feel mothballs put off an odor they’d rather avoid. But my nana uses mothballs in excess in her home so I associate them with her, which means I love their fragrance. Whenever I return from a visit, I relish the whiffs of them that linger on my clothes and suitcase.

What about you? What are some smells that you passionately love or hate based on your own experiences?

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