In Part 1of my Building Character blog posts, we discussed how a character’s unique traits will determine how they react to anything and everything in the story. I gave a list of 14 things that make a character unique. You can read that post here. In Part 2, we dove deeper into three of them: experiences, perspective, and beliefs. You can read that post here. In Part 3, let’s discuss the unique ways our characters can sense their world.
Whether on Earth, another planet, or in a spaceship, your characters will sense their worlds differently. Everyone is familiar with the five basic senses of vision, hearing, smell, taste and touch. But did you know there are other senses?
Proprioception is the perception or awareness of the position and movement of the body. Dancers and athletes can be very in tune with where their body is in space.
Intuition is the ability to know something without any proof. It’s sometimes referred to as a “gut feeling,” “instinct,” or “sixth sense.” Right-brain people seem to be more intuitive because the right brain is visual and processes information in an intuitive way. Left-brain people processes things in an analytical or logical way.
Sometimes, people don't even perceive senses the same way most of us do. People with synesthesia (si·nuh·stee·zhuh) can see sounds as colors or associate certain sights with smells. There’s a plot bunny for you!
Other senses your animal or alien characters could have are:
Thermoception - the sensation and perception of temperature.
Magnetoception - ability to detect a magnetic field to perceive direction, altitude or location. In the Survival Race series my telepathic aliens are sensitive to EM Fields. It scrambles their brainwaves.
Echolocation - ability to determine orientation to objects through interpretation of reflected sound (like sonar).
Electroreception - ability to detect electric fields.
Infrared Sensing - ability to sense infrared thermal radiation
Hygrorecption - ability to detect changes in the environment’s moisture content.
I’m sure you can research even more. The point is to think about your characters and make them unique in how they sense the world around them.
How do your characters see their world? Do they notice geometric shapes and patterns? Do they notice color? Do they notice light and shadow? Do they see its beauty or the ugly in it? This can also stem from their perception, which we discussed in the earlier posts. Does your character not see the world at all?
Are your characters touchy/ feely? Do they hug everyone or touch others when they talk? Are they tactile or kinesthetic learners? Kinesthetic learners need to move. They wiggle, tap, swing their legs, bounce, and can’t seem to sit still. They learn through their bodies and their sense of touch. They have excellent “physical” memory. They learn by doing. They are often gifted in physical activities like running, swimming, dancing, and other sports. They are often coordinated and have excellent proprioception.
Do your characters have a heightened sense of smell? My daughter loves fragrance, essential oils, and men’s cologne. Some people don’t. If your character has animal traits—like a werewolf or dragon does—or your character is an animal, you’ll want to be sure to incorporate their strong sense of smell into their characterization.
Have you given thought to your character’s taste? We tend to like the foods we grew up on because we’ve grown accustomed to those flavors. For example, Americans consume a lot of sugar. Japanese don’t. Therefore Japanese candies and cookies are not as sugary and sweet as American treats. I noticed this difference on my travels to Okinawa, Japan. Okinawa donuts are not as sweet as ours. Can your characters taste things that are sweet, sour, salty, bitter, savory, or maybe they can’t taste anything at all? I lost my sense of taste and smell when I had Covid-19. It was an odd sensation, but thankfully I got it back. Some people have more tastebuds than average and are called supertasters. What kinds of foods would your alien race eat if they were supertasters? What would they eat if they had no taste buds?
How does your character hear things? Let’s take music as an example, and I’m not referring just to what is pleasing to your ear or the kind you like: classical, rock, country, heavy metal, rap, reggae, etc. Did you know people listen to music differently? I didn’t learn this until my drummer son, who is 22 now, was a teenager in high school. He loved heavy metal music and wanted me to listen to some with him. After a few minutes this was our exchange.
Me: “These lyrics are terrible.”
Son: “Oh, I don’t listen to the lyrics.”
Me: “You don’t hear all this swearing?”
Me: (Assuming he’s fibbing because he doesn’t want to get into trouble with Mom.) “Then what are you listening to?”
Son: “The beat.”
Me: (Surprised) “You really don’t listen to the lyrics?”
Nope. He wasn’t. He enjoyed the exciting rhythm of the double base drum and the snare and symbols and toms.
I’m a story teller. I love words. I love lyrics, which is why I get irritated when song lyrics don’t make sense or I can’t understand the lyrics and have to look them up and realize I’ve been singing my own mondegreen (a misinterpreted word or phrase resulting from mishearing song lyrics). So I then asked my daughter, a ballet dancer, what she hears to when listening to music. She replied, “The way the song as a whole sounds on the ear. And then I listen to the words.” It makes sense a ballet dancer would hear the melody as I believe ballet arm movements (port de bras) move with the melody. A tap dancer would be very beat oriented.
Keep in mind the best way your character would express something based on how they sense the world.
I hear what you’re saying. (Character may be an aural/ auditory learner)
I see what your saying. (Character may be a visual learner)
I know what your saying. (Character may be a logical person or shows cognitive intelligence)
I feel you. (Character may be an intuitive person or shows emotional intelligence).
Understanding how our characters sense their world allows us to write richer characters.
Miscommunication between characters who don’t understand how their partners sense their worlds can be fun. However, be sure to help them learn to understand how their partners sense the world by the end of the story, as better communication will lead them on the path toward their happily-ever-after.
K.M. FAWCETTRomance with a rebel heart