Using Scent to Develop Characters

Posted Apr 15 2010, 12:04 am in

This afternoon, I was leaving the gym when a woman walked past me.  There was a moment, a split second, where her scent hit me.  She reminded me so much of my dead grandmother, I froze in my tracks and just stood there, steeped in a flood of fond memories.  It was a few minutes before I returned to reality.

The emotions that one scent evoked were so real, so strong, I headed to Google to find out why. Turns out our sense of smell is part of the limbic system, where it’s tightly connected to the part of the brain that handles memory and emotion. In fact, the limbic system is often called the emotional brain.

I thought it would be an intriguing exercise to think about the scents that trigger both good and bad memories in us and perhaps find ways to use these triggers as we develop characters.

  • I do not smoke, nor do I drink coffee. (I despise both.) But both of my parents were smokers and coffee drinkers so when I smell cigarettes and coffee together, it makes me think of home.
  • A neighbor who painted houses for a living scared me when I was five.  I’m in my forties now and when I smell house paint on men, my heart lurches and I have to run.
  • I was a nursing student for a year before I realized I’d made a mistake. In my clinical work, we used a solvent called Xylene that smells so powerfully like oranges, any orange scent I notice today makes me recall with a shudder why I left nursing school.
  • There was a huge lilac bush in my paternal grandparents’ yard.  My mother’s parents had honeysuckle. Either scent takes me back to single digit ages, when I’d beg to be picked up so I could reach a branch to pick.
  • Twenty years ago, my nephew was born and I was honored to spend a few weeks helping to take care of him.  The poor little guy suffered so badly from colic, his pediatrician suggested a formula called Alimentum, a special blend of easily digested proteins. Alimentum is some potently nasty stuff. It looks a bit like latte rather than milk and smells a lot like vomitus and sour milk.  Worse, it has the unfortunate side effect of permeating the entire house rather than just the baby.  It’s such a strong odor that I can walk past a Mommy & Me class and pick out the one baby on the stuff.   Yet, each time I smell it, I immediately go back to 1990 and remember the first time my nephew smiled.

At the end of “Sleeping with the Enemy”, Julia Roberts is blissfully unaware that her abusive husband has found her until her eyes happen to alight on the towel rack. The towels she always leaves askew are new perfectly aligned.  What if scent were involved?

She unlocked her door and stepped inside, careful to lock the door behind her. She kicked off her shoes and shrugged out of her coat, leaving them where they’d landed, one shoe in the center of the hall. Her coat was a ball by the door. The freedom, the power in such small acts of defiance lifted her lips in a satisfied smile. She hugged herself and twirled around, celebrating her freedom when it hit her.  She’d stirred the air and there, just there if she faced the kitchen, she could smell him. House paint and sweat and Kools and her heart hammered a rhythm to the playback of every kick, punch, and shove she’d endured. She threw the latch on the door and ran, one shoe still in the center of the hall, her coat still a ball near the door.

What scents evoke strong memories in you?



3 responses to “Using Scent to Develop Characters”

  1. Great post, Patty. I need to remember to use more scent and touch senses in my prose. Thanks!

  2. Rebecca says:

    Great article! Cigarette smoke reminds me of my grandfather, fresh cut grass reminds me of growing up in OH, and fresh baked scones remind me of the UK.