Scent of a Character ~ unseen dimensions of back story
When authors talk about back story, I’ve very seldom heard them include the nebulous dimensions like smell. Perhaps I’m a bit (lot) strange because often I will know precisely what a character smells like but won’t be able to tell you the precise details of their facial features. I’m quite a primitive person and I react strongly to a person’s scent; meeting a friend for the first time in real life had me inwardly recoil simply because I didn’t like how that friend smelled. I ought to have listened to my instincts but at the time I put it down to my dislike of smoking. On later reflection I know plenty of people who smoke and while I dislike the smell of cigarette smoke in clothes and hair I don’t react so viscerally to it as I did in that case.
The sense of smell is one of our more poorly understood senses, because it’s still little understood how our bodies register smells. The sense is linked closely to that of taste and people who lose their sense of smell also lose their sense of taste (and subsequently their enjoyment of food). It’s one linked to the most primitive parts of our brains, which is perhaps why I ought to have listened more closely to my instincts to stay away from that friend, but we’ve mostly over-ridden such reactions. In the west, where most people wash regularly if not daily, a person’s unique scent is often hidden under layers of fragrance, from soap to cologne. Yet even so, we can often recognise the true scent of our loved ones; tests using tee shirts worn at night show that people can find their partner’s out of dozens of worn clothes. We are also programmed to find the scent of our blood relatives off-putting, and not sexually attractive; this sense seems to be subject to interference by hormonal medicines like the Pill. It’s a mechanism intended to help us avoid in-breeding but like many natural mechanisms it can and often is over-come.
What a place smells like is also the first thing I tend to notice when I enter a place; this is very much reflected in how I write. I know how the homes of my characters smell as well as the people themselves. Antony Ashurst lives in a house built centuries ago and in stages from the core constructed in the middle ages to a kitchen built in Victorian times on top of the remains of an Elizabethan kitchen. The house has its own set of scents: wood that has been cherished and cleaned and polished for hundreds of years, Persian carpets worn but still vibrant and strong, have all absorbed the scents of the centuries. Wood-smoke from fires of different woods burned in a dozen hearths, beeswax candles in the great hall and tallow tapers in the servants quarters, pipe tobacco in the study, and in recent years the furniture polish wielded by Muriel, faithful daily and scourge of dust and dirt. Heavy velvet curtains hold old fragrances from dinner parties and daily life. Along the walls there are so many rows of old books that for Antony they have become like wall-paper, and they add their old vanilla and leather scent to the house. Antony himself has a fragrance though he’s not the kind to use cologne. It’s the scent of clean, fastidious youth, made up of good soap and personal hygiene and a need to remain sensually invisible. He wouldn’t have been one of those teenagers seduced by products like Lynx into suffocating everyone around; he doesn’t want to be noticed. Yet that scent and the metaphysical one it represents combine to make him irresistible to hunters eager for what he appears to offer: fresh meat.
Isobel’s cottage has a scent quite unlike that of her vicarage. The cottage is an old building and it retains some of the same sort of elements as Antony’s home, of wood and stone and walls holding the memories of past occupant’s activities. The absence of soft furnishings means that when she moves in, the cottage acquires the furniture of her childhood home and some of the smells of that linger at the edge of understanding. Yet the place itself has another sensory in-put: the natural world tries to leak its way into the house through every crevice. There is a scent of woodland, of leaves old and new, of spring flowers and of autumn mulch and rain-soaked earth. It’s as unlike her normal home as she could ever wish and here she can leave her paintings to dry without the smell of linseed oil, turps and paint annoying anyone. Here she can be herself without having to censor any of it. Isobel is someone who loves a long hot bath and bath elixirs are one of her great loves and she has a number tucked away from her daughter’s magpie eyes in bathroom cupboards here and at her usual home. Tall elegant bottles filled with deeply-coloured and exotically scented oils are one of her weaknesses. It’s not usual for her to smell of actual perfume but skin and hair will usually be redolent of some potion or other.
Chloe is someone who fights her sensual side and her adoption of jasmine as a perfume is something that is unconscious and linked to an event lost in her conscious memory. I love jasmine myself and have enjoyed many perfumes with this as a central note; alas, all of them have now been discontinued. Her home is one that smells of flowers all year round, which might come as a surprise when she aims to project an aura of no-nonsense practicality. Hyacinths grown in dark cupboards in stages so that the dark winter months will be scented by their heady perfume, are placed in the hall way and hearth. As soon as the first narcissi are in the shops, she will fill vases with them and plant hundreds in whichever garden she is working on. Scented geraniums stand in huge terracotta planters in the porch so that a brush from coats as people enter the house fill the air with scents of oranges, lemons, peppermint, chocolate and even frankincense. The living room has a faint scent of sandalwood from the battered old statue of the Buddha in the hearth. Chloe herself tends to dab a drop of jasmine oil on wrists and through her hair most days; it fills her with a sense of well-being and safety. If she ever found a perfume that was true to pure jasmine oil, she (like me) would be a very happy woman.
I could go on but I am sure you get the picture. How a person and a place smells is to me as vital an ingredient as how they look, both as a reader and as a writer. This sensual element of back story carries more power than you’d imagine as it goes past conscious thought and straight to instinctual reactions. I’m experimenting with visiting department stores and trying perfumes new to me, as a source of inspiration. Sometimes a character could spring to life from a quick sniff. I’ll certainly start writing little pen-portraits of perfume-people when I next get to John Lewis.
(I wrote an earlier post that was about the aspect of synaesthesia and smell in terms of character. You can read that here: https://zenandtheartoftightropewalking.wordpress.com/2012/02/03/synaesthesia-the-senses-and-why-characters-in-books-need-to-smell/