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The Eyes Don’t Always Have It

September 9, 2012 by Fiction Editor Beth Hill
last modified May 18, 2013

Maybe I should say, the eyes shouldn’t always have it.

No, the title isn’t a reference to parliamentary procedures, simply a play on words.

While we learned all about the five senses when we were kids, and while we sometimes read of characters with extra senses, I’ve found that writers often limit their characters to a single sense.

Characters interact with their story world by seeing people and events and objects. They don’t necessarily notice every detail, but they do notice, through the visual, quite often.

That is, they see a lot more than they touch, taste, smell, or hear.

They look over at, look up at, look down toward. They see the expression on another character’s face and correctly conclude that character’s emotional state, often from a single glance (but that’s fodder for another article).

And while they’re always looking, the style or method of looking usually isn’t conveyed to the reader.

Writers tend to use the same words in every scene of every story to show how a character sees, and many times those words are simply too basic or bland. They add no punch to the scene. They fail to take advantage of a character’s emotions, educational background, or experiences. They may be a poor fit for the genre.

The two terms I find used most often for conveying a character’s perception of events or other characters, through sight, are look at and glance at. And those words are repeated many times in most manuscripts.

I actually want to explore two related issues here, so let’s consider them one at a time.

The Senses

Most characters (there are always exceptions) are humans, and most humans (exceptions here as well) are in tune, at least to some degree, with their senses.

We smile at the scent of chocolate chip cookies baking, we frown at the stench of a day-old diaper, and we cover our noses at the sting of ammonia. We notice smells and scents and odors. We react to them. When we dance with a lover wearing our favorite fragrance, we snuggle closer. When that same lover comes home from a week-long camping and fishing trip, we back away and point to the shower. We buy favorite soaps and candles and dryer sheets.

The same kinds of responses should be true of our characters. No, characters shouldn’t respond to every smell, but reactions to unusual odors or favorite smells can advance plot and reveal character.

What of the sense of touch? We touch objects and other people and pets all day long. And our sense of touch isn’t restricted to our hands. We use our hands to touch and feel in greater proportion than any other body part, but who hasn’t felt the creepy crawl of a spider or bug up his calf? What of the deep pleasure found in massage or a pedicure? Or maybe you can’t stand anyone messing with your feet and you would never book a mani-pedi, not even if it was free.

The point is, we touch and are touched in return. We feel heat and cold. We feel pressure. We are tickled or scratched or burned, and each produces a response in us.

Characters can and should respond to touch. They can feel the rich softness of a fur coat and the sharp prickle of a hairdo held up with too much styling product.

A character who doesn’t like to be touched can be irritated when another character insists on a long hug or be ticked off at the do-gooder who pats him on the back every time they meet.

A character who needs to touch and be touched can be crushed when her husband repeatedly pushes her away.

What about sound?

Sound can be easily added to fiction. Any person in an unfamiliar setting will notice sounds. Anyone on edge will attribute unfamiliar sounds to negative sources. Sounds can influence a wide variety of emotions.

Think street sounds, music, footsteps, radio, crowds, the clicking of handheld devices. Even a person’s movements produce sounds and each movement can produce its own type of sound.

Shooshing, clacking, tapping, drumming, and rumbling are only a few of the many sound types a character could hear.

Locations will offer their own sounds. Offices have sounds peculiar to them and different offices may have different sounds. A manufacturing plant may have thudding or clanking sounds. A home at the end of a school- or workday may be silent or boisterous. Lovemaking in a bedroom may be accompanied by whispers or shouts or the burden of silence.

Sounds can affect a character’s behavior in hundreds of ways. Sounds can also affect tone. Actually, using sound is a key method for establishing or affecting tone.

Make sure your characters use their ears. Give them something to hear.

Taste is probably the most difficult sense to convey through words on a page, but you can have your characters recoiling at nasty flavors. And you can have your readers drooling for a taste of the chilled beer your explorer is enjoying after his 10-hour jungle trek.

The sense elements tie characters to their setting and to other characters. People don’t pass through life without using their senses. Imagine what a day would be like for someone without the ability to hear, touch, taste, or smell—

How barren is the world for the man who can’t feel sand under his feet, who can’t hear a gull’s cry or the whoosh of the wind at the beach. What if that man couldn’t taste the food on his plate, couldn’t smell the lotioned skin of his new son? How empty would his life be if all he had was sight?

Might he not go crazy, bereft of the full range of human intercourse?

Yes, you could center a story around such a character. But most of your characters will not be without their senses. And they, and you, shouldn’t ignore those senses.

Put the full range of the senses to work in your fiction. Don’t limit your characters to only what is seen. Give them a broad range of responses that fit them—that fit their personalities, their situation, the genre, the setting, and the tone of the scene.

If Kathy has unusually strong hearing, use that to make her story unique. If Paul has an aversion to touch, show that aversion, even in the small details. Maybe he always wears long-sleeved shirts. Maybe he picked up the affectation of wearing driving gloves and doesn’t take off his gloves until he’s safely behind his desk every morning.

Again, I don’t want you to think you must overdo or that characters have to react to every sensory opportunity. But do fill your character’s fictional world with sense stimulators and appropriate responses. Insert your character into a world he can interact with and then make him interact. Use the senses.

And don’t let the eyes always have it.

Variety with Sight

Of course, we don’t want to ignore sight; it’s a primary way we relate to our world. But characters should do more than see. They need to react and relate and respond with every sense.

When they do make use of sight, however, there should be variety. I’ll go ahead and suggest you check your manuscripts right now for the use of look and glance. You’ll probably find a lot of them. If you’ve never given thought to these words before and you’ve got a full-length manuscript, I’m guessing you’ve got a whole lot of them.

How many uses of look or glance (or any other word) are too many? There is no set number. But if you find a couple hundred uses of either word in a short work of fiction, you’ve exceeded the limit.

Look is a fairly common, fairly unobtrusive word. It’s unobtrusive, that is, until it’s used and used and used again. Find other ways of relating references to sight. Be scene or genre specific when that would influence the feel of the scene.

Does a character only look across a room at another character? Maybe. But she might study him. She might narrow her eyes at him. She might focus on his eyes or gaze at him or gawk.

Does a man simply look at the papers on a desk or does he scrutinize them? Examine them? Eye them with resignation?

Use sight words that color the moment, that tie sentences to the genre. Jack might spy another thief on a neighboring rooftop. Titus might survey his troops. Feverish Wanda might glimpse Heaven.

While you can simply choose other sight words to replace look and glance, you could instead use words from the other senses. So a character doesn’t always have to notice something with his eyes—he might hear it and turn to investigate.

And what about glance? What’s wrong with it?

While I find glance used a lot, it’s not used as often as look. But it is still often used and often incorrectly.

A glance is a quick or brief look. It’s impossible to take a long, thorough glance around the ballroom.

If a guy’s checking out a woman’s figure, he’s not glancing at her. And no, I’m not saying a guy couldn’t just glance at a woman. But if you’ve said he’s checking her out, he’s already past the glancing stage.

A glance is not a study or perusal of someone or something. It doesn’t last a long time. You wouldn’t say She glanced at the ominous letter, committing each threat to memory.

Check your uses of glance. See if you’ve used it in ways contrary to its meaning. Substitute other words if you’ve used glance too often or it’s used incorrectly. Be specific when you can be. Slant a scene in the direction you want it to go through your word choices, even for these simple sight words.

Make each word contribute to the scene.

Don’t annoy readers with overused words. Don’t drop characters into a barren world that doesn’t require a connection with the senses. And don’t treat characters as if they have no senses other than sight.

Write involving fiction, fiction that works the senses of characters and the emotions of readers.


For more on the sense elements in fiction, read Come to Your Senses.



Tags: ,     Posted in: Craft & Style

7 Responses to “The Eyes Don’t Always Have It”

  1. Great post. Thanks for sharing.

  2. Vero says:

    Great post, absolutely fantastic! And I agree with every single point you made, Beth.

    I use a lot of my character’s senses in my fiction, and usually each major character has a predominant sense. Some rely more on their sight, and thus notice slight changes in another’s expression, or subtle gestures and gazes, while others are more focused on their hearing, and thus react most to changes in tone, to noisy environments and attribute greater meaning to silence, than say… a character of mine who is more attentive to her sense of smell. :)
    Their propensity to use certain words in their language also depends on the sense they rely on most, like that character relying on smell, who’s prone to use “sniff someone out”, “this seems fishy”, “he’s got a sapid vocabulary”, “the flavor of that morning” and so on.

    There’s always a danger to go overboard with using senses, but in my experience, it is less common and easier to fix than completely forgetting to include them. They can offer so much to the story!

    Thank you so much for a thought provoking and very useful post!

  3. Vero, I’ve also seldom seen a writer go overboard with the senses. It can happen. But you’re right—writers tend to err on the other side and forget to include sense elements. But they’re a plus for any story.

    It’s great to see how you use the senses in your own fiction. Thanks for being a real-life example for this article.

  4. Deborah says:

    I plan on becoming an editor. This is the best article I have read so far on writing, as I am still very much an amateur. I am most definitely guilty of resorting to sight without thinking about our human range of senses, and how they provoke emotions that could run deeper than simply “looking at” something. Thanks for this- will definitely be re-reading in the future.

    • Deborah, most of us do focus on sight. But there’s so much we can make of the other senses. Smell and hearing definitely have their places in fiction. Touch too. Taste is a bit harder to work with since it’s difficult to have readers tasting flavors, but characters can certainly use the sense of taste.

      I wish you success with your editing career.