Using Sensory Perception to Enhance Symbolism by DiAnn Mills

Sensory perception is a valuable tool when incorporating symbolism into a novel.

What a character sees in a story can have a symbolic nuance, whether it is physical or in the character’s mind. In Charles Frazier’s novel Cold Mountain, the mountain is home to the characters, but the mountain represents the harshness and unfairness of life as the characters struggle to survive, sometimes failing.

What a character hears in a story can influence the story’s meaning. The call of a bird can be pleasant, unless the bird is a predator. In that case, the sound can be frightening. A mother’s voice is normally soothing, signifying love and caring. However, if a mother is abusive, the sound can represent foreboding or impending danger.

What a character tastes can influence the story’s theme. Imagine a feast of pizza for a team of high school football players before the big game. What usually stands for enthusiasm and a commitment to win a game can change to defeat if the players fall ill to food poisoning.

Rebecca McClanahan in Word Painting states that taste and smell are often linked to memory. In the football scenario, the smell of pizza can provide a memory and even a repulsive taste for pizza.

Consider the power behind the sense of smell. A writer introduces a woman with a scent of cologne. Whenever the male character is made aware of that smell, he associates it with beauty, charm, and grace.

The power of touch can affect a story’s theme with a wide array of emotional responses. McClanahan states: Touch, by definition, is an intimate sense . . . A well-written description that employs the sense of touch bridges physical and emotional distances. Consider the parent who disciplines a child in a time-out setting. When the parent retrieves the child to talk about the inappropriate behavior and reinforces love, the child is emotionally and physically touched. McClanahan adds that a person can be stimulated by what they see, hear, taste, or smell, but when a person is touched, the sensation invites intimacy.

The next time you’re considering symbolism for your novel, look to sensory perception for a natural flow of character actions and response.