Many aspiring novelists and short-story practitioners are advised in their creative writing classrooms to imagine a camera on the shoulders of their characters as they lead readers through scenes. The thinking is this practice forces the writer to add detail while also understanding the tactile surroundings of their story.
It’s not bad advice, but it’s far from complete as far as a technique for character development goes. The reason for the shortcoming is because characters are supposed to be three-dimensional. That means when writers rely predominantly on describing what they see they may fail to develop fully drawn characters who experience life in a truly profound way that makes them come to life.
David Morrell, who taught for many years in the esteemed English department at Iowa University, advises aiming for a ratio that will force you to add senses beyond the visual. For every visual sense, you should have two others present, says the author of “First Blood” (a novel whose literary merits have been tarnished because its lead character was transformed into a one-dimensional killing machine in the “Rambo” movie series).
Strict adherence to any formula isn’t good. In this case, it could cause you to overwrite. But if you craft your story well, then putting Morrell’s advice into practice makes your characters more fully developed than if you simply treated them like robots being filmed.
Many excerpts could be chosen to illustrate this example of writing, but I picked the following passage because it is short and comes from a great piece of fiction. It is the second paragraph of “The Chrysanthemums”, a well-known John Steinbeck story about internal conflict, isolation and sexual frustration. Notice the variety of senses the Noble Prize winner incorporates with the nouns and verbs he chooses here:
“It was a time of quiet and of waiting. The air was cold and tender. A light wind blew up from the southwest so that the farmers were mildly hopeful of a good rain before long; but fog and rain did not go together.”
A lesser writer may have focused on what the farmers saw rather than using the setting of Salinas Valley to enhance the themes of the story. “Quiet”, “cold”, “tender” and “light” are words that are all sensual in this passage, but none are related to sight.
Next time you’re working on a scene in a story or novel, or even a piece of non-fiction, endeavor to evoke all five senses through your utilization of nouns and verbs. Rather than walking your readers through your story, aim to immerse them in it. You don’t want readers to just get a vision of what your characters are going through, you want them to feel deeply the joy and despair and triumph of your creations.