Welcome to a another posts in my summer series devoted to my favorite author, George R. R. Martin. Today’s post is about the power of the senses in fantasy writing. I hope you enjoy these, as I had a lot of fun writing them, and look forward to sharing more over the next few months.
Visual description usually gets the most attention in writing. An author describes what their character sees, describes the events that unfold, describes buildings, the setting sun, the ladder-back chair against the far wall, a character we meet sketched quickly with some well-chosen adjectives. But there are four other senses too that make our world disparate and real. There are sounds, smells, touches and tastes. Sounds are often not forgotten – the world is as noisy as it is colorful, but smells and tastes and touches can be forgotten when we go into the realm of imagination.
John might walk down the street, where shadows stalk the alleyways and a brindle cat watches from a lantern-lit window, and this is intriguing. But how much more real is it if he walks down that same alley and smells nightsoil in the ditches, mingled with the reek of mold and wet stone, if the cool fog clings to his forehead and a bead of sweat scurries down his cheek, if someone is screaming far away, a distant echo…
Suddenly, I’m not just in a dark alley. Now, I’m John, and I’m in the dark alley with him.
George R. R. Martin does a brilliant job with the senses. Particularly, in his depiction of Arya as a blind girl. He uses the opportunity to do a fascinating depiction of those four senses we often forget. These few chapters, the most recent installments in his epic, are full of descriptions of smells and sounds, touch and taste. “Men had a different smell than women,” we read, “and there was a hint of orange in the air as well.” Or, as Arya is eating, we find her “savoring the tastes and smells, the rough feel of the crust beneath her fingers, the slickness of the oil, the sting of the hot pepper when it got into the half-healed scrape on the back of her hand.”
Martin is vivid, and therein lies his power. Fiction that skims over the details that make it real creates a distance between the reader and the characters who they have the opportunity to experience vicariously. Remembering to give attention to the five sense allows the emotions embedded beneath their experience to be believable. This is yet another thing Mr. Martin does that should be noted for anyone who wishes to see how writing can be full of realism and thus, fully engaging.
(Taken from a post at Following the Footsteps of the Masters, a blog devoted to the things that make epic fantasy great)