Does your MC stink?

And no, I’m not being rhetorical.

My college psych professor loved to remind us about how the tiniest details impacted our lives. 

“If you can’t pick out your sweetie in a room full of other people–blindfolded–then you have no business having one.”  A sweetie, not a blindfold.

He then egged us on about how our “sweeties” smelled, tasted and felt.  If we couldn’t pick out their swaggers from a shadow, we were remiss in the area of interpersonal relations.  A cough in an otherwise quiet room?  Yep, we should be able to pick theirs out in a random sampling of 100 other coughs in a quiet room.

As freshman psych students, we all got chuckles out of it–on a very basic level.  And yet, there is a lot of truth in what he said.

For example, nobody in the world wears the underlying scent of tractors as well as my DH.  I could sniff him out of a line up, blindfolded. 

I think this is a great lesson for writers.  Often, we describe our characters’ physcial attributes, but pay little attention to the tiny details that make them unique.

How many books have we read where the MC has red hair or curly hair or jet black hair?  Blue eyes, brown eyes, green eyes?  She’s too skinny.  He’s so buff.  Ach, it’s like one of those flip books we used as kids where it’s seperated into three parts: the hair, the eyes and the mouth region.  We then flip the pages to create a random, yet unique set of features that we breifly describe and move on.

But what about smell? 

I can honestly say that only one of my MC’s smells.  Her distinct scent is vanilla and she tastes like salt.  I don’t think I would have gone past the requisite physical characteristics if her situation didn’t demand it.

Certainly, I haven’t done so for other characters in other books.  I may have to remedy that situation to give my MC’s more depth and make them a little more unique than the flip book method.

One of my (and DH’s) favorite quotable snippets comes from the movie Land Before Time.  One of the dinosaurs sniffs the air and says, “I smell…I smell…Ducky.”

To which Ducky giggles.  “You smell me?”

Do your MC’s stink?  If so, like what and why?  As a general rule, do you pay more attention to physcial descriptions, or do you engage the reader in exploring your MCs on a different level? 



16 responses to “Does your MC stink?

  1. An excellent point, Cat. I would further it by suggesting your character’s smell/taste (ewww) should tell the reader something about the character. I’m reading Marjorie Liu’s Tiger’s Eye right now and she does an outstanding job of this. It’s something I’ll have to see if I can airbrush into my novel. Somewhere. LOL

    • Victoria,

      I will have to read Tiger’s Eye to see how well she adds unique detail to characters. So often even when we read about stinky MCs, the smell is almost always cliched.

      Horse barn. Fear. Perfume. Earthy.

      Not much else comes to mind from what I’ve read. And almost never taste. Unless it’s a smut novel. Which I don’t read : )

      Thanks for the great example~ cat

  2. Great post Cate. I try to fill out a complete worksheet on my mc’s before I start writing. Okay, I don’t always succeed. I described one of my secondary characters recently as being a ‘shiny’ girl. Not glittery because glittery girls are too fake, but shiny. She also looks too grown-up but in a way that manages to work for her. I like to give mc’s little habits, things like picking their cuticles or biting their lip, etc.

    • Lisa,

      You amaze me with your organization. I should really try the character worksheets to keep track of traits. Especially if I plan to take my chapter book into series territory. Then I’ll need all the organization I can get.

      Now for the shiny. Which one of your ms does this one belong in? And who is shiny? Because I’ve got a worksheet in my head for the two of them that I’m sticking little snippets into. Someday I hope to read the whole story–of both of them!

  3. Excellent post. I don’t think I’ve ever thought about how my characters smell, but in my current WIP, there’s one bad guy who will always reek of Jack Daniels…it probably oozes from his pores. I’ll have to think about the others.

    • Patricia,

      I distinctly remember the first time I heard the word reek. I was about 12 and shoveling horse manure for my uncle’s garden. There were eight cousins staying there that year and two super hot neighbor boys who came along for the flirting and the de-smelling swim in the lake after a morning of shoveling pooh.

      One of the uber hot neighbor boys kept saying how bad it reeked. Love the word. It makes your Jack Daniels bad guy smell that much worse to me, because if something reeks, it’s beyond nasty.

      Thanks for the trip down memory lane.

  4. My characters don’t smell, but they like the smell of bacon… Does that count? 🙂

  5. I did one better, my main character is haunted by a doppelganger in her personality. Every time the other shows up, the first thing you notice is the smell of spiced apples and oranges, with a hint of earthy musk.

    It allows the reader to not only notice which is on par besides nuance of language and actions but by smell as well. (Hugs)Indigo

  6. Great post. My female MC likes using lavender scented soap so that turns up a couple of times.

    The male MC doesn’t have a distinctive scent. But I think I need to give him one! Thanks 🙂

    • Jemi,

      If I had a dollar for every piece of great advice I read that I wanted/needed to incorporate into my writing, I wouldn’t have to write my manuscript! I only have one MC in all my books that has a scent of her own. So, I should really consider adding to my own writing.

      I guess it’s one thing to know what could and should be done, but another one entirely to do it!


  7. My MC also has a faint lavender smell mixed with rosehips and a hint of leather.

    My husband once spotted me from a long distance across a crowded quad because I tripped over my own feet, something I do constantly. ^_^

  8. Interesting post! I haven’t thought about my MC’s scent before. It sure is something to think about. Thanks for the tip!

    • No prob, Laura.

      Though I doubt this is one of those make it or break it tips. Just one to consider in light of the thousand other ones. Imagine if we tried stuffing every little piece of advice into our manuscripts. There wouldn’t be any room left for the story!

      : ) cat

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