We all know that first impressions count. And the same is true for our characters.
Finding that balance between too much physical detail (which prevents a reader from using their own imagination) and too little detail (height, hair and eye colour may be too generic and not individual enough) can be tricky.
It’s also important to realise that it is not just about a character’s physical appearance. To give those first reader/character moments real impact, a writer also needs to establish a character’s physical presence.
Which is where sense memory comes in.
Using sense memory allows an author to go beyond a character’s superficial physical appearance and to delve deeper into the essence of their character – to tap into their emotional core.
What is ‘sense memory’?
‘Sense memory’ is the effect of a character’s emotional and life experiences captured or expressed in their physicality.
How does sense memory work?
Just as our bodies reflect our physical lifestyles, so too they also mirror our emotional experiences and general outlook on life. Therefore, the main question is ‘Why is the character’s body memory the way it is?’
Take the following example:
Let’s start with the barest amount of character information:
‘The elderly man walked down the road.’
This sets up the basic image for the reader, but it gives us no clue whatsoever as to the old man’s character, or, indeed, tells us anything about who he is.
Next step, let’s look at physical appearance only:
‘The elderly man walked down the road. Of average height, he was of slim build with a shock of white hair.’
This tells us more: we now know what he looks like, but the question remains, does the character description tell us who this man is? No? Well, let’s push it even further and introduce a smidgen of sense memory into our description:
‘The elderly man walked down the road. Of average height and slim build with a shock of white hair, he moved slowly, hunching his shoulders forward with each laboured step.’
The man’s forward-hunching shoulders is a small detail, which piques a reader’s interest because, as well as describing his outward appearance, it gives us some idea of the kind of man we are dealing with: what sort of character he might be.
Physical and emotional impact
Suddenly this elderly man becomes more noticeable. He’s no longer just one old man walking down the road; he’s an old man with a history, and a life; an old man who over time has learned to brace himself against adversity and somehow still keep pushing forward down the road. And, as readers, we now want to know more.
What has happened to that man in his lifetime? What has he experienced emotionally over the years to shape him in such a physical way?
Sense memory can act as a useful emotional shortcut to your character for your readers, creating maximum emotional impact and allowing your character to hook reader interest in a few short sentences. In other words, sense memory makes it possible for all your characters, main or otherwise, to make an immediate and lasting first impression.
Creating and exploring new characters
It’s also a great way of creating and exploring new characters. For example, why not follow the elderly man’s sense memory story and see where it takes you? You may well find yourself in some very interesting places.