Story Bite 19: Building Character Through Sensory Details

Sensory details—of smell, taste, sight, and sound—make a scene come alive and can also make a character feel real. Thinking about sensory details and how someone reacts to them tells you a lot about that person. So even though this may feel like a post on descriptive writing, it’s really about digging deep into who your character really is and showing that through things like…fruit.

Here’s our inspirational image:

Strawberries, brambleberries, and raspberries from the Tay Valley, sold in the Stockbridge Market, Edinburgh, Scotland. Photo: Diane Magras

The pictured berries from the Tay Valley in Scotland and are the best berries I’ve ever tasted. I don’t know if it’s the peat or the moss that flavors the water or if it’s the soil, but I’ve never eaten berries so sweet and with such distinct flavors as these. When a character has a memory of something like this—the best berries they’ve ever eaten—it could well turn into a defining moment. Let’s explore where such sensory details could lead us.

1.  Decide what kind of reaction you want your character to have related to these berries: a positive or a negative one.

Either one could do this job. You could use your sensory details to create tension or to build a sense of security. Think about the feeling you want to convey.

2. Make a list of what made the memory either positive or negative.

Positive: What made your character happy? Were they at home, or on vacation, when they ate these berries? Did they pick them in a garden or just enjoy from a bowl at someone’s house? (Whose house? A grandmother’s?) Who are the people they shared these berries with, or did they eat all the berries themselves? Were the berries served on a special occasion, or were they were simply a small beauty of everyday life, something that made the world feel normal and safe?

Negative: What made your character feel bad? Did these berries come from hard work picking in a field? Does the taste of a berry remind your character of the pressures they felt as an immigrant, or of fear of bias or violence? (Many of our farm workers in both the U.S. and Scotland are immigrants or temporary residents from other countries and, sadly, are not always treated with the respect and kindness they deserve for their expert and important work.)  Did someone shout at your character before they tasted one? Was your character supposed to eat the berries? Does the taste of these berries comfort your character in any way, or haunt them?

3. Describe the berries—and your character.

Write about the scent (and any other scene in the room or field), the taste, the sounds around your character as they eat, and what your character sees. Base all of this on what you wrote before. What is your character’s reaction to eating the berries? What is the reaction of the people around them?

A scene like this can help your reader understand your character a bit more. It provides a window into your character and their joys or fears while setting the scene. If you want, you can even add backstory—the taste of the berries in the present make your character remember the taste of berries in a scene from the past and the mood and situation of that time. Sensory details don’t have to be just ribbons on your story but essential parts of the fabric (and they can still be ribbons).

Further Directions:

If you’d like to share your story bite with me, please submit it through your teacher or with your school email address or home email address and include: your first name, grade, school’s name (or “homeschooled”), town, and state.

Teachers: if your make story bites part of a lesson, please let me know how it went. And share them! I’d love to see your students’ work.

2 Responses to “Story Bite 19: Building Character Through Sensory Details”

  1. :Donna

    Who would’ve thought berries could spark so much? 😀 And are brambleberries the same as blackberries? Sure looks like it!

    • Diane

      Brambleberries are a very similar kind of berry as blackberry, though they’re softer, a bit smaller, and much sweeter (at these were) than traditionally large blackberries you find at the grocery store (and much bigger, much softer, and a bit sweeter than the wild blackberries I’ve been lucky enough to have around my home). I’ve never seen them in the U.S. and I’ve seen both blackberry and brambleberry jam in Scotland, so I think they’re a wee bit different.


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