This post is all about your nose. Might seem like a weird focus of fantasy world building, but I’m all about that detail.

As fantasy world builders we spend so much time describing the weird and wonderful places we’ve created, from palaces to castles, to taverns to caves. A common mistake is to focus only on the big elements of world, with some of the finer details left to vagueness.

I could go on and on about all the different things we tend to leave out, but today, I want to talk specifically about smell. Smell isn’t a thing you can picture in your mind, it’s not a big fancy castle, it’s not a setting where all the action happens. It’s just a little thing but it can be a big thing in making your world feel real.

Using your senses in writing

A common piece of writing advice is to make use of all your senses. Don’t just describe what you can see and hear, describe what you can feel, taste, smell too. This is useful advice in any type of writing. As long as you want your reader immersed in your story, it doesn’t matter whether you’re writing fantasy, a gritty crime novel or a romance.

In fantasy, we have to work extra hard to make the world feel immersive because…well none of it is real. If we can get a reader to picture a vivid world in their mind, then we’ve done our job right. But if we can get them to imagine they’re standing in the same spot as the character, experiencing all the same things, then hopefully they’ll want to stay there in our fantasy land long enough to finish the book and maybe pick up the next one and have fun doing so.

What your world smells like seems like a very small thing to concentrate on, but it’s not that difficult to incorporate. If it’s something that you think you’re likely to forget, it might be worth adding some notes to a Story Bible (or building one if you don’t already have one).

Try listing all the locations you’ll be showing in your story, from cities to buildings and make some notes about what you see, feel, hear, taste or smell when you walk into it. This doesn’t have to take too long but when you’re stuck on what to write and how to describe something, you can always consult these notes.

For ideas on smells, you could hop over to your nearest city/village/town and take note of how everything smells. Just be sure not to stand in the middle of the street sniffing the air, because then you’ll looking creepy as fuck. Writers are already weird enough, we don’t need everyone else knowing.

What does your fantasy world smell like and why is it important?

Your will help to create an immersive experience

The main benefit of using sensory descriptions is that it does more than simply paint a picture. It helps to bring the reader more into the story and to create an immersive experience. This is something we should all be striving for in any kind of fiction, but especially in fantasy. We need readers to believe the story.

Tell us about the world

Smell should be one of those things you include whenever you introduce a new place like when a character travels somewhere new. If you come across a new smell, you tend to notice it straight away.

Different places will have very distinctive smells. If you character visits a big city, what can they smell? Sewage? Bread? Rotting meat? This gives some very clear images already of what type of city it is.

Tell us about the characters

When describing what a character can smell, you can also tell us a bit about the character themselves.

For example, you can show disgust at a particular smell, you can invoke childhood memories with a familiar smell and lead into a description about that too.

You can even talk about class differences and this can tell you more about a character. For example, a person who has lived in a palace their whole lives probably doesn’t experience the smell of sewage or rotting meat all that much. So if they do one day, you can describe their disgust or surprise.

A poor person won’t necessarily recognise the smell of expensive oils, fine wine, flowers and so on. Maybe your poor character who hasn’t eaten in days can smell bread a mile away. Maybe they can taste it in the air.

The things you smell in a rich part of town are different from a poor part. I come from a poor area. There I might smell cheap beer and cigarettes. In a rich area, I can smell freshly cut grass instead.

Avoid the lazy descriptions

If smell is something you don’t usually include in your work, like me, you might be tempted to fall into the trap of lazy descriptions. These are the kind of descriptions that we’ve all read a thousand times before. Some examples:

  • A man smelling of sandalwood. What is it about fictional men and sandalwood?
  • The “coppery scent of blood”. Everyone says that and I don’t think blood even smells of copper.

Another thing is to throw smells in where they don’t make sense or not mention smells at all. If your character visits an old medieval-style city, they’re not going to smell only roses and freshly baked bread. The city is probably going to smell pretty bad due to the lack of sewage systems and the overall poor hygiene. If this is the case, let the reader know about it. Even the gross stuff, especially the gross stuff.

Anyway, thanks for coming to my TED Talk about smell guys. I hope it helped and you’ve not read this and think I’ve gone mad. Hope it helps.

Do you make an effort to include sensory information in your writing or fantasy world? Can you think of a good example of a time when you felt immersed in a novel because of sensory writing?

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