Sensory Psychology Chart for Fiction Writers

This post and chart, developed and written by me, originally debuted on Manon Eileen’s blog.

As fiction authors, most of us are familiar with the countless Character Questionnaires, Worksheets, and Surveys. These can help us get to know our characters better, and add depth and believability to our characters’ appearances, personalities, and motives.

But what happens after you’ve developed your characters? You still need to show them reacting to each other as seeing, hearing, feeling, tasting, and smelling (the stuff real people do) individuals. A sensory chart showing how your characters perceive each other, and how your characters perceive their environments, can help you make your characters more “human.”

Why a “sensory chart”?

Our senses- for most of us: seeing, hearing, feeling, tasting and smelling- are what connects us to people, to the world, and to our own bodies. From birth, our senses develop before we learn to speak, play, work, and use logic and reason. Our senses are our primal survival guides, and influence everything we do, including how we interact psychologically and physically with other people. “Sensory psychology” is the study of how the internalization of specific sights, sounds, touches, tastes, and smells influences a person’s reaction to an environment. Using a sensory chart is an approach to developing “palpable” character interactions, using all 5 senses (though smell and taste may overlap).

Consider these examples:

Sight- Love at first sight. Being repulsed (or excited) by the sight of war.

Sound- Dancing to a favorite song. Hearing your name called in a noisy room.

Touch- A lover’s caress. The slap of a hand.

Taste (usually self-referential)- Comfort food. Bile in the mouth.

Smell- The intoxicating smell of a lover’s perfume. The nauseating smell of body odor.

By expanding on these sensory examples, and drawing on some of your own examples, you can customize the ways your characters have unique interactions with each other.

# # #

This chart will help you develop your characters and their interpersonal relationships via sensory-based psychology:

CHARACTER 1

CHARACTER 2

ETC…

SEE

Other characters’ perspectives.

This character’s perspective.

Other characters’ perspectives.

This character’s perspective.

Other characters’ perspectives.

This character’s perspective.

HEAR

Other characters’ perspectives.

This character’s perspective.

Other characters’ perspectives.

This character’s perspective.

Other characters’ perspectives.

This character’s perspective.

FEEL

Other characters’ perspectives.

This character’s perspective.

Other characters’ perspectives.

This character’s perspective.

Other characters’ perspectives.

This character’s perspective.

TASTE

Other characters’ perspectives.

This character’s perspective.

Other characters’ perspectives.

This character’s perspective.

Other characters’ perspectives.

This character’s perspective.

SMELL

Other characters’ perspectives.

This character’s perspective.

Other characters’ perspectives.

This character’s perspective.

Other characters’ perspectives.

This character’s perspective.

How the heck do I use that chart?

After listing your characters in the top row and the senses in the left column, for each of the remaining boxes, choose one or a few examples of the appropriate sensory focus when describing the character, (as the character would appear to an observer) and one or a few examples of the appropriate sensory focus that the character would regularly experience internally (either positively or negatively).

In my opinion, choosing the sensory attributes for your characters is easier after you start to writing your story, rather than before. If you get stuck on some of the boxes, simply write more of your story, or look at the other boxes to see what could be complimentary or contradictory for the story.

# # #

Here’s a full chart example, using my own WIP:

PETRA (phone sex operator & biological template)

RAY

(inventor)

RAMONA (artificial intelligence)

ADELAIDE (entomologist & motivational speaker)

AUBREY (life extentionist)

ALICIA

(reverend)

SEE

Petra and her usual environ. look like- disheveled, broken high heel, Drambuie

————-

Petra focuses on- coins on the ground, expensive clothes on others

Ray and his usual environ. look like- soft face, blinky eyes, computer equipment, crowds

————-

Rays focuses on- robots, his own business products

Ramona and her usual environ. look like- tilting, bobbing, weaving

————-

Ramona focuses on- holograms, robots, sexy women

Adelaide and her usual environ. look like- flannel, baggy pants, boots

————-

Adelaide focuses on- bugs as an entomologist

Aubrey and her usual environ. look like- pubs, Guinness

————-

Aubrey focuses on- pubs, sexy people

Alicia and her usual environ. look like- vivid colors against a dark interior, metallics, candles

————-

Alicia focuses on- halos, auras

HEAR

Petra sounds like- blasphemy

————-

Petra focuses on-phones ringing

Ray sounds like- “That’s reasonable”

————-

Ray focuses on- buzzing, whirring

Ramona sounds like- buzzing, whirring, “I’m learning”

————-

Ramona focuses on- buzzing, whirring

Adelaide sounds like- a pirate, cursing

————-

Adelaide focuses on- surf & waves crashing (imaginary)

Aubrey sounds like- stuttering, “How ‘bout a beer?”

————-

Aubrey focuses on- classic German music (Guinness association)

Alicia sounds like- prayers, “Amen”

————-

Alicia focuses on- other-worldly sounds

FEEL

Petra physically feels (to others)- muscular, esp. calves (from high heels)

————-

Petra physically feels (herself)- her feet in high heels (comfortable)

Ray physically feels (to others)- soft, smooth

————-

Ray physically feels (himself)- heat, electricity

Ramona physically feels (to others)- warm, electric

————-

Ramona physically feels (herself)- electrical charge

Adelaide physically feels (to others)- pudgy, squishy

————-

Adelaide physically feels (herself)- al dente food (Italian food connoisseur)

Aubrey physically feels (to others)- wiry, sinewy, strong

————-

Aubrey physically feels (herself)-padding of chairs and bar stools (gluteus minimus)

Alicia physically feels (to others)- billowy muumuus

————-

Alicia physically feels (herself)- comfy chairs (sits & prays a lot)

TASTE

Petra tastes like- fruit (she’s vegan & a messy eater)

————-

Petra focuses on- expensive liquor

Ray tastes like- chemical supplements

————-

Ray focuses on- metal, chemicals

Ramona tastes like- metal

————-

Ramona focuses on- ions

Adelaide tastes like- marinara, sweat (overweight & hot-blooded)

————-

Adelaide focuses on- garlic

Aubrey tastes like- alcohol, beer, sweat (exercise)

————-

Aubrey focuses on- yeast, malt, vinegar (fond of fermented food)

Alicia tastes like-flowers (douses with floral water)

————-

Alicia focuses on- herbal tea

SMELL

Petra smells like- Drambuie, cheap perfume

————-

Petra focuses on- cooking crack

Ray smells like- chemical supplements

————-

Ray focuses on- ether, over-heating wires

Ramona smells like- ether, over-heating wires

————-

Ramona focuses on- chemical supplements

Adelaide smells like- sweat (overweight & hot-blooded)

————-

Adelaide focuses on- salt air

Aubrey smells like- beer, sweat (exercise)

————-

Aubrey focuses on- beer

Alicia smells like- flowers & incense

————-

Alicia focuses on- flowers

For example, in the box for “PETRA” + “SEE,” I list Petra’s main and / or distinguishing characteristics which are externally observed by another person through sight in the top part of the box. In the bottom part of the box, I list what Petra usually or characteristically observes herself through sight.

# # #

Tips:

  1. At start of your story, add a few details gleaned from your completed chart. As your story progresses, repeat some of these details in meaningful places.
  2. In the case of love interests or obsessive relationships, you could fill in some of the boxes to “match” characters. For example, Ray particularly enjoys the smell of ether, and is attracted to Ramona, who smells like ether.
  3. Conversely, in the case of enemies or antagonistic relationships, you could fill in some of the boxes to “mismatch” characters. For example, Petra particularly dislikes the smell of chemicals (cooking crack) and is aggravated by Ray, who smells like chemicals (supplements).
  4. Or you could show conflict by and irony by showing Petra’s attraction to Ray in spite of disliking the sight, sound, etc of Ray. Or a Petra could dislike Ray in spite of being attracted to the sight, sound, etc of Ray.
  5. Don’t try to make your chart too “matched up,” or your characters will seem formulaic and programmed. Let your characters develop organically.
  6. If a character is disabled- for example, is blind or deaf- use this chart to discover how their remaining senses are enhanced and amplified.
  7. Using senses to show interactions between characters adds immediacy and strength to your scenes, but don’t overdo it. Not every scene needs to be dripping with sensory detail. Use your completed chart as a guideline for suggested sensory details only when those details will move your story forward.

# # #

Feel free to use this Sensory Psychology Chart as you see fit for enhancing your own characters’ interactions in your own novels. The chart may be altered, copied, printed and shared. If shared, an attribution would be appreciated.

# # #

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8 Comments

  1. Very cool! My little geek brain is very happy with your chart – it’s a great idea. Thanks for sharing! 🙂

    Reply
    • You’re welcome! And if you like lists as much as charts, wait until you see my character questionnaire I’m debuting at the end of next month. It just goes on and on . . 😉

      Reply
  2. Wow! Excellent resource. Thanks so much for sharing it with us!

    Reply
  3. Wow, great work! 🙂 You’ve put a lot of effort into this. I think these things are important to have in mind, but I’ve never seen them organised like this before.

    Reply
  4. While I’ve always jumped in and written without considering things many others do (in part, because I’m lazy and don’t like doing so much work up front 🙂 ), I usually have a scrap piece of paper with a few points like this. Your chart totally crushes my puny scrap paper (that usually ends up missing somewhere along the way.)

    This is something I’d actually use because how characters see themselves — and others — is a big thing. So thanks for coming up with this…it’s a very cool thing!

    Reply
    • Glad to help! 🙂 BTW I’m *very* good at misplacing pieces of of paper- scraps, pages, even whole notebooks. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve filled out character charts, exercises, and questionnaires, only to frantically hunt for them a day later. Like I’m hunting for misplaced diamonds. lol My continuing goal is to figure out how to not do this.

      Reply

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