Romance novels are known for lavish character descriptions. Flowing and highly detailed, many writers love pointing out the smallest and most specific details about a character's appearance—especially those of the love interests. There's a joke I've seen pop up on more than one occasion about how men in romance novels often smell like trees and wood. In my romances, that's definitely true.
But why do writers pay so much attention to the way a character smells?
The sense of smell is perhaps the most evocative, and it's one that writers rely on heavily when bringing readers into a new setting. Describing the scent of freshly cut grass in a suburb or the smell of fish at a market is often an opportunity to dive into the characters' experiences as they navigate their surroundings and, thus the experience of the reader.
Fragrances can say a lot about your story's setting, but they can also say a lot about the characters populating it.
Small details aren't anything to sneeze at, so let's talk about why writers might include details about the way a character smells.
A Whiff Of Symbolism
Many writers love to weave little bits of symbolism throughout their work, and doing so often adds layers of depth to their writing. Researching the meanings and common associations of various scents can emphasize themes and characteristics throughout your narration.
If your protagonist's love interest is sweet by nature, she might favor a floral perfume. Getting more specific, you might choose a rose scent because the flower is frequently associated with romance or daisies because they are said to symbolize innocence.
Exploring scents recommended or associated with the shy and sweet type or the extroverted and sassy can help you determine which you may feel best suit your character.
Perceptions In Perfumes
With character scents in fiction, it's not always about what a character smells like, but what that says about them.
Writers use all kinds of little details to drop hints about their character's personalities and what may be going on behind the scenes or what is to come. These bits can come in a wide variety including color motifs, repeated mannerisms, frequently used phrases, and so on.
These subtle cues can influence how a character is viewed by the audience or show change over time. For example, Disney has a habit of incorporating green tones in their villains, especially in their most wicked and diabolical moments.
Scents can also be used in this fashion.
Axe body spray—especially in abundance—is often associated with high school locker rooms, so describing a character as having a cloud of the stuff surrounding him likely implies his age is somewhere in adolescence. Your character's estranged relationship with their grandmother might result in an aversion to the smell of mint and avoiding it where possible because it reminds them of the bowl of stale hard candy sitting on her coffee table. A character might start wearing a stronger perfume around her crush, or maybe change shampoo after overhearing him say he doesn't like the smell of strawberries.
Contrarily, someone a character is not that interested in might come with a smell deemed unfavorable or over-abundant. Someone trying too hard to gain the affection of their crush might douse themselves in cologne. If there's a character that you as the author really do not want anyone to like, you might assign them a stench that causes the reader's nose to crinkle upon reading the description of it.
When you have a specific impression you want your characters to have on your readers or subtle things to sneak into your writing, scents may be the thing to help your reader sniff out the details.
Up Close And Personal
So much of the build-up throughout a romance novel or a story where there is a romantic subplot at play is the love interests getting close to one another, both emotionally and physically.
From afar, a protagonist may gaze upon the mannerisms of their love interest or basic details you could see from a distance such as clothing or their hair.
As they get closer, these details become more precise. There might be comments about the flecks of gold in their hazel eyes, the freckles on their nose, or likening their hair to cinnamon. It's here that the writer might also describe how that character smells.
If the protagonist is drawing a long breath to steady their nerves as a pretty lady or handsome gentleman is, they might catch a whiff of the perfume or cologne they're wearing. In a more intimate scenario, there might be a heady musk as they become entangled with one another.
In most scenarios, a person's scent is something you won't notice unless you're close to them. Including it among other details can help create a feeling of intimacy between your characters and your reader looking on.
Scents Of Time
For writers working with a historical setting, the sense of smell can be a way to bring their readers back in time. This may include describing the aroma of a dish at a dinner party or the stench of an alleyway in a village.
What your characters smell can say a lot about their place in time, as can what your characters smell like.
Perfume has been used for centuries, and tastes and trends have evolved countless times throughout history. Knowing what fragrances are "in" or available in your story's time period can enhance your writing.
A character living during the Renaissance probably wouldn't be wearing Chanel No. 5. They might, however, smell of amber or musk.
In my case, you'll find my characters' signature scents includes bergamot and lavender as these were popular during the Regency Era. Those of the upper class could also commission custom scents made especially for them from perfumers such as Floris of London.
Exploring the scents that were popular in your story's time period can be among the elements that brings it to life.
Business and Pleasure
While we tend to choose our perfumes and colognes based on personal preferences, there are some scents we may carry without making a deliberate choice.
Our everyday lives might have us picking up scents without our realization, and it's here you can tell readers a little more about your characters' goings-on.
Your character's profession might influence their scent.
A mechanic may smell like the oils and grease embedded in a garage. Someone who works in a barn or stable may smell like hay or have boots that smell like the animals inhabiting it. The scent of sawdust may linger with a carpenter.
In Bound to the Heart, I mention Zach sometimes smells of oak. This is because he frequently makes and works with inks at the bookshop with a recipe using Aleppo galls.
This idea can also extend into the character's hobbies.
A character who smokes might have the smell of tobacco lingering in their clothes. If they love baking, they might have forgotten to brush off a bit of cinnamon or flour. Those who hit the beach every weekend might smell of sunscreen—or aloe if they forgot to apply sunscreen!
It's these little details that add so much to your characters, giving them dimension and making them feel more realistic to your readers. Consider what your characters do for work and fun, and what smells might be associated with those ventures.
Setting the scene with scents makes sense to most writers, but describing the way your characters smell can seem like a strange detail to include.
Whether it's perfume, cologne, or something else, it has the potential to offer insights into their personality and their life as well as the world around them.
If you want your readers to have their nose stuck in your book, give them a story that is not only vivid in its descriptions, but fragrant.