Inserting all of the senses into your fiction is a must for creating real, solid worlds for your characters to inhabit. Most writers start off having the visuals down pat, and sound is usually a close second. Temperature, taste, and smell soon find their way into descriptions. And when these descriptions are firing on all cylinders they act not only as a portrait of the character experiencing them, but as a windowpane into the world you’ve created.
The only trouble is that, as a perfumer, I notice more often than not that scent descriptions fall flat, or veer into the cliche. As smell is inherently tied to memory, it’s important to keep in mind that how your character reacts to certain aromas says a lot about them. Don’t waste that opportunity by falling back on having the scent of chocolate chip cookies remind someone of mom, or home. You can do better. You can dig deeper.
Maybe mom only made those cookies after a really rough fight with dad, and the scent makes your protag anxious/queasy. You get the idea.
If you’re not into outright subverting tropes (it can be argued that textual awareness of tropes might break immersion for some readers), then you’re going to want to avoid them altogether. While most of us are aware that phrases such as emerald green eyes and flame red hair cross the line into trite, scent descriptions aren’t always as obvious. So, here you go, a list of the most common scent cliches I’ve noticed, why they’re problematic, and suggestions to spruce them up.
Fresh Baked Bread
This one has become writer-shorthand for “homey” or “comforting”. There’s nothing inherently wrong with it, but like the cookies it doesn’t tell us anything about the world, or the character experiencing it. In a fantasy novel, either we’ve just walked into an inn, or a character’s ancestral home. Usually on a farmstead. Often there’s a hearty stew involved, and maybe some ale. You get the picture, because you’ve seen it before. A lot.
The key to avoiding the cliche here, which is going to be true for the rest of these, is to drill down into what information you’re trying to convey to the reader. If your inn is a tumble-down dive bar full of cutthroats, then the warmth of bread isn’t going to convey the right message. But if the inn truly is a safe haven for your character, then focus on something a little more personal to the character. Perhaps the scent of the wax on the bartop, if he used to work in a similar establishment. Or the comforting aroma of real oil lamps after a harried adventure on the road.
If you really must have bread, use it show us a little about the culture. Maybe your protag is surprised that they’re making yeasty bread on a holy day. Perhaps the region’s primary trade good is walnuts, and the locals use it in everything. Oh, and your character is allergic, of course.
Normally I wouldn’t call this one out, I like a good spicy aroma note as much as the next nose, but I’ve seen a persistent shift away from cinnamon to cardamom in the last two or three years, and more often than not it’s being used as shorthand for exoticism, which is problematic.
I love a good spice-heavy scene - the curry-cooking in City of Stairs was brilliant - but when you break out the spice jars, take a moment to think about what connotations those spices might carry and if you could use them to layer meaning. Salt is an obvious one, but did you know some cultures consider cardamom an aphrodisiac? Consider, also, what it takes to get the spices your characters are throwing around. If you’ve got a poor person munching on cinnamon cakes in ancient Greece, I’m going to wonder how he got his hands on something so exorbitantly expensive.
But really, I’m just a little tired about everything in fantasy-land smelling of cardamom. Anise, anyone? How about some basil?
Ahhh, the smell of the sea. Brine, sand, maybe a little seaweed, and that’s about it, usually. Aside from slight variation between tropical and northern shores, most descriptions of the sea and its larger cousin are interchangeable, forgettable. Maybe a writer will break with romanticism for a moment to point out the green sulphur stink of the copious bacteria munching on dying plankton (if you’re unfamiliar with the reek of dimethyl sulfide, visit a salt marsh - you’ll never forget it). But, for the most part, we get brine and maybe a titch of driftwood.
The reality is that any body of water’s aroma is directly tied to the ecosystem living in and around it. Water doesn’t smell of anything. And what does give it its smell is, frankly, kinda’ gross. Whether it’s the bacteria munching on plankton, or the sexy-time chemicals exuded by seaweed, the sea smells the way it does because it’s supporting a vast array of life.
So, how do you make your stinky beach unique? Pull out your scene-camera, and look at what’s surrounding your ocean. If you’re on a beach anywhere near San Francisco, for instance, your air is going to smell strongly of eucalyptus. Examine your local flora and fauna, then extrapolate from there. Don’t lose sight of your character when you do this. If your protag is scared of the kraken, he’s probably not going to be picking up on ‘nice’ smells.
Matriarchs Smell of Flowers
Ageism abounds in the world of fragrance. Children smell of sticky jam, preteens smack strawberry-scented lips, and old ladies douse themselves in lilac and powder. When you’re perfuming your matriarch, sidestep the stereotypes and consider who she is and how she grew up. An avid gardener might be prone to smelling of soil and herbs, while a hobbyist woodworker might smell of cedar, etc..
If you’re set on flower imagery, then consider consulting the Victorian language of flowers to add meaning to the bloom picked. Just be sure to google it to make sure it’s a flower than can be distilled into an essential oil, if your society exists before the invention of aldehydes. Or, better yet, dig into your secondary world and find something meaningful to the cultures you’ve created.
But, if you are writing a historical, be very careful of the perfume conventions of the time period. For example, pre-Chanel No. 5, no proper European or American lady would be caught wearing jasmine, or any white floral.
Sexy Dude Cologne
Usually described only as “expensive”, this one is right up there in the cliche department next to the chocolate chip cookies. Sometimes the sexy dude is even baking the cookies, and then we’ve gone and jumped the shark. In a briny ocean. Ahem, excuse me.
The problem with labeling a man’s cologne as “expensive” and then just moving along is that it’s a missed opportunity. You could tell us a little about the man, and his preferences, by the scent-family of the cologne he wears. I don’t mean that your character has to have a super sniffer. I’m not expecting your protag to take a whiff and say, “Hmm, yes, seaweed fleuressence with a dash of adoxal and ambroxan cetalox for grounding.” But they can at least nail one of the major family groups men’s cologne tend to fall into: musk, spice, citrus, wood, amber, aquatic, green. Those are super general in perfume-land, but they’re a whole lot more telling than “expensive”. Bonus points if your protag can pick out a fragrance note that means something to them personally
This is a strangely common one on the mystery novel scene. Bitter almonds contain quite a lot of cyanide, which means that cyanide poisoning can very rarely be detected by the poisoned person’s breath smelling of bitter almonds.
But there’s a problem. Bitter almonds smell nothing like their cousins, sweet almonds, which we are all familiar with. In fact, the chemical that gives sweet almonds their aroma is more likely to be confused for cherries than cyanide. Unless your character has unique knowledge of cyanide, or bitter almonds, then I’d just avoid the cyanide-sniffing entirely.
I’ve saved, in my opinion, the most egregious cliche for last. Everything that smells is a chemical. Everything. So when I’m reading along with a lush, beautiful story and the protag is approaching a strange, creepy marsh, and then you tell me it smells of chemicals I want to weep. Tell me it smells of petrol, or melting plastic. Give me the sulphurous reek of a salt-marsh, for crying out loud, but if you want to make something smell bad then don’t cop out and say it smells of chemicals. Ack.
I’ll, uh, step off of my soapbox now. If you have a fragrance cliche pet-peeve, please do leave it in the comments.