Posted by: kshayes513 | October 22, 2010

What Does Your World Smell Like?

Thanks to air fresheners, deodorant, and heavy duty household cleaners, we modern folks have managed to remove nearly all odors  from our environments.  Most of us are now intolerant of even relatively mild natural smells, such as human sweat and clean animal smells.

How does the world smell if you're a dog with 3 noses? Image: Warner Bros.

Before Dow Chemical and others sold us on the idea that we never have to smell anything but Glade or Febreze, people were surrounded by odors, scents and fragrances. Perfumes and natural oil fragrances were used just to mask the odors of people who didn’t necessarily bathe or wash their clothes more than a few times a year. Herbal sachets might help mask the scent of the river just a few blocks away, that was little more than an open sewer for the city. If you lived in the country, the chances were that you and your livestock shared the same building, maybe even the same large room on cold winter nights.

In any non-industrial world, such as the traditional fantasy, smells should therefore be an essential part of the landscape. You can use this to advantage in your story, if you recall that smell is the sense most closely linked to memory in humans. A specific smell can transport your mind back to a long-ago place and a moment in time, far more completely than any photo or video.

But let’s not assume that that people in medieval fantasy type societies are always being overwhelmed by nasty odors. Even your sheltered modern nose needs only minutes to accustom itself to all but the most penetrating smells.  If your characters’ job is cleaning the sewers of Ankh-Morpork, they will scarcely notice the stench that makes other citizens reel (partly because they’re most likely trolls!). If they are grooms in the stables of Edoras, they might even think a clean horse in a clean stall smells pretty good.

The definition of a good or bad smell is often just a matter of expectations. I know a fellow dog owner who just can’t understand why I don’t take my dog to the groomer at least a couple of times a month for a bath. She likes her dog to smell like shampoo. I like my dog (who keeps herself very clean) to smell like a dog.  If your character is a dog, or a doggy skinwalker/shapeshifter, she might relish the smell of stinky dead things, just the way any dog loves those smells enough to roll in them.

How much your characters can smell will also depend on what kind of creatures they are. A species based on birds probably won’t care much about smell, because birds don’t have much in the way of a nose. Your doggy shapeshifter, on the other hand, will be able to sort out every smell in her environment- and that’s a level of physical detail at least as complex as any visual description.

How does your society feel about smells in general? I just gave two examples: “smells must be banished,” and “smells are part of life, can’t do much about them.” You can surely think of many other ways to consider smells in your world. Maybe smells have social or religious significance. Maybe they’re a way to communicate status, mood or situation, non-verbally. Maybe they are completely banned and even a fart can get you fined or jailed. You figure it out!

Thanks to fellow worldbuilder and new visitor Cynthia Echterling for this theme; in a LinkedIn discussion she shared her pet peeve of medieval fantasy novels that don’t have smells!

And a small calendar note: today is WBR’s third anniversary! Happy Birthday to us! (but I’m much happier today about other things, such as the announcement that Martin Freeman will be playing Bilbo in The Hobbit!)


  1. Aw shucks, thanks! I have human characters arguing over which over ripe fruit a certain alien smells like and another alien who definitely smells like Christmas. They prefer their humans to smell like soap rather than meat.

  2. They like to eat soap? Nawwww, I don’t wanna know! at least not until I’m reading about them in your stories.

    I owe you double thanks, actually, because writing the post gave me a great idea for a new story.

  3. I think the accurate question is “How does a three-headed dog smell?”

    And the answer is “Terrible.”

  4. LOL! And welcome, Kevin!
    Esteemed readers, may I introduce Kevin Hosey, Publisher at Cliffhanger Books, Editor of Paramourtal and the forthcoming Gods of Justice, and writer of wickedly funny advertising copy. [Applause]

  5. Of course, for those of us with allergies, a fragrance can smell like a headache in the making! Or dizziness. I’ve also long valued smell because of its strong ties with memory. So in the presence of a strong fragrance, one character is relaxing into a happy memory, while another is stifling a gag reflex! And if you’re going cross-species, it can get even more interesting!

    Happy Birthday, WBR! Ones of these days, you should give me the data and I can cast a chart for the Web site!

  6. […] What Does Your World Smell Like?:  This will help you incorporate smells into your story.  I don’t think smells come naturally to most first-world authors because we don’t encounter many on a daily basis.  That’s okay if you’re writing a story set exclusively in a sterile lab or a vacuum tube, but if you’re not, here’s some ideas about what you’re missing.  […]

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