Exploring the Senses: Touch

A series looking at the five senses and how to use them to immerse your characters and reader in a story. This essay deals with touch.

Image Credit: 
© 2017 Epytome / Used With Permission

Touch, taste, smell, sight, sound. Your five senses are an integral part of the way that you understand the world around you. Despite this, they are often neglected in writing. Including the five senses can greatly increase the realism of your writing and create a greater sense of immersion for the reader. In this series of essays, I’ll be looking at ways you can use them all and taking a look at some examples of how others have done it. This first essay will deal with the sense of touch.

Our sense of touch is, arguably, one of the most versatile of the senses. It can alert us to something being amiss, it can bring us untold pleasure or immeasurable pain. Using the different instances of touching can create a much more well-rounded character or story, and allows your reader to know what your character is experiencing through their own memories and experiences of something similar.

Our sense of touch also varies from person to person. For example, the ends of my fingers aren’t particular sensitive because of the damage caused by twenty years of biting my nails, and they’re relatively resistant to heat because of my experiences with cooking. Someone else will have fingers that are much different to mine. It’s important to remember that we also have different areas of our body that are much more sensitive than others. There are the very obvious sensitive areas but it’s much more than that. Someone touching your elbow feels very different to someone touching the bottom of your feet. The sensitivity of these parts also create different responses, and can be used for different narrative purposes.

Imagery for Empathy

Using touch can build a tactile feel of the environment and allow the reader to understand the setting. This can help to build empathy with the relevant character.

I went to sleep before I went to bed,
Especially in the winter when the bed
Might just as well be ice and the clothes snow.

The Witch of Coos by Robert Frost

This extract demonstrates how Frost immerses the reader in a room through the feeling of the cold sheets. It is simple and straight to the point. Instantly you recognise the feeling and it resonates with you. It highlights that our sense of touch doesn’t have to just be what we’re doing with our hands and feet. In humans, the skin is the largest organ we have and any sensation that affects it can add realism and help forge a connection with the reader.

Touch is how we connect with the world on a physical level, and characters do the same. Even in an environment where physical interaction would be non-existent or minimal, in space for instance, there are the interactions with clothing, the hairs on our body or even making use of the absence of physical contact. It all goes towards making a clear picture of the story you are trying to tell.

Relation to Environment

You can also use the sense of touch to give information about the environment your characters are in by showing them, instead of telling.

A burning forehead, and a parching tongue.

Ode to a Grecian Urn by John Keats

Here, Keats creates a very clear picture of the environment the subject is in. Straight away you recognise the feeling and it creates a clear picture in your mind. The simplicity of it, as well, plays a key part in this, too. Our sense of touch is one of the more prominent ways in that we interact with our surroundings. By feeling what is underfoot, feeling the changes in the air on our skin or even simply feeling the temperature, it can be used to create a robust and holistic picture of what’s happening that has an impact on the reader.

Our sense of touch is both incredibly power and also remarkably sensitive. We are capable of picking up tiny changes in the environment around us. Your characters are no different.

Interpretation of Emotion

The sense of touch can also be used as a way of conveying the emotional response of the character.

I watched him, his hard little body, skinny and bare, saw him wince slightly as he pulled up around his vitals the small, soggy, icy garment. As he buckled the swollen belt, suddenly my groin felt the chill of death.

Once More to the Lake by E.B. White

In this piece, White alludes to the characters’ emotional situation by describing what they are physically experiencing at that moment. Through that we, the reader, experience it too and get a sense of what they are feeling. Much like the other extracts I’ve mentioned, this is done through keeping things simple and to the point. By doing it that way, White shows the audience what the characters are going through, and the audience recognises the feelings. Not only does this create a more robust picture of the situation or characters, it does a lot of work towards creating a more robust piece of writing as a whole.

Touch is one of the senses that is often overlooked or underutilised, in my opinion. When we think of touch we think of what we do with our hands or our feet. It includes that, and you should include that in your writing too, but you can show the audience a vibrant and resonating image of whatever it is that you’re trying to tell them by including the sensations that your characters are experiencing.


It’s also worth mentioning that the absence of a sense can be something to note within your writing. It’s quite common to have someone lose their sight or hearing, and these are relatively easy to mimic ourselves to discover how we interact with the world without those senses. Touch, however, is something that is somewhat less common. It’s actually not that hard to experience what it would be like to go without that sense. If you were to allow your hand to go numb, sitting on it is a good way to achieve this, you could try and interact with the world around you to see what sensations you feel or what difference it makes to even the most mundane of tasks.

Describing your character’s senses in general is a good thing to do to add a lot of depth to your scene, your characters and your writing overall. It’s also quite easy to include a healthy amount of touch into whatever you’re writing. Just as you describe someone’s emotions for scenes, you should be including what they are physically experiencing as well.


Next: Hearing

David Chitty was born and raised in Thanet in the 90s. He devotes most of his energies to writing fantasy fiction novels.

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