If a smell can trigger a memory, then a touch can trigger an immediate reaction. Our vocabulary is rich in words that are repellent merely from their association with touch – moist slithers to mind. But the opposite is true – words like caress can conjure romance, magic and more. The anticipation of touch can be even worse – does the reader know what is in store for the character?

I’ll start with anticipation, for there lies the madness of will he/won’t she? Movies perhaps show this well, for instance the floor of broken glass Bruce Willis must travel over in bare feet in Die Hard 2. The universal cringe of actor and audience when he realises what’s ahead – and that heroic moment when he takes that first step. There is a lot of power in that decision – another sort of character may step away from the task. But it can also be anticipation of the unknown. Here, the scene in Flash Gordon where they had to put their hands in a hollow tree filled with poisonous creatures as a test of bravery. The tunnel scene in Indiana Jones 2, where she had to put her hand into mucus and face crawling insects to reach her prize.  I challenge anyone not to squirm watching that scene.

So from those scenes, you can develop your character from their reactions and fears. Will they face a fear? Or faint and need rescuing? Has the author foreshadowed it enough so there is a delicious sense of anticipation when the character does have to face the horror?

Or is it a surprise? The blob of mucus (there is that word again) dripping from the jaws of a dinosaur onto a boys head and their slow looking up into the face of terror, from Journey to the Centre of the Earth (Brendan Fraser version). Will there be instant death (Jurassic Park style) or adventure or even a moment of trans species communication? Heinlein in ‘StarBeast’ and Norton in ‘The Zero Stone’ handle this sort of encounter well. A more recent example is SE Sasaki and her excellent Grace series, (“Grace and Bud” series (https://www.amazon.com/S.E.-Sasaki/e/B01775X0UW/) with the awesome plant thing.

But let us return to repellent touch. A quick and dirty search reveals the word moist is repellent due to its association with bodily functions we generally avoid, and also because the face you make when you say it triggers a level of disgust. Or it could be just an internet phase. In general however, things that make you shiver – cold, damp, slime, or are repulsive and associated with sickness –  vomit, mucus, phlegm, are going to be great images to use. RE Howard was a big user of the slithery slimy unseen thing in the darkness. But think also the dripping acid slime in Aliens – that never failed to make viewers anticipate something baaad was going to happen.

A warm touch is more of a fever association, and this too can give a warning of danger, of illness and plague. Or something worse – in the Hornblower series (CS Forester) he rests his hand on the forehead of his restless firstborn, and feels lumps, like small shot pellets under the skin. Knowledge is his – the child has smallpox – and we are drawn into the world of pain when he realises he is helpless to prevent his child dying.

But moving on, it is not all gruesome and full of yuck. A feathery caress from an unacknowledged love, the merest brush of fingertips and the world has shrunk down to the intensity of first love, of a passion that blinkers us to the rest of the world. Yet the two characters quiver with a passion that they must restrain, must contain, and above all not reveal to the rest of the world. What will be the difference in later years – will the burning of first love die into blows? Or the brush of dry lips on a cold cheek? Will they compensate with the soft skin of a child, or the comforting coldness of a glass of ale? Or will the love continue into old age, with the caress noticing the softness of skin fallen into wrinkles, but still beloved?

Touch is such an important part of being human that it is said your lifespan is shortened by its lack. So use it well in writing, for it is a powerful way to touch the very heart of your reader.

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Worldbuilding: Touch what?
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2 thoughts on “Worldbuilding: Touch what?

  • September 23, 2018 at 08:32
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    Thank you for another interesting and well written post. You are so right about touch, and how it can be effective in narrative. I tend not to use this particular sense, except in a very general way – mainly to attract attention. But you show its wide dramatic possibilities. I did once write an episode where a character feels wind on his face and thinks abut the farm paddocks of his childhood. I suppose that’s something.
    Anyway, a post well worth reading. Thank you again.

    • September 23, 2018 at 11:53
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      Thank you for reading, much appreciated.

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