Synaesthesia, the senses and why characters in books need to smell
I’ve written before about being something of a sensitive bod but I’ve never mentioned except in passing anything to do with synaesthesia. One of the reasons for this is that it’s such a complex subject and is actually little understood. The usual explanation is that the brain gets its wires crossed and therefore some people can smell music, or see numbers as colours, or perceive words as textures. This makes it sound weird and a bit of a problem. It can also make those who do not experience things in this unusual way feel subconsciously that they might just be missing something, or that those who do are freaks. It can be a very emotive subject.
The way that we perceive the world around us is always unique to each person. I went to school with a kid who only discovered at aged 13, in some standard test from the school nurse that he was red/green colour blind. Up until that point, he was under the impression that everyone saw things the way he did. This is an extreme example but I often find myself wondering quite how different someone else’s perception of a thing might be to mine. I can sometimes “see” energy fields. I deliberately tune it out now, because it feels like spying on someone.
My experience of my own form of synaesthesia is not as dramatic as that of many. It tends to work around the sense of smell, and most smells for me have dimensions I can’t always describe. Combinations of smells and words evoke such strong emotional reactions that I can end up feeling faint. Smells often have colours, and sounds that come with them. The scent of rosemary is a silvery-blue, and it comes with a very high note of a hand-bell. Pine oil is brilliant white, usually and is silent. Vanilla. Now vanilla is old gold, velvet(a texture) and the sound of saxophones.
It’s hard to explain that these are not learned associations but something spontaneous. It’s not the case for every smell either, or colour. It’s often random and ridiculous. I will like or dislike a smell based on these reactions. I’d really love one day to visit the Fragonard fragrance museum in Paris and use the scent organ, a collection of essences where you can experience the process of creating a new scent.
One of the things that will draw me most into a book is if it evokes the senses powerfully. I’m not interested in the slightest in mentions of clothing designer brands or shoes, and it might well make me give up as I have no mental image to associate with these things because they never enter my radar. If a writer tells me the heroine is wearing a Gucci dress, all it tells me is she has or has had more money than I’ll ever see in my life. I have no blueprint in my head for what this random fact means except money. But if you tell me as she swept past, the silk of her dress carrying in its rustling wake the odour of Bulgarian roses and a touch of honey and fine herbs, then something in me will sit up and a vivid picture has formed in my head. I can relate to the sound of the dress, and the scent it carries. The names of designers for me are pretty much meaningless, or actually quite negative in their connotations. They put me off reading more because their presence excludes me from the world of that book. I appreciate for many these are names that are familiar and desirable but not for me.
Evoking a world of reactions using well chosen sensory words is very difficult because our reactions to scents especially is very subjective. I had a client when I did reflexology who loathed the scent of lavender; it brought up a lot of emotions that she wasn’t ready to deal with. Yet for most this fragrance brings good images of clean laundry, cosy grandmotherly ladies and old world charm.
When an author names a famous fragrance I also find it hard to connect with if it isn’t one I have actually smelled. Some, like Chanel No.5 have a whole mystique built in around them, so that culturally there is a kind of persona about the perfume that many people may understand. However, this is usually gender specific; I wonder how many guys understand the subtle codes of perfume choices women make. So I don’t find it helpful to be told a character wore a certain perfume as the name alone rarely evokes any response in me.
In my own writing, the only time I have named a perfume a character habitually wears is in an unpublished novel (now published The Bet )where the female main character wears Poison. I chose the perfume with care; I have smelled it, didn’t much like it and I felt that it was a perfume with the right name for the character. Moderately expensive, excessively strong and rather aggressive and the marketing that goes with it is the kind that would appeal to the character.
I do usually know what my characters smell like often before I have got far writing a novel (or indeed a short story) and that scent picture is part of the back story for people. Chloe, best friend to Isobel of Away With The Fairies and due to have her own book out soon, smells of a mixture of jasmine, sandalwood and a hint of potting compost. The scent of jasmine is very much a part of her story, though she doesn’t realise it till much later in the story. The sandalwood is from a battered, old but authentic Buddha made of sandalwood she inherits from her grandmother. The potting compost? Well, she’s a gardener. But I knew what she smelled like before I wrote most of her story.
The characters from Strangers and Pilgrims all had their scent-signature too. Elizabeth, while she was still a nun, smelled of incense (Prinknash Basillica, if anyone knows what that smells like) and freshly ironed linen. Gareth smelled before his breakdown of whichever male fragrance was the most popular. Alex smelled of the tweed jacket he’d bought second-hand and which was impregnated with the scent of pipe tobacco; a non-smoker himself, I always felt he carried that rather comforting whiff of good baccy. Oh and old books, too. Always a good smell on a man, for me. When Ginny borrowed his jumper it smelled of cedarwood (presumably from cedarwood balls it would be stored with to deter moths) All of them carried in my mind a scent, a complex mixture of things that told me so much about who they all were.
It’s also a good technique for introducing things about characters without being obvious about it. Bad breath for example (yes, I know) is sometimes a product of someone not eating properly; ketones can be smelled on the breath. The smell of garlic tells you a lot, too, and if it all comes down to poor dental hygiene, then there’s a whole load of information there too. Certain medical conditions can make smells: a diabetic who is not managing their condition can have breath that smells of over ripe fruit. If someone smells strongly of soap, and in the middle of the day, it might indicate some OCD tendencies.
There’s a whole wealth of powerful non-visual imagery to be used and enjoyed so why stick to what things look like, why not go further and explore the sounds, the scents, the textures and the subtle feelings and tastes. For me this would turn a book into more than a mere tale to while away the idle hours but a sensuous treat of many layers of experience, and mental pleasure.