Synaesthesia, the senses and why characters in books need to smell

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. 

19 thoughts on “Synaesthesia, the senses and why characters in books need to smell

  1. I have been looking forward to this post all week and I have not been disappointed, what a fantastic insight, I agree totally about Poison – gives me migraine and nausea if I’m within 20 feet of it. Thank you so much for sharing this I loved it 🙂


    • Haha. That’s pretty much exactly the effect it has on the poor victimised boy-toy of a husband of the woman who wears it (he’s the main characters for the whole book) and he has to live with it. Glad to have that reaction confirmed.
      And glad that you liked the article and weren’t disappointed after waiting all week!


  2. Given me much to think about. I’ve rarely thought about how my characters smell, unless it has some special importance to the story. Now I see just how much can be shown through the use of all the senses. Thanks!


    • Excellent.
      Of course, when a character is the force that drives a story, how they smell, what they smell is vital to the development of the story.
      Nice to meet you!


  3. Another thoughtful, thought provoking post. I too have a little synaesthesia, (peoples names and smells) I have had ‘some’ light experiences, but I don’t really think they were true synaesthesia. But I agre, as well as having ‘colour’ in a novel/story, smell/scent is very important. I use it. In Quintessence, the smell of the pine forest and even the difference in smell caused by temperature is included. The scent of human skin as well, not perfumed, just natural. I love the smell of human skin. Synaesthesia is a wonderful gift. Like the fellow that could see ultraviolet light after a cataract operation, it opens up a wider, more wonderful world.


    • Quintessence is chock full of scent imagery and very lovely for that.
      I think leaving out a sense can leave a story a bit flat and lifeless.
      and the smell of sun on skin….well if they could capture that, they’d be quids in for aphrodisiacs!


  4. What a wonderful posts. Scent is an incredibly important facet of my world and also my fiction. There is a great possibility of metaphor inherent in scent because it is so intensely interpretive, as you noted. So strongly tied to memory. Both concrete and abstract because it carries not only memories of places, events, people, but also the mood and the dominating emotions of the moment.


    • Thank you.
      I’m glad I seem to be far from alone in both my addiction to fragrance and to it’s uses in literature!
      I once read that centres that deal with abuse etc choose to avoid any sort of fragrance in the counselling rooms because they wish to avoid clients starting to associate memory of a difficult time with a scent. I know for myself that the scent of May blosson used to make me ill with an associated dreadful memory of abuse until my husband very carefully replaced that memory with a beautiful one, also associated with the flowers.
      Good to see you here.


  5. I read quite extensively and I have been noticing the use of fragrance to describe a character more and more. Some of the scents have become somewhat cliche like vanilla or orange blossom which both get used quite often. There are some authors who have created lovely unique scents. I do not have the gift of Synaesthesia, but a scent does evoke imagery and color in my mind, and I too think that bringing this into a novel is a wonderful way to delight the senses of the reader and provide another facet to the characters.


    • I think that often authors use simple familiar scents to make sure than people know them, though I suspect that more people have never smelled orange blosson than have smelled it.
      The tormented young husband in the novel I mention appeals to the woman wearing Poison partly because of his youth and innocence (she likens the smell of his skin to that of a mix of primroses (the smell of very young children) and a muskier more adult hint of nervous perspiration brought about by her pursuit of him)Doubtless pheromones play a huge part.
      Thank you for visting, Tania. Much appreciated.


  6. I’ve always been fascinated by this and wish I had the ability to see the colour of fragrances or words. Smell is one of the most ancient senses, back there in the reptile hindbrain, and scents do conjure very deep and intense memories.
    Synaesthesia is one of the components of a novella that’s free on Kindle today –


    • I have this novel on mine already but haven’t read it yet. I do hope other commenters check it out.
      And yes, to the reptile hindbrain!
      Nice to see you here, Jilly!


  7. Thanks, Viv. Wasn’t sure if you’d allow a link to my book – it’s only short, about 30,000 words.
    And, Jane, I bet you’d find that scent at BPAL*. They do all manner of weird perfumes and I’ve always meant to order a few samples, but I can never choose from the long list!

    *Black Phoenix Alchemy Lab


  8. Thank you for another lovely, thoughtful piece of writing

    Poison was one of a new generation of perfumes have a fixed scent. the body chemistry of the individual witll not change it. I am overpowered by modern, chemical scents – washing powders, deodrants, perfumes. I dread someone smelling of something strongly coming to sit by me on the train, even worse on the bus.

    I have some synaesthesic experiences, they make so much sense [notes the word sense] but are hard to communicate.

    From my recent studies it seems that synaesthesi is NOT a malfunction but how everyone experiences the world through a mixture of senses: eating crisps involves sound too, and we can be fooled into thinking crisp crisps are not crisp. It just isn’t always obvious, as it is part of the smooth running of experiencing the world. But yes it does seem odd when say letters match colours, I’d say that was just the normal system getting a little carried away! I often think in form, texture and colour and I think that is part of a synaesthesia.

    Currently I am reading a wonderful book that I saw reviewed in New Scientist: Season to taste by Molly Birnbaum. She lost her sense of smell in an accident, whilst training to be a chef. Science and her personal story are beautifully woven together.

    My reading experience is always more enjoyable if the writer attends so all the senses!


  9. This is a really valuable post, reminding us FORCIBLY that our perceptions of the world are unique. Something that, as writers, we need to be constantly aware… so if we are particularly visual, we need to understand that others use smells and sounds more intensively to define the world and their role in it… Thank you.


  10. As a synaesthete I can totally relate. Letters, words and numbers have their different colours and sounds. If I look at an intensely blue sky I hear a low-pitched musical hum, whereas other colours have their individual tones and vibrations.


  11. Pingback: Time Travel and Necromancy: the easy way. | Zen and the art of tightrope walking

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