What to do with the fear of writing the other
There are a group of people who see (hear, taste, smell…) things very differently to me. I am fascinated by them because of this difference. I can never know what it is truly like to be them, but I want to write a character like them.
The phenomenon that fascinates me is synesthesia (American English) or synaesthesia (British English). The word comes from the Greek, syn meaning union and aesthesis meaning sensation. Someone with this extraordinary ability has a crossover between their senses. For example, they may see sounds as colours, or particular letters and numbers in colours, or they may experience taste or smells visually. There are many different forms.
This may sound crazy to those who don’t experience the world this way. Sounds don’t have colours for me, so how can I understand when you say that they do for you. But that is the reason why I am fascinated by it. It exemplifies a very important principle.
Don’t assume that your way of experiencing the world is the only one.
It is not as uncommon as you might expect. I’ve never knowingly met anyone with synesthesia, yet it is very likely I have. The estimates for how common it is vary from 1 in 25,000 (0.004%) to 1 in 20 (5%).
Of course someone with this ability may not have revealed it precisely because they were not likely to be understood. From reading and listening to accounts of synesthetes, they probably didn’t realise that there was anything different about them until it was pointed out to them. Until that point they just thought everyone experienced the world the same way they did.
There appears to be a genetic component to the condition, in that children of synaesthetes are more likely to be one. But the children do not necessarily have exactly the same associations as a parent.
Focussing on grapheme colours, where particular letters and numbers are seen in colour, there is a tendency for C to be seen as yellow and O as white. This may be due to the shape of the letters. But this is not universal amongst grapheme colour synaesthetes, and we should not make assumptions.
Although you may not personally know that you know someone, it is likely that you will recognise at least one famous person who has this ability. It has been connected with artistic and creative ability.
You can find a long list of people here, but the ones that stood out for me were Tori Amos (music as colour), Leonard Bernstein (timbre as colour), Richard Feynman (letters and numbers in colour), David Hockney (music as colour), and Billy Joel (music, words and numbers as colour).
Connections between the senses, metaphors that cross-over between them, have been used as a literary technique by many authors. Examples that have become cliché include a sharp taste or a loud shirt.
In one of my stories I wrote that the air sang with the cold. I didn’t do it deliberately, the phrase just came to me. Is there some semblance of crossover between the senses lurking in my subconscious?
There is an argument that we are all born synaesthetes, and it is certainly true that the brain responds differently in early life. Maybe as we grow some people lose this ability whilst in others it remains.
I am working on a children’s book about a boy who sees smells as colours and shapes. This is called olfactory-visual synesthesia. It is estimated that only about 6.5% of all synaesthetes have this form, so it is rare within the group.
Generally the people with this form will associate patterns, shapes and multiple colours with a smell.
Writing the other
So I come back to the question of whether I can write a character who sees smells. I know that I can never experience exactly what that is like. Any attempts I make to describe what my character sees when he encounters a smell are pure guesswork.
I could ask someone with the ability to describe it to me. But that would only be one experience. Part of my interest in writing about it is precisely because it emphasises how we all perceive the same things differently.
One of the ideas that I’m playing with is that we should always listen carefully. We cannot dismiss what someone tells us about their experience of the world just because it doesn’t match our own.
It is one of the problems that science has in explaining phenomena. We are restricted in science to measuring those things that can be measured. How do we measure the colour of a smell?
That is one of the reasons I have focussed on smell in particular, because language seems so inadequate for describing them. When we write we have a tendency to focus on one or two senses. I start by describing what I see. It is only when I remind myself to do so that I try to explore the other senses.
Another reason is that smells are funny and kids are fascinated by them. They love a good fart joke.
Sensitivity to readers
One suggestion is that you ask someone from the group to read for authenticity — whether what you are writing rings true to them — and/or sensitivity — whether what you are writing is offensive.
But this sort of goes against the whole point I am working with, which is that everyone’s experience is different. If I ask an olfactory-visual person to read my book then can I really expect them to represent everyone in that group?
I reread the chapter Beautiful Strangers by Nisi Shawl in the book Writing the Other by Nisi Shawl & Cynthia Ward. It is about transracial writing, but I think it can apply here to. The following points stood out:
- Get to know your subjects, primary sources are best
- Be true to your character’s take on the situation
- Allow the character to speak in their own voice
- Show how prejudice figures in your setting
- Don’t make it their only characteristic
- Offer your work to other groups for critique
- Don’t be afraid to make mistakes. Do your best and you’ll avoid the biggest mistake of all: exclusion.
I’ll finish with an example of where an approximation of synaesthesia has been represented on film.
The animated film ratatouille is fifteen years old. I bought my husband a tree decoration to celebrate the fact. One of the animators on that film, Michel Gagné is a synaesthete.
His influence can be seen in this sequence:
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