Get your characters talking sense

people-talkingWhen I’ve delivered career development workshops, they’ve always included some psychology theory. Rather than discuss the relevance of the Myers Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI), I’d like to cover something I learned when I first looked into Neuro Linguistic Programming (NLP). The concept in question is sensory preference. I wonder how many writers have ever extended the concept to their characters and in particular how they talk.

In this post I start with the idea of sensory preference (a useful concept though outdated) and then move on to sensory representation and how it can affect language. I use concrete examples to explain exactly how this happens.

What is sensory preference?

The basic idea is a simple one: we take in information via our senses and represent the world internally according to the information received. Sensory preference suggests people have a primary sense they naturally use to model the world in their minds. This has been disproved by research and shown to be largely context driven. In fact most of us use all our senses as appropriate.

The theory did have some interesting suggestions regarding the balance of preference amongst an average group of people: there would be around 40% with a seeing (visual) preference, slightly fewer a listening preference (auditory) and the bulk of the remaining almost 20% would have a touching (kinaesthetic – awful word for everyday use! I will use feeling) preference. The percentages for smell / taste are very low.

Although the idea of sensory preference is not widely used it still has its uses. Knowing your readers are more likely to prefer sight than touch doesn’t mean you shouldn’t write for all three major senses. It also doesn’t mean you can ignore the power of smell and taste – these more primitive senses work deeper in the brain, have a more primitive effect and can trigger long buried memories.

So, what is sensory representation?

People will think about the world in terms of how they take in information; they will also describe it in the same way. This is where the subtlety comes in – I don’t mean how people might describe an object but how they summarise the way they are viewing the world. I don’t mean the green ball or the high-pitched sound of metal scraping on metal which is merely factual which is ground covered elsewhere.

Some examples: we all know people who say It looks ok to me, or that seems to make sense or even it appears you know what you’re talking about; these are all visual representations of the character’s opinion of the outside world. This is the language of sensory representation.

The following table covers all the traditional senses:

Sight That seems to make sense

The sky looks threatening

I see what you mean

Sound Sounds like a plan

His alibi rang true

Touch Something felt wrong

I couldn’t get to grips with the situation

Smell / Taste Something didn’t smell right

The sweet taste of victory

Of course if you are a science fiction writer you might have a whole host of alien senses and even create new words to describe how they might influence language. If you are writing dialogue for a robot it may have no preference at all and would avoid all sensory language – something not very easy to do if you try.

How does this make a difference when writing?

You might find it simplistic but this can help you flesh out how a character reacts to their environment and how they speak. It isn’t something you should overdo but a scattering of sensory cues can help you to write characters who are distinct on the page. A visual character would seem different on the page, an auditory character has their own voice and so on. The start of a scene is one where you may need to establish a setting and having characters react differently can help make something more interesting.

Take various characters who visit a dusty attic room in a large country house. The visual character focusses on the mess, the dust, the boxes of clutter and the damp stained walls. They might say I’ve been up in the attic and I can see I’ve got my work cut out clearing up Aunt Mavis’s things. A few scenes later another character is in the same room but focussing on the smell of the damp and the musty smell of the pile of old copies the Radio Times from the 1970s. Later there are guests round for a dinner party; one of them gets lost searching for a bathroom and feels an unnatural chill as they find the partially cleared attic room. Even when they close a small skylight that was letting in the icy east wind they still feel a presence. Is it the spirit of Aunt Mavis come to join the party?

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was meticulous in his writing of Sherlock Holmes; one of many examples is:

“Now, my dear sir,” said Holmes. “is it not obvious to you now that this matter really strikes very much deeper than either you or the police were at first inclined to think? It appeared to you to be a simple case; to me it seems exceedingly complex.”

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes

Note the way appeared is balanced with seems with pinpoint precision.

The eyes have it

Anyone with an interest in body language might also like to note the following: in many cases people move their eyes in particular directions depending on how they are thinking about the world. This is not an exact science but there is a correlation between:

  • Visual: the eyes flick upwards before the person speaks
  • Auditory: the eyes flick to the side
  • Feeling: the eyes flick down.

If you wanted you could easily write a scene in which a character is asked a question and before they answered flicked their eyes heavenward for a moment as though seeking divine guidance. When they spoke it was as follows:

“It seems to me as though you have two choices …”

When you first read about this use of sensory language it may seem (or feel or sound) obscure or even esoteric but I do believe it can add a subtle richness to your writing and help you to think about your characters from new directions. No bad thing.

I am not suggesting these are hard and fast rules and by no means should anyone write artificially. Words also change meaning over time and forms of speech change with the years. As a final example a short piece Charles Dickens in which a young Pip is visiting a tailor to get some fine clothes made for his forthcoming trip to London:

Mr. Trabb had sliced his hot roll into three feather-beds, and was slipping butter in between the blankets, and covering it up. He was a prosperous old bachelor, and his open window looked into a prosperous little garden and orchard, and there was a prosperous iron safe let into the wall at the side of his fireplace, and I did not doubt that heaps of his prosperity were put away in it in bags.

“Mr. Trabb,” said I, “it’s an unpleasant thing to have to mention, because it looks like boasting; but I have come into a handsome property.”

Bleak Expectations

The preceding paragraph is also laden with visual images; you can almost taste the food just from the description and admire the repeated use of prosperous / prosperity. On that note it feels to me that I should close, or that’s how it seems!


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