Today we have a guest blog from writer and fellow Johnny, Ginger Kenney. Ginger blogs at: www.gskenney.com/ginger
Neurolinguistic programming, or NLP, ties together concepts from neurology, linguistics, and the psychology of behavior. It presents a model of the ways people perceive, process, and respond to the world around them that can be useful for writers in developing and portraying the characters in our story and the ways in which they can understand one another.
It’s a complicated field. I’d like to present here, briefly, three of its concepts: sensory predicates, learning models, and eye movements.
NLP posits a connection between the sensory references in speech, or sensory predicates, and the actual methods people use to process information from the world around them. Our way of speaking indicates our deep method of thinking. Consider the case where a person explains something and the listener understands. One listener, let’s call him Joe, might say, “I see what you mean.” At the level of neurological brain function (according to NLP), Joe is actually using his sight-sensory capability to process the explanation. Another listener, Amy, might say, “I hear you.” She has listened to the same explanation as Joe but is processing it through her auditory sense. Perhaps she hears something subtly but deeply different from what Joe sees.
I am primarily a visual processor and secondarily also kinesthetic (movement and feeling). In this I’m like many people, perhaps most. When I make a decision, I have to “see how I feel” about it. That’s the way—quite literally—that I know what I want to do.
Here’s an example: I recently bought a dress to wear at my son’s wedding. This was a big event in my life, and the dress felt far more important to me than clothing normally does. I found one (call it Dress A) that I really liked and that my husband Dan also liked. But my mother emphatically disliked the dress. Her aversion left me feeling uncertain. Many shopping hours later, I found another dress (Dress B) that I also liked, in some respects more than Dress A, though in other respects less. Dan approved it, but I could see that he felt only lukewarm about it. My mother weighed in strongly in favor of Dress B, and I selected it. That afternoon, I brought it to the dressmaker for an alteration. The next morning, I could see that I didn’t feel right about this decision. All that morning, my stomach was tied in a knot, and I couldn’t concentrate on my work. That’s how I felt, but I couldn’t see what the problem was. Only when I saw that I’d been weighing my mother’s strong approval more heavily than Dan’s unstated reservations, was I able to move. I rescued Dress B from the dressmaker, returned it, and settled on Dress A. This decision felt much better. Looking back, I could see that I did the right thing because I felt good about it.
I’ve put enough italics in the last paragraph to scare off the most intrepid editor. I did this so that you can see how pervasive this kind of language is in our speech patterns.
How is this useful? Everyone talks this way, right?
Well, yes… but they do it in different ways. Many people use their auditory sense when they process information. If something doesn’t sound right to them, they won’t buy it, even if they tell themselves it might be a good idea.
I once had a boss who had to chew things over before making a decision. He’d want to sniff things out. And when he did that, sometimes it wouldn’t smell quite right to him. It tasted off. He was one of the relatively rare people who process their perceptions primarily through their olfactory and gustatory senses.
You might want some of your characters to talk this way. Werewolves, for example. But also nice, normal people like my former boss. It helps to make them unique, just as much as vocabulary, regional expressions, and sentence structure do.
NLP also provides a learning model based on these sensory patterns. (Much of this has been discredited as a general model of human thinking, but NLP remains a powerful tool in organizational development and in specific niche areas of psychotherapy.) The model holds that certain things are more aptly learned in certain ways. For example, spelling is primarily a visual activity. Really good spellers can spell a word because they see and remember how it looks. People who spell according to the way words sound aren’t nearly as good at it. Not in English they aren’t, anyway. Math is also largely visual. That’s why using your fingers is effective only for the simplest problems. That’s also why we use blackboards to demonstrate proofs.
If you have a character who is extraordinarily good at something (or bad at it), you can make that character more consistent and therefore more believable if he or she also uses speech patterns indicating a strength (or deficiency) in the sense patterns used for that skill. Or the character might have deficiencies in other areas—for example, someone who can pick up spoken languages very quickly but constantly makes spelling mistakes.
NLP identifies a pattern of correlation between internal sensory processing (as often reflected in language) and eye movement. As a rule, certain eye movements indicate certain types of sensory processing. Generally, looking up is an indication of visual processing. In a right-handed person, looking up and to the left indicates visual recall (remembering or trying to remember something), while looking up and to the right indicates visual construction—lying, perhaps. Or storytelling.
For most people, looking horizontally right or left indicates auditory processing. In a right-handed person, looking to the left indicates auditory recall, while looking to the right indicates auditory construction. “What were your exact words?” vs. “What would you have said in these circumstances?”
Looking down and to the right indicates kinesthetic processing. This can include grasping a concept or gathering one’s thoughts, or recalling a churning stomach. Finally, looking down and to the left indicates engaging in internal dialog. Perhaps Gollum (in The Lord of the Rings) spent a lot of time looking in this direction. Any character who talks to himself a lot might do this.
These patterns of eye movement might be useful to writers. For example, a character who is lying, however adeptly, might betray the lie by looking up and to the left instead of to the right. Or a person recalling some event in a neutral tone of voice might evince a deeply held or hidden emotion by looking down and to the left. Alternatively, you might show a character’s truthfulness by where he looks, even if the character is otherwise scruffy and unreliable.
You get the idea.
There is no one right or wrong way to portray the richness of our characters’ inner mental and emotional lives. Rather, our characters reveal themselves in many ways. The more of these we can master as writers, the more real and believable our characters become. NLP provides us with a few more useful tools for bringing our characters to life.
If you want to learn more about neurolinguistic programming, I would recommend Frogs into Princes by Richard Bandler and John Grinder, the founders of NLP. It’s the edited transcript of workshop sessions in which the authors are actually doing what they’re talking about—and it’s a surprisingly fun read.