Why are we so intrigued by people whose perspectives we don’t, in fact can’t, share? I’m thinking of the frequency with which movies, TV series and novels seem to serve up characters these days who sit somewhere on the autistic spectrum.
Perhaps it began with Lennie in Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men. That’s the first fictional instance I can recall, though there were probably others before. There was the Dustin Hoffman character in Rain Man, and Christopher in Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident… Then Saga Noren in The Bridge. And most recently I’ve watched an excellent Australian thriller on BBC 4, The Code, one of whose two main characters is a young man brilliantly portrayed as having what I guess is Asperger’s (though the condition is never specified), and who is a computer hacking genius.
These characters are interesting from a dramatic point of view because they’re unpredictable. They don’t respond to things like we do and there’s a constant tension surrounding them. They’re vulnerable too. They don’t move through the world with the same ease and confidence as us, and they get tripped up by things we take for granted. There’s also the suggestion that they may have special abilities. We tend to be drawn to the idea of the holy fool or the idiot savant.
I didn’t realise these things 15 years ago when I started writing The Witness, a novel that features an eight-year-old boy with Fragile X syndrome. I merely wanted to tell a story. But I must have guessed I would gain something from casting such a character, even if I didn’t know what at the time.
Fragile X is a genetic condition not unlike autism, so-called because one leg of the X chromosome trails limply. Typical symptoms are acute social anxiety, compulsive behaviour and difficulty in making emotional connections. I based the character on the young son of close friends. We saw a lot of them as a family at one stage and I found the little boy very touching. Illiterate, innumerate and prone to terrible tantrums, vomit-inducing tempests of inexplicable feelings, he was also an engaging character, funny and capable of tremendous affection, especially towards his mother.
I named my fictional version of him Ninian because he was in many ways a ninny, but also because there was something saintly about his lack of guile – though his mother, whom I pestered with questions for months while writing the book, quickly disabused me of the notion that Fragile X might equate to having any kind of special gifts.
I placed Ninian at the centre of a pursuit across the central Highlands of Scotland during a future conflict over ownership of the land. Ninian’s condition meant that he was incapable of saying anything meaningful about who he was. His identity became central to the quest of the main character, a young man who found him hiding from soldiers and ended up, against his better judgement, in the role of Ninian’s carer as they went on the run together in the mountains.
To some extent Ninian was a device, because someone with his condition defeats one of the main objectives of writing a novel which is to bring about personal transformation of the main characters. But Ninian, living constantly in the present, with little idea of what has happened in the past or what’s going to happen in the future, could not develop in that way.
That made him difficult to write, but I came to realise that it also furnished him with a certain resilience in the face of the kind of challenging physical and psychological circumstances in which I placed him. For all his fragility he also ended up having an unexpected toughness. And of course his relationship with his carer allowed me to develop very particular aspects of the other’s character, all heightened by the peril of their predicament.
Ultimately I became interested in trying to understand how someone with such very different emotional and psychological wiring would experience the world. In doing so I believe my own experience of the world was sharpened and with it my understanding of humanity at large. Perhaps that’s the same for all of us – writers, readers and viewers. We learn so much more from our differences than our similarities.
The Witness is available on Kindle here. You may also still be able to get it in paperback from Amazon though it is currently out of print.