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.
My eight-year old grand-daughter has Aspergers. During the half-term she asked her parents, “Is it at all possible that you and all these other people here are just figments of my imagination?” Now we recognise the autistic spectrum, a character like Saga Noren can be represented and no-one’s going to be uncomfortable because we take her for what she is. And all the more fascinating for it. I watched The Code also, and found the relationship between the brothers very touching. Autism, at the less extreme end, can have phenomenal rewards. Fragile X sounds very demanding.
“Is it at all possible that you and all these other people here are just figments of my imagination?” I think most children wonder about this at some stage, sometimes for quite a long time. Some of us, as adults, still do. It’s one of the big, deep questions, which different philosophers have addressed in various ways. If we accept the idea of an autistic spectrum, it seems to me that we are all on it somewhere.
That was a really good analysis of an important trend of our time- using characters with syndromes to confer a superpower.
We all love the idea of a superpower. They are prevalent in the protagonist who starts off as an underdog: Think Oliver Twist, Spiderman, Harry Potter and Jesus.
There’s however one major deficiency with the above-mentioned superheroes: we never really believe we can be like them. That’s what a mental or genetic disorder in the character cures: despite our own obvious personal limitatiions, that, somewhere deep inside, we may all be Supermen.
Another recent example of an autistic character was the detective played by Reece Shearsmith in the ITV drama “Chasing Shadows”. This was written by Rob Williams, one of our Dark Angels. I guess it shows that in all kinds of writing we are interested in the quality of being different. On a Dark Angels course it’s the common charge we level against the great mass of business writing: it all sounds the same, it’s not fully human, it has no character. We’re all interested in character because that’s what drives a story.
Jamie, you’ve reminded me of how good The Witness is and I’m sorry that it is still out of print. My copy is just a few feet away fro me as I type this. I recommend it to others – of all ages!
Apart from Steinbeck, the first instance I came across of this was William Horwood’s excellent novel “Skallagirigg” (also out of print) in which two of the principal characters (separated by a generation and thus treated very differently) have cerebal palsy. Unlike Ninian, they both were able to be developed as characters.
I greatly enjoyed “The Witness” – it is a shame that it is out of print – so I’ll treasure my copy even more.
Dear Jamie, this post encouraged me to download The Witness on my Kindle. I finished it last night and immediately felt bereft, as I’d rushed through this challenging adventure with John, Lila and Ninian, and now I would no longer be spending time with them. I’ve been reading a good deal of what publishers would term ‘Young Adult’ fiction recently, and have come to the conclusion that it offers some of the most illuminating, challenging and experiential writing around. The Witness more than holds its own along side the current crop of writers like Patrick Ness, and I’d very much have enjoyed more stories set in this turbulent alternative Scotland. What a shame it’s out of print. Thanks for some excellent nights of reading.