I’ve just finished Aliette de Bodard’s Tea Master and the Detective, a science fiction novella set in a spacefaring civilisation with technology bordering on the magical (if there was such a thing, I’d call it ‘High Sci Fi’). The novella was, as de Bodard herself freely admits, a meditation on the qualities of great fictional detectives like Sherlock Holmes (with deliberate and direct allegories to Holmes and Watson in the persons of the protagonists Long Chau and The Shadow’s Child).
I very much enjoyed Tea Master, but it made me think of something that has made me put more than one book down – antisocial, atypical prodigies, and the hinterland between what makes them a draw, rather than an irritation.
So, I thought it might be interesting, and hopefully useful to someone somewhere, if I put a few thoughts down on the phenomenon of writing the sociopathic genius.
Do not attack the POV. At First.
Atypical prodigies are rarely seen directly through the lens of their own thought processes. A part of this is obvious: if we could see Holmes’ thought processes, as he himself tells Watson in several of Conan-Doyle’s stories, there would be nothing remarkable at all. Through Watson’s eyes, it may be borderline magical to see him spin cigar ash into the deduction that the killer was a woman in male clothing who resides at Chatham Dock, but imagine how much less interesting it would get if we saw Holmes’ thoughts – fascinating adventures would reduce to a man remembering a series of things he once learned.
And, for the sake of narrative sanity, it’s necessary for the POV character to be less brilliant (at least in some ways) than the prodigy. Otherwise, you get what Classic Doctor Who fans might call Liz Shaw Syndrome – the Pertwee Doctor’s super-scientist assistant who was so bright that the Doctor never had believable reason to explain anything… leaving audiences to flounder in confusion.
That, combined with the everyman nature of the POV character means that it can be tempting to turn the genius’ abrasive wit or caustic misanthropy on him assistant – a slow, overly emotional plodder.
The problem is your POV character, as I’m sure is obvious, being the main surrogate for the reader. Attacking them too early on risks them simply getting tired of your prodigy and putting the book down. To you – be he detective, doctor, stone mason or architect – the prodigy is the centre of the universe. To your reader he’s a rude person they don’t know yet being offensive from the get-go.
An important part of this is to direct the strangeness away from the POV for a while, or tone it down: Holmes is first seen beating a corpse in a morgue. Long Chau is unfeeling, at first mostly interested in transport, but visibly caring towards The Shadow’s Child in terms of her mental state.
Of course, once your prodigy, let’s assume for a moment she’s a detective, has a little more currency with the reader, you can go further. At some point, the prodigy’s behaviour has to have some consequence, or that in itself becomes an irritation.
Your character must have heart
This one is important. Holmes is described as a brain without a heart, or, as Conan-Doyle wrote in a letter to his mentor Joseph Bell, “Holmes is as inhuman as Babbage’s calculating machine and just about as likely to fall in love.” De Bodard’s Tea Master Long Chau is, at first, clinical and emotionless, but both have things that make them burn – and hopefully they’re things that make the reader burn too. This is one of the things that gives your detective currency: everyone wants to stop people from doing terrible things to children, selling people into slavery, murdering step-parents to get their already bereaved orphans.
Suddenly, the reader has reason to invest – and like – your detective. Yes, Lavinia Bain calls everyone ‘Joe’ and won’t shake hands because she believes that rudeness is efficient, but good God, she’s angry that someone’s manipulating debt-ridden college kids.
That talent, coldness and single-mindedness now has purpose: it’s the sword to be thrust into the belly of the bad guy. The POV character can help her get there, but now the prodigy isn’t just an unpleasant person with a huge talent. Seeing an unexpressed – and perhaps, inexpressible – emotional life inside them makes their atypicality cut both ways.
Cluelessness cannot become cruelty
In New Doctor Who the first season of Peter Capaldi’s Doctor promised to be the antidote to everything that bitter, middle aged men like me had felt was wrong with Matt Smith. Capaldi’s Doctor was going to be mean, angry and abrasive. He was going to be rude to Clara and give her a hard time. He called her boyfriend names instead of trying to be liked.
But it didn’t really develop from there. He simply kept on being unpleasant, even after she’d saved his life a dozen times, which seemed churlish and grating.
At a certain point, there needs to be some kind of warming, or understanding between the characters. If you leave it too late, you risk fatiguing your readers’ nerves: past a certain point of seemingly hideous behaviour, the prodigy stops being quirky and cathartic, and just starts being unpleasant. They don’t have to stop being themselves, but there have to be olive branches. Moments of that burning compassion from the previous section, or attempts to reach out to the POV character despite themselves.
The POV character’s fury can be the thing that the prodigy is grateful for – a restraining hand on weaknesses they’re bright enough to know they have, even if they’re not emotionally literate enough to change. They might never apologise for making the cheerleader cry, but they can sheepishly present the new avenue of research they only thought of after their friend bellowed at them to shut up.
Perhaps they even remember to call him something other than ‘Joe.’
They cannot be universally loved
A prodigy of this sort can make a place for themselves, but their incapacities have to come at a price. In the Conan-Doyle stories – despite the tendency of screen adaptations to make his methods meticulous – Holmes is a stimulant user and a hoarder. In the Musgrave ritual Watson describes papers building up around his house, regardless of how trivial, and all his things being organised in an almost demented way. Holmes even starves himself during episodes of intense intellectual activity (to the point of unconsciousness) and is vulnerable not only to egotism, but flattery.
De Bodard’s Long Chau is similarly incapacitated: heavily drug dependent for even basic function, unpleasant to speak to, and utterly unable to understand the damage she is able to do to people. The Shadow’s Child is, in some ways, not just a companion, but a valuable window onto the human condition.
Again, this must be a price of their talent. The Mythcreants blog has a number of excellent articles on the need to balance characters. A universe where your detective/doctor/stonemason can say or do the most unacceptable things without consequence is one where their incapacities aren’t really incapacities – on par with having a character be so beautiful that she was bullied at school… when the novel features her at 25.
Steven Moffat’s Sherlock wasn’t the first show to pathologize the atypical prodigy, but it may be the most successful: Sherlock isn’t just an eccentric, difficult genius (like Jonny-Lee Miller’s character in the show Elementary) but a high-functioning sociopath.
At least being a ‘high-functioning sociopath’ isn’t a real disorder. Television shows like Perception have given us handsome, unmedicated schitzophrenic detectives whose disorder is largely cosmetic, and whose hallucinatory lover eventually becomes the real thing. Monk gave us a quirky, comedic OCD detective whose crippling disorder never seems to cause him more than a moment’s personal discomfort, and whose characterisation was more than a little offensive to real sufferers of the illness.
Despite our enlightened times, greater awareness of disorders can still top over into the tendency to treat them as shorthand for a superpower: anyone with an ASD diagnosis (or coded as having an ASD, as we see rampantly in the show </Scorpion>) must be an off the hook genius. Psychopaths are the highly intelligent, charismatic vigilantes we’ve all been waiting for.
To pathologize an atypical prodigy is to make them typical: their talent, in the universe of your story, is just a symptom of a condition, rather than a complex and infuriating confluence of impossibilities. Not only is it often inadvertently offensive to the sufferer but in many ways, it makes the extraordinary ordinary and the character less interesting.