How do authors write about synesthetic characters in novels and nonfiction books? Here’s how synesthesia or synaesthesia is portrayed in some fictional detective novels, books, and literature.
You say synesthesia, I say synaesthesia. The words sound the same even though the British English version (synaesthesia) has an extra vowel. In Canada—where I live—we use British English. When I write blog posts about synesthesia, though, I use British and American English interchangeably.
How is synesthesia portrayed in fiction? Patricia Lynne Duffy wrote a chapter called “Synesthesia in Literature” in The Oxford Handbook of Synesthesia. Here’s what she wrote:
“As news of scientific research [about synesthesia] has filtered into mainstream society, a number of authors have been inspired to create detective-characters with synesthesia, almost leading to a whole genre of synesthete-detective novels. In The Fallen and others, the detective-character acquires the synesthetic perception as a result of a near-fatal accident. The resulting synesthesia is depicted as giving the character an extra-sensory advantage, i.e., an ability to view a normally hidden layer of reality, thus putting this type of portrayal in the category of synesthesia as Romanic pathology.”
Note that this is the 2018 reprinted edition of The Oxford Handbook of Synaesthesia. The original book was published in 2013. Neither of the two earlier editions describe detective fiction novels with synesthetic characters. Writing about synesthesia in fiction is new, which means it might help writers get their books published.
Since the main character of my novel, Sage Peartree, is a synesthete, I figured she’d like knowing she’s not alone. One major difference is that Sage was born with synesthesia (congenital); these characters acquired it later (which does happen in real life!).
Below are a few quotes and excerpts from a detective novel that includes a synesthetic protagonist and secondary characters.
At the end of this post is a link to Joanne Harris’s writing process. She’s a synesthete, she’s the author of the bestselling, Johnny Depp-starring Chocolat.
Synesthesia in detective fiction: The Fallen (2007) by T.J. Parker
Detective Robbie Brownlaw’s synesthetic abilities help him solve crimes in San Diego. This the main character wasn’t born with synesthesia (he’s not a congenital synesthete)—he acquired synesthesia after falling from a ten story building.
- “…now I have a neurological condition where your senses get mixed up. Sometimes when people talk to me, I see their voices as coloured shapes. It happens when they get emotional…the shapes linger in mind-air between the speaker and me.” (page 5).
- “The red squares of the lie spilled from his mouth.” (page 173).
- “The condition is hard for me to talk about, even with [my wife] Gina…it annoys her that even her white lies announce themselves to me as bright red squares.” (page 6).
An excerpt from the fictional “Synesthesia Society” meeting, in which the main character—Robbie Brownlaw—describes his synesthetic abilities:
“I see blue triangles from a happy speaker. Red squares come from liars. Envy comes out in green trapezoids, so ‘green with envy’ is literally true for me. Aggression shows up as small black ovals.”
“That’s not synesthesia,” said Bart. “I’ve read every word ever written about the subject, and no one has ever established that a speaker’s emotions can be visualized…What do you see coming from my mouth right now?”
“Little black ovals. Quite a few of them,” [answered the detective.] (page 279-280).– The Fallen by T.J. Parker
Detective Novels With Synaesthetic Main Characters
Miracle Myx by Dave Diotalevi
Two near-death experiences have transformed Myx Amens; he hasn’t slept for three years. His first near-death experience, a lightning strike, left him with a photographic memory while his second, drowning, induced synesthesia, so he smells and feels colors, sees sounds, and tastes the thoughts and feelings of others. These skill sets endow Myx to investigate local unsolved homicides and ruffle a lot of feathers. For an unblinking 42 hours, Myx’s high-performance synesthetic brain probes the dirty secrets of Miracle, Massachusetts, in search of the astonishing truth.
Still Waters by Nigel McCreery
When the badly decayed body of an elderly woman is unearthed, Detective Chief Inspector Mark Lapslie and his sergeant, Emma Bradbury, are called in on the case. Lapslie just returned to the police force after a year of relative isolation, tryingStill Waters by Nigel McCreery to avoid the worst symptoms of his synasethsia, a neurological condition that causes him to “taste” sound and that makes his life as complicated as any crime he’s been charged with solving. Now he’s flooded again—not only with the convolution of senses that can drive him nearly mad but also with the increasing convolutions of the case.
The Fallen by T. Jefferson Parker
“My life was ordinary until three years ago when I was thrown out of a downtown hotel window. My name is Robbie Brownlaw, and I am a homicide detective for the city of San Diego. I am twenty-nine years old. I now have synesthesia, a neurological condition where your senses get mixed up. Sometimes when people talk to me, I see their voices as colored shapes provoked by the emotions of the speakers, not by the words themselves. I have what amounts to a primitive lie detector. After three years, I don’t pay a whole lot of attention to the colors and shapes of other people’s feelings, unless they don’t match up with their words.”
These main characters are detectives with synesthesia, but they were published before 2010. Do you have an example of a more current fiction book with a synesthetic cop or private investigator?
Synesthesia in a graphic novel: The Synaesthete (2002) by Brent Kernan
Main character Carly Jackson’s synesthetic vision is held hostage by military, cyber, and social forces. Here’s what her former commanding officer says about her:
“The specialist came to us with a disease of the mind. It’s called synaesthesia…but it becomes useful because her mind reduces sensory perception down to mathematics, to symbolic representations of what she perceives. I’ll give you a simple example. Mathematics and music are integrally related. A pitch can be heard, but it can also be represented by the rate of vibrations traveling through a medium…all mathematical relationships can be reduces to music…any computer program can be played on a piano…Source code which is written out as language is infinitely inferior to source code that can be expressed or understood through the senses because only then can the true simultaneity of events be expressed.” (page 79-80).– The Synaesthete by Brent Kernan
Note that this portrayal of Carly, the protagonist, is given by a military officer. Synesthesia is not a disease, and not all synesthetes would agree with his assessment of math and music.
The Synaesthete by Brent Kernan
The setting for this techno-thriller is an America of the near future. Carly Jackson is a synesthete. She sees colors, hears flavors. Her brain’s misperceptions can become so complex and debilitating that without her medication she cannot distinguish between the real and the imagined. For much of her life, the confusion of sensory misperceptions had been diagnosed as a mental illness akin to schizophrenia. But in the army, Colonel John Winnower discovered a use for Carlys synesthesia, placing her in his elite unit of computer specialists who work behind enemy lines to infiltrate hostile governments electronic communication networks. On one mission she is forced to make a choice: betray her country or betray the people she grew up with.
This blurb excited me because Carly and Sage have something in common! For much of her life, the confusion of sensory misperceptions had been diagnosed as a mental illness akin to schizophrenia.
Not only is it true (there may be a connection between schizophrenia and synesthesia—not a causal relationship, but a cognitive similarity), it is an underpinning of Almost Sage.
As promised, here’s the link to Joanne Harris’s writing process. She’s a synesthete and the author of the bestselling Chocolat: Synesthesia and the Writing Process: Joanne Harris, Author of Chocolat.
Thoughts or questions about synaesthesia in fiction or synesthesia in detective novels? Comments welcome below.