Reading People, Writing Character by Western Mysteries author Caroline Lawrence

Are you the sort of person who can run sprints of academic brilliance but endures cringing marathons of social ineptitude? Can you remember facts, figures and dates if they relate to your particular obsession, while frequently forgetting your colleagues names? Do you introduce yourself to people youve already met several times before, as you secretly conquer imaginary worlds in your head?

I am! And I am continually fascinated by people or characters who are slightly dysfunctional nerds like me, only more so.

Take Oliver Sacks, the brilliant psychologist who suffers from agoraphobia and prosopagnosia. (Hes nervous in crowds and he has trouble recognizing peoples faces.) Or the woman he helped bring to prominence, high-functioning autist Temple Grandin, who has a PhD but knows exactly what cows are thinking.

Or Tim Page, a Pulitzer prize winning music critic who gets entranced by the pattern repitition music of Philip Glass and Steve Reich.

Some of my favourite fictional characters also have characteristics which might be called nerdy.

Star Treks Mr Spock and Data, for example. They are both emotionally-challenged beings trying to figure out how they can self-integrate into human society. Then there are brilliant but psychopathic characters like Dexter (Dexter) and Lisbet Salander (The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo). They fascinate and charm us even though they are psychopaths. This is because they say and do the unexpected. In a world full of clichs they are as refreshing as a peppermint waterfall in the Gobi Desert.

Sheldon Cooper is the hugely popular antihero of a hit American sitcom called The Big Bang Theory. He is the perfect example of a character with high intelligence who is indifferent to social norms.

Best of all are the many detectives who have Aspergers or Aspergers-like qualities. Sherlock Holmes – a creation of the late 19th century – is just as popular today as he ever was. Then theres TVs Adrian Monk, the obsessive compulsive detective, and Dr. Gregory House, who could be Holmes great, great grandson.

Another Sherlock-wannabe is Christopher Boone, the teenage narrator of Mark Haddons best-selling book, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time. Like Holmes, Christopher is a genius at remembering facts and doing mathematical calculations, but he is socially inept and takes every statement literally. Not surprising then, that Christophers favourite fictional character is the Baker Street sleuth. The autistic 15-year-old even employs Holmes-like methodology when a neighbourhood dog is murdered.

So when I decided to write a kids detective story in the Western genre but with a fresh slant —  I decided to make my detective a dysfunctional savant.

Like Dr. Oliver Sacks, P.K. Pinky Pinkerton has mild prosopagnosia. Like Temple Grandin, P.K. understands animals but not people. P.K. gets entranced by rhythmic pattern music just as Tim Page does. Like Sherlock Holmes he is fond of collecting and categorizing. Hes obsessive like Monk and blunt like House. Like Christopher Boone P.K. is desperate to fit in and to understand the world, especially the adult world.

I have added a few more foibles to P.K.s mix, just for good measure.

The Western hero is often a loner and a misfit, so I thought it would be fascinating to have a character who is gender ambivalent. P.K. feels like neither a boy nor a girl. For that reason he is willing put on the disguise of either.

And because like me — P.K. has trouble reading people, I have given him a mentor who knows body language. My fictional Poker Face Jace (a gambler) owes a lot to real life ex-FBI detective Joe Navarro (who gives seminars to poker players today).

Heres an excerpt to give you a taste of the nerdy, dysfunctional, face-blind, gender-confused, misfit character I came up with. I hope you like him!

My foster ma Evangeline used to say that when God gives you a Gift he always gives you a Thorn in your side to keep you humble.

My Gift is that I am real smart about certain things.

I can read & write and do any sum in my head. I can speak American & Lakota and also some Chinese & Spanish. I can shoot a gun & I can ride a pony with or without a saddle. I can track & shoot & skin any game and then cook it over a self-sparked fire. I know how to cure a headache with a handful of weeds.

I can hear a baby quail in the sage-brush or a mouse in the pantry.

I can tell what a horse has been eating just by the smell of his manure.

I can see every leaf on a cottonwood tree.

But here is my Problem: I cannot tell if a persons smile is genuine or false. I can only spot three emotions: happiness, fear & anger. And sometimes I even mix those up.

Also, sometimes I do not recognize someone I have met before. If they have grown a beard or their hair is different then I get confused.

That is my Thorn: people confound me.

And now my Thorn has got me killed.

P.S. I am thrilled to be introducing P.K. at one of my favourite literary festivals: Hay-on-Wye. Thanks to all the organisers and contributers!

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