What is a child prodigy?

In Lifeline to Marionette, character Michelle Seko is alluded to being a musical prodigy. It is implied through dialog that she is the musically gifted daughter of a famous composer, to whom she is estranged. In the book, two secondary characters discuss this, but not in terms of her prodigious characteristics. Through their conversation it is revealed that, because she was exceptionally talented, she was subjected to relentless pressure to excel, and that she eventually buckled under the pressure. I did not delve any further into developing this character’s prodigiousness in this story. However, it is the focus of The Fifth Language.

For The Fifth Language, I am challenging myself to experiment with different writing techniques. The story itself is completed. I have the outline, the chronology, the beginning, the climax, the conflict, the resolution, and the conclusion. My challenge is in how I want to tell the story. I am focusing on three elements of fiction writing: character development, non-linear narrative, and the past-perfect tense. I want to utilize these three elements to convey this one story. It’s not a matter of what the story is about, but rather how it is told.

What does this have to do with the child prodigy? In terms of character development, if my main character is to be a child prodigy, then I had better fully understand what a prodigy is. I cannot merely claim that she had mastered complex scores by the age of three and could speak four languages by the age of five.

Wanting to develop the character of Michelle Seko as a child prodigy led me to a fascination with them. It started with an article written by Maia Svalavitz, which was published in Time Magazine in 2012. The article, “What Genius and Autism Have in Common,” highlighted a study of eight young prodigies and sought to shed some light on the roots of their talent. Szalavitz wrote, “The study found that they shared some striking characteristics, most notably high levels of autistic traits and an over-representation of autism in their close family members.”

The article opened a brand-new door to the world of prodigies and autists for me. It led me to numerous others and eventually to the book, The Prodigy’s Cousin, by Joanne Ruthsatz and Kimberly Stephens (Ruthsatz’s daughter). The book delves into the history of autism as a diagnosis, it profiles prominent researchers, it draws a connection between autism and prodigiousness, and it colorfully profiles the children Ruthsatz studied. In terms of background research for character development, it was a goldmine of information. I have read The Prodigy’s Cousin twice, have dog-eared its pages, highlighted passages, and made margin notes. It is a fascinating read. This research gave me the knowledge I needed to develop the character of Michelle Seko as a child prodigy and her father as a prodigious autist. It was as if someone said to me, “This explains SO MUCH about why she is the way she is and why her relationship with him disintegrated.”

Being able to unfurl a character’s actions, emotions and personality to reveal the inner working of a prodigy has been a rewarding process as a writer. This leads me right into my next two challenges: writing non-linear narrative and utilizing past-perfect tense. The story is told primarily from the perspective of the character of Jason Henrey. It is his thoughts and feelings that are conveyed throughout the story. I utilize past-perfect tense to allow him to reflect back on events of the past:

Never in his life had he been so terrified as he had been that night, driving the snowcat down the mountain in the zero-visibility blizzard. The howling wind had drowned out the deep rumbling of the machine’s engine and had rocked it as if to blow it off the mountain. It had been impossible to see past the blade, and the headlights had served only to illuminate the driving snow like millions of spears being thrown at him. He had had to rely solely on the snowcat’s GPS system synced with the sensors along the side of the road in order to navigate the narrow and treacherous mountain descent. It was by far the most dangerous act he had ever committed. Crazy, but he had had no choice. Risk getting Michelle to the hospital or risk her dying at home. The choice he had made had had the better odds.

Michelle, on the other hand, tells her own story through her dialog. The reader is given little insight into her thoughts and feelings. In essence, the reader only gets to know Michelle through what she says and what others say about her. “Non-linear narrative” simply means that she does not tell her story in chronological order:

Writer’s narrative: What she remembered most about her father’s house was the endless silence broken only by the echoing notes of the piano on the stone walls.

Character’s narrative: “The only sound I can remember hearing is my father’s piano,” she said. “The house was big and old and cold, but his music echoed in every corner of it. It filled it, like air.”

This is an excerpt from The Fifth Language:

Rita laughed. “Of course, when she is in Paris, she speaks fluent French with a pure, aristocratic, Parisian accent. Perfect. The French would find it very irritating, and insulting, if she were to speak English. She knows that.” Rita held her finger up again. “If you can get past her appearance, which is virtually impossible, and past her talent and intelligence, which is also virtually impossible, you will discover that she is a peculiar individual. She speaks English with a French accent. Outside of Paris, she speaks French with a German accent and textbook-perfect Italian. But when she is in Milan, she speaks Italian with a Milanese dialect that is so precise you would think she was born there. She can bounce back and forth between languages faster than most people can finish a sentence in just one. And she does this without giving any of it a second thought.” Rita laughed. “I used to think she did this just because she could. But the more I got to know her, and figure her out, for lack of a better term because I have only scratched the surface of figuring her out, the more I suspected that her brain is haywire. It’s like she’s constantly trying to tune into an AM radio station, but she can’t. She just gets a lot of white noise and static.”

So, back to the prodigy. If I were a literary prodigy, I would be able to accomplish this relatively easily. I’m not. Therefore, I fully intend to struggle through this. It might take me two years. or it might take me ten to tell this story the way I intend to.