I had the deep joy of being given an advanced reader copy of A Boy Made of Blocks by the Guardian journalist, Keith Stuart. One of the perks of being published by the wonderful Sphere of Little, Brown. It’s a novel inspired by Keith’s experience of learning how to get closer to his autistic son – which turns out to be through the internationally successful computer game, Mine Craft. I’ve never really understood or warmed to the notion of computer games, but this story loosened all my silly prejudices. I came to understand how a game, which involves the shared building new worlds, can help build bridges and encourage a child like Sam to open up.
One extract that made me sit up as a writer, tells of how Alex takes Sam to the park – and sees it through his eyes. Or partly so, because what really makes this piece sing is that it’s a blended perception between the Dad’s view of this world and his attempt to understand how his son sees it.
Reading this helped me to understand that places are never neutral: that they change according to who experiences them and what we bring them – and who we experience them with.
Because of his autism, Sam sees the whole world differently from most people, so this is an extreme example, but we all perceive place differently and trying to understand how that might be true for our characters can really enrich our writing. In this case a whole extra layer is added through Alex, the dad, trying to understand how Sam, his son, sees it.
- Read the extract below and identify how hard Alex works to understand Sam’s world – and how a very ordinary, familiar place is transformed when seen through the eyes of someone else. Look at which elements of the passage reflect Alex’s perception of the park and which are influenced by how his son experiences it.
- Now pick a character you are working on – or make a new one from scratch (give him/her a name, age, occupation) and bring them to an ordinary place like a park, a supermarket, a high street, a hairdresser and write about it through their eyes. What do they notice most? What stands out? What triggers their emotions? How is their perception of that place different from everyone else’s?
- OR: Choose a relationship you’re working on – or again, make one up from scratch (parent and child, husband and wife, best friends), and, as in the extract by Keith Stuart, have one character learn to see the world through the eyes of the other. This is a great act of empathy on the part of your character and will help them to understand the person they are with on a much deeper level. It can be a real moment of revelation or a turning point. To make your piece even more interesting blend how the narrator sees it with how he’s trying to understand it through the eyes of the person he’s with, just as Keith Stuart does.
- Really work hard on making the setting as specific and unique as possible – no matter how seemingly ordinary it is. Bring it to life for your reader through the senses and through the choice of detail. Most of all, allow the reader to learn something about your character as you present the world through their eyes.
- Bring your character (or your relationship) to a new place and see how differently they respond to that. We all have different emotional triggers according to where we are. One might lift our soul, another might make those stress hormones sore.
- If you’ve written in the context of a relationship: one character perceiving another’s world – switch it up and see the same place you wrote about but with the other character seeing it through the first character’s eyes. You could even have a go at re-writing Keith Stuart’s piece, with Sam trying to see the park through his father’s eyes.
A Boy Made of Blocks by Keith Stuart, pp. 22-23
The park is on a hill between Bedminster and Totterdown, a dollop of green space amid rows of Victorian terraces , the roads spreading out in all directions like the threads of a giant spiderweb. Around the edges are crumbling pathways where joggers huff and stumble, wordlessly criss-crossing each other’s routes like sweaty robots. There’s a small area with swings and slides that was erected sometime in the early nineties and then abandoned to fate. The swings have no seats any more, so its just a rusted metal frame with a row of chains dangling uselessly, like some sort of open-air sex dungeon. The slide is covered in graffiti and X-rated anatomical drawings. I don’t know whether the council should dismantle it or enter it for the Turner Prize.
Sam has the ball clutched to his chest. Sometimes we kick it between us, sometimes he doesn’t put it down. I look around and try to anticipate what is going to upset him.
Playground meltdown: odds
Passing adult attempts to make conversation: 10/1
Noisy doing: 8/1
Other children showing interest in football: 5/2
Stinging nettles: 5/1
Pregnancy workshop meditating behind goal posts (this actually happened once and Sam found it horrifying): 100/1
Ice cream van not being here: evens
Today, there’s only a small group of children and they appear to be totally engrossed in playing on the sex dungeon, so that should be fine. The only dog walkers are in the far distance, which gives me time to warn Sam. The ice cream van is there in its usual spot, looking to take full advantage of a rare sunny day. This might go OK. I breath an inward sigh of relief.