Thursday, October 14, 2010

Steampunk Character Type: The Savant

In A Beautiful Mind, Russel Crowe portrays John Forbes Nash, Jr., a brilliant mathematician who struggles with paranoid schizophrenia. This is an example of a character that I've termed The Savant, someone who might be absolutely brilliant in one area and yet have an equally as damaging flaw in another. 
Laurence Kim Peek (1951 to 2009), a Savant with
perfect photographic memory who was able
to recall the contents of 12,000 books.
He had severe motor function disabilities
(image from Historic Mysteries)

Someone who can do complex mathematical algorithms in his head but is unable to tie his shoes is one example; another is the incredible musician that lacks even basic social skills. It's the scientific and mathematical fields where this character type is seen most acutely -- an interesting side note is that a Mad Scientist/Quirky Inventor might be a Savant, but a Savant is not always a Mad Scientist/Quirky Inventor -- as those fields require extremely high-level brain function that can take from other parts of the brain.

From Historic Mysteries:
A Savant is someone possessing exceptional skill in a particular area, such as art, literature and mathematics. They are a rare breed; only 100 individuals recognized as Savants are alive today. But what is most interesting, is that half of all Savants are autistic, and the other half have some other type of mental disability, such as a brain injury or retardation.
In terms of fictional Savants, the mental or physical difficulties may or may not make an appearance. What might be the damning character flaw that shifts your hyper-intelligent character into Savant status may be something as simple as lack of social grace. If played to its logical extreme, you could have an exceptionally brilliant musician that refuses to talk to people because of difficulty relating. Talk about music, and they discourse for hours; talk about anything else and they clam up because they can't speak about anything else.

Characters that are engineers, scientists, and mathematically focused are especially prone to Savant status. In the more fantastic vein of Second-World Steampunk, you might also see a mage-scientist that has issues relating to people outside of his or her specific brand of high-level knowledge. A pure fantasy example would probably be Raistlin Majere from the Dragonlance series of novels; a more Steampunk choice could be Edward "Leviathan" Mallory from The Difference Engine, a brilliant paleontologist and explorer who nevertheless has difficulty dealing with people who don't conform to his worldview.

It's interesting to note that, in The Difference Engine, the word "Savant" is used to refer to the meritocracy that rules Britain. When you're a Savant in the Britain of William Gibson and Bruce Sterling's seminal Steampunk novel, then you're part of the elite of the elite. This is an interesting way to use the highly scientific mind of the Savant to be sure, and something that would be very in keeping with the way a Savant character might view him or herself.

What fictional characters do you think qualify for Savant status?


C. N. Nevets said...

Cid in Final Fantasy. *cough*

Monica Marier said...

Wingaurd & Kelly are definitely Savants. *L*

I think Lister from Red Dwarf is a savant. He's thick, unhygienic and rude, but he can repair cyborgs, pilot a starship and will occasionally spout quotes from Philosophers and Literature.

Icy Sedgwick said...

I'd throw in a vote for Doc Brown in the Back to the Future films.

Egon in Ghostbusters would be another option. Incapable of relating to people on an emotional level, but can talk for hours about the paranormal. He did have part of a slinky once, but he straightened it.