Synesthesia is a neurological condition in which stimulation of one sensory or cognitive pathway leads to automatic, involuntary experiences in a second sensory or cognitive pathway. Author and synesthete Patricia Lynne Duffy has described four ways in which synesthete characters have been used in modern fiction:
Synesthesia as Romantic ideal
In Vladimir Nabokov’s novel, The Gift, the main character Fyodor is a gifted young poet who experiences synesthesia. Fyodor’s synesthetic experience of language is compared to that of nineteenth-century French Symbolist poet, Arthur Rimbaud (as expressed in the latter’s poem, Voyelles about the perception of colored vowel sounds). The following quote from the novel shows that Fyodor perceives a sublime beauty in letters and sounds, which he shares with others through poetic description: "If I had some paints handy, I would mix burnt sienna and sepia for you as to match the color of a 'ch' sound..and you would appreciate my radiant 's' if I could pour into your cupped hands some of those luminous sapphires that I touched as a child." In writing about synesthesia, Nabokov was likely drawing on his own synesthetic experiences, which he details in his autobiography, Speak, Memory.
Synesthesia as pathology
Certain types of synesthetic experience can also be induced by brain injuries. Duffy notes that a character's synesthesia is sometimes shown as a pathological condition related to brain injury. For example, in the novel, The Whole World Over by Julia Glass, the character Saga experiences words as having color after she has an accident that causes a head trauma. In the quote, Duffy illustrates how the perceived colors are a distraction for the character: "The word would fill her mind for a few minutes with a single color: not an unpleasant sensation but still an intrusion... Patriarch: Brown, she thought, a temple of a word, a shiny red brown, like the surface of a chestnut."
Synesthesia as Romantic pathology
This category of synesthesia combines the previous two: the character’s synesthesia is portrayed as pathology — but a "glorious" pathology, allowing him/her to perceive more sublime levels of reality. In Holly Payne’s novel, The Sound of Blue, the character, Milan, a composer, perceives music as having beautiful color, but his synesthetic experience indicates an oncoming epileptic seizure: "Without color, he heard nothing. He filled notebooks with the sound of yellow and red. Purple. Green... Like Liszt and Stravinsky, Kandinsky and Rimbaud, Milan shared the multisensory perception of synesthetes, and unfortunately the seizures that about 4 per cent of them endured... Milan’s epilepsy resulted from his multisensory experiences."
Synesthesia as health and balance for some individuals
Duffy argues that in this category of novel, the ability to perceive synesthetically represents health and balance for the particular character. When such characters experience emotional trauma, they lose the ability to perceive synesthetically. After the trauma is resolved, the character regains synesthetic perception, which represents health and wholeness for that individual. Examples of such characters are found in Jane Yardley’s novel, Painting Ruby Tuesday and in Wendy Mass’s children’s novel, A Mango-Shaped Space. In the latter novel, the 13-year-old character, Mia loses her synesthesia after her beloved cat dies, but regains it after she works through the trauma. As her therapist tells her, "Your colors will return, Mia, I promise. And you’ll feel three-dimensional again."