I have occasionally joked that I learnt to be human by reading fantasy. What I mean by this is that fantasy explores so many different possible situations, so many different characters, that I was able to learn about human behaviour and psychology. I sometimes even learnt the appropriate responses to situations and why typical people do things that seem nonsensical to me.
Actually, most of the stuff they do is still nonsensical but I try to be tolerant. I’m probably more tolerant of the typical need to make small talk than most people are of my need to not make small talk, for example.
I write autistic main characters most of the time, it is sometimes deliberate, sometimes not. For me it helps to have a character that is trying to navigate a situation and to put myself in their place. I struggle to visualise things so I have to embody that situation instead. I can’t know how the character will react until I put myself there. I can usually work out how the other characters will react though, based on past experiences or reading, e.g. MC gets into an argument because the other person is in the wrong, other person either admits or gets defensive, MC will get upset and other characters will chide them for bringing up something that people don’t want to talk about. Creates conflict.
Or the end of the world is coming, Autistic MC has a sensible, logical plan, everyone else is panicking, how would they react? Baring in mind, my sisters and I regularly plan out what we’d do in even of a zombie apocalypse, and I have seriously considered preparing a go bag and clearing out the cupboard under the stairs to use as an emergency shelter, this is something I can ’embody’ fairly easily.
I have written accidentally autistic characters, who react and process their lives in an unconsciously autistic way and I have also written deliberately autistic characters. The difference is, when it’s deliberate there’s a purpose behind. In my Lucie Burns stories (especially my unfinished Dissertation piece) the purpose was to show a realistic autistic woman as a police officers, in opposition to the less than realistic and sometimes actively harmful depictions of autistic women in books and film/TV.
I’m currently working on a story for my writing group about a forensic psychologist who is autistic and helping to investigate a series of child murders (I go through phases of loving crime fiction and wanting to write crime all the time); I don’t have a defined purpose in this story, I just want to show an autistic person in a situation people might think unlikely – I don’t think people realise we make decent psychologists, teachers, social workers, etc. because they’re ‘people’ jobs and we don’t like people/have no empathy/all that nonsense. Also, I wanted to. I sounded like fun when I first planned the story out. I might even have my two autistic investigators meet in a future story, just for the hell of it. I expect their colleagues would all be ‘oh you’ll like (character), she’s autistic too’ and they don’t hit it off at all. Because we’re all human and different.
I do think representation is important, especially Own Voices representation, because for too long other people, typical people looking from the outside in, have defined us, defined our narrative and told the world they’re the experts. No, we are.
Anyway, I read a bit of fiction written by other autistic writers who also have autistic main characters, and I find it helpful, because other writer present other perspectives. I want to know if it’s deliberate, or their default character writing, I want to know their purpose, and reasoning. Is it hard to write about the difficult parts of being autistic, is it hard to write typical characters. I find my typical characters can be a bit flat, while my autistic characters tend to be more rounded. I actively have to try not to make older male typical characters bigoted boorish drunks, for example. Can’t imagine why…
I want to know about the writing process. I write almost a script first then have to go back and fill in the details, like body language and descriptions. Writing is an active process. I might get flashes of a scene in my brain but then I have to embody it to move beyond that. How do other autistic people work, especially if they have aphantasia?
I never know what my characters look like beyond an outline, and I actively have to pin things down as I write the story. I have face recognition problems if I haven’t seen people often or if I have haven’t seen them in a long time – especially with children. Do other writers have this problem, or do they know write from the start what their characters look like and will do?
How do they cope with characters of different backgrounds? I actively stick to white AFAB main characters, because I can’t begin to know what it’s like to be anything other than that. I have a limited ‘pool’ of friends and where I’m from isn’t diverse, so except for my BFF who is half-Egyptian and who has talked about what that means, and obviously I’ve observed, since we’ve been friends for 25 years, I don’t have much reference material. I don’t think it would be right for me to write a character from a different background if I couldn’t get a really detailed understanding of what it’s like to be someone who isn’t a white, working class AFAB person. I have an intellectual understanding of people’s experiences with discrimination and different cultural backgrounds but not the visceral understanding. I need to visceral understanding to embody a character. Is that just me, am I limited in my ability to ‘put myself in others’ shoes’ or is it a common thing?
Do autistic people, as readers and writers, use fiction to form their identity, as part of autistic culture or as a human in general? How does fiction help with this identity formation?
There’s so many questions, and I don’t know how to get the answers. I want to do a PhD on autistic writers and their autistic characters, but I don’t know how to phrase what I want to study, I don’t know where to start with applying for PhDs, either. It’s such a niche area, who would I even talk to?
Luckily, a new ‘neurodiversity and literature’ list serv has been started so I can ask them. If I get my courage up to ask all these academics with scary qualifications and careers.