Autistic Writer Series: Creating Characters

Characters are the backbone of all fiction. Some argue it’s conflict. They have a case to make. Still, much can be forgiven in a fiction if we enjoy the characters we spend our time with.

I succeed as an author if readers enjoy my characters as far as I’m concerned.

Reading and relating to people is a common struggle for those on the Autism Spectrum. I’m not an exception. True, I happen to read other people well enough to get along in the world on daily basis. In most cases, that is.

Yet it isn’t automatic. Neither is my character-focused approach to fiction.

First, let’s talk about my real-life approach.

I have to concentrate only on the essence of what people say, do, or want at any given moment of an encounter. I filter and delete the majority of nuance, small talk, and digression I receive from others. This “real time editing” can be brutal, depending on the situation; I may give sustained thought to as little as 25% of what is said to me.

Now the longer and better I know someone the less likely I am to resort to such cold social efficiency. But for strangers or colleagues for which I have no emotional connection, I do my best to distill what they’re about in the moment and respond accordingly, if any response is warranted.

The deeper, probing dives into the nature of other people from moment one is an exhausting prospect for me, and I daresay for most on the Spectrum. Being an introvert as I am enhances this effect. So while some people or situations may be giving me a bad vibe, (as can be the case with anyone sometimes), my emotional distance is usually not a judgement call. It’s an energy-saving tactic. It protects my focus, though it could be seen as superficial.

This regrettable but necessary form of superficiality will carry into first drafts of my fiction. Subsequent drafts too, unless I remain aware of it.

Any given character or story may call for this type of clinical distance, if you will. On the whole, however, if characters in fiction are to be enjoyable and memorable, their internal world should be revealed early and often. That means the level to which I am willing to explore, and allow readers to know a significant character in my fiction must be higher than my real life default.

This doesn’t mean pages of word for word stream of consciousness thought from every character I write. I despise reading, let alone writing such things. Still, if I were to opt not to challenge my brain to dig more in later drafts, most of my fiction would to the outside world read something like primitive AI. I myself would see the depth, but readers wouldn’t.

It’s my job to make sure readers can too.

I won’t assume there is zero trace of this tendency in my collected works. That would be arrogant. If I may say so myself though, it has become more difficult to detect the more I write.

And even if someone notices some aspect of an Autistic perspective creeping into one of my characters that they otherwise find intriguing and unforgettable, I am more than willing to live with that.

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