The Autistic Writer: Number of Characters

I recently DNFed (“did not finish) a popular epic length novel. There were multiple reasons I gave up on it. One was the story had far too many characters.

There were about 20 named characters, and four or five main characters each with their own narrative. There was even a character chart at the front of the book. I respect the addition, but it shouldn’t have been required in the first place. Not only did I get weary of flipping to the chart, I didn’t enjoy “dealing” with that many people to begin with.

And to think there are novels with dozens of characters that don’t even provide a chart!

In life, I can’t enjoy meeting and interacting with a large number of strangers at one time. There are always exceptions, but as a rule my Autistic brain wants to engage with a modest amount of people to a deeper degree. It tunes or burns out if I have to actively converse with more than about five new people at once.

Reading new fiction is very much like meeting new people for me. It’s much more difficult to sympathize with or even enjoy the company of a legion of different characters. So I avoid writing entire armies.

I choose this not only in solidarity with my ideal reader, but because I want to spend quality time with the main characters I create. I want to get to know them better. If I had a cast of thousands in my next novel, I’d either have to spent extra time on each one, making for my own epic-length novel, or worse leave the characters flat  and unexamined in order to save time.

Thus far, only my very first novel goes so far as to offer multiple points of view. The time may come when I adopt that format again. What I won’t do is fill a stadium with characters that even I, the Autistic author, can’t keep track of.

The Autistic Writer: Character-Driven vs Plot-Driven Fiction

A few weeks ago in this series I posted about the character creation process for the Autistic writer in me. You may want to read or reread that before going any further here, as this  is about how much weight is assigned to characters as a component within a given narrative.

A common, (though I would argue, fading) distinction in fiction is character-driven vs plot-driven.

These terms are what they sound like. Literary fiction more often than not is character driven. It’s an exploration of the human experience via the response of the characters to their situation.

The lion’s share of commercial fiction, however, emphasizes the plot—how X leads to Y causing Z.

Obviously there are characters in plot-driven commercial fiction. Among the most popular fictional people in all the world are such. Nevertheless what is happening and why carries more weight than who is experiencing same in those works.

And yes, character-driven novels can present a deep plot. More on that in a moment.

Still, character-driven and plot-driven as terms provide convenient, if broad classifications when approaching fiction titles.

I tend to write character-driven fiction, despite plot playing a major role in the experience of reading my novels. I could, and in fact have written books that are solely character driven. My experimental novella The Italics Are My Own for instance. The argument could be made that my The Beacons I See also qualifies, though I could counter that.

However, I can’t imagine ever writing a purely plot-driven work on purpose. The closest I have come to doing so is my only murder mystery Murder. Theatre. Solitaire, but even then I spent more time with how the characters felt and thought than most murder novels. This is one reason I call it a “cozy mystery.”

Though this is a conscious style choice on my part, my Autism no doubt influences it.

People on The Spectrum tend to think in logical, almost clinical terms. The chess pieces on the board, if you will. (Though I suck at chess.) Many of us think in concepts before, or even instead of personality.

I have a list of concepts for potential fiction projects, most of which have not, or will not ever see the light of day.

Why not? Because in the end I determine they lack character potential. I’ll admit I’ve “come up” with some wild, thought-provoking concepts. A slew of “what ifs” that I believe came about because of my Autism brain.

Yet I can’t stand reading purely conceptual fiction. In sci-fi that means more pages about the theory than the people living the reality of it. In fantasy it means chapters of world-building before a single line of dialogue is spoken. Boiler-plate police procedurals. And so on.

And if I can’t enjoy reading them, I am not going to enjoy writing them. At least, not in a narrative. So in the case of a character-driven approach, it’s about me reigning in an Autistic tendency early in the creation process.

There may be some way, someday that more of my “conceptuals” get written into full-fledged pieces, but they won’t be novels or stories.

Plenty of people, Autistic people included, love high concept fiction, even when it lacks memorable characters. As always, you must remember Autism is not a monolith. Yet if I were to take the path of least resistance at the intersection of my fiction writing and my Autism, I feel I’d be satisfying a whim, and not my ideal reader.

The Autistic Writer: Story Structure

Structure of any kind can make a strange bedfellow with Autism.

On the one hand, a majority of Autistic people thrive on structure. Forcing them to break with their own structure can result in meltdowns for some, and mere irritation in others. Though the Autistic significance of structure is an unfortunate source of derision and stereotyping against those on the Spectrum, fondness for structure and routine are about as close to a universal for Autistics as one can find.

Yet the same individuals that crave or even require a high degree of structure often balk at having too many rules. Some will want a full explanation of any rule presented to them. Others will be unable to comprehend a rule’s application to themselves. Still others will bristle at the very notion of rules existing. To them, rules of the road, if you will, are confining—a deprivation of their freedom.

Feelings of being without control, or forced conformity can also, (and I know it sounds contradictory) lead to meltdowns, irritation, or isolation for the Autistic person, depending on their needs.

To an Autistic author such as myself structure can once again present as a double-edged sword.

Outside of experimental works, randomness doesn’t work in fiction. If I just throw sentences and scenes, words and plots onto a page as they come to me naturally, I have a poor outline, not a narrative. The swirling, at times intrusive nature of thoughts for many Autistics don’t come about in a neat pattern for outside consumption. They require a story structure.

Now it could be any number of structures. Three act, five act, epistolary, and so on. Choices abound. But those cats must be herded.

However, structure for an Autistic writer can also frustrate us. As I mentioned in my previous post about finding a story’s climax, blind following of a writing formula can stifle me to such a degree I can actually feel muscle tension in my neck as I write it.

“I don’t want that to happen in Act 3. I don’t see the need for rising action if I’m telling a good story. And what if my murder mystery requires the body to not show up until chapter 8? Am I not worthy of writing it?”

I am never 100% pro or con tight structure in my stories.

Not do you have to be.

I have found though that to err on the side of structure brings more benefits than punishments for an author that wants to share a story with the world.

Autistic Writer Series: Identifying the Climax

There are norms that apply to so-called “genre fiction” that at times literary fiction ignores. Literary fiction being more about language and deeper human character experiences, and genre fiction being…well…most of everything else. Mystery, suspense, romance, fantasy. You get the idea. Genres.

One such virtual-must for genre work is the climax.

Without veering too much into 9th grade English class territory, the climax of a story is defined variously as:

-the moment the conflict of the story is resolved

-the most exciting part of the story

-the point at which the protagonist is changed forever

-the scene in which the protagonist defeats, or is defeated by the antagonist

-the scene of greatest drama, action, and decision making (usually by the protagonist)

-the moment of the highest, most palpable tension in the entire story

And, to be most accurate:

-some combination of all of the above.

I struggled early on with identifying the precise “English teacher” climax of a story. True, it is somewhat open to interpretation, at least outside of a classroom. Variance exists. Yet those who look for the climax of a story generally locate the same moments.

I believe that even before I realized I was Autistic, my Autism blurred the concept of the narrative climax during my younger years.

A common example in schoolbooks even through high school was the first Star Wars movie.

The conventional wisdom is that the climax of that movie is the destruction of the Death Star.

One could take the broad view of climax, and state that the entire final battle qualified. Others could take a much narrower approach and contend the true climax was the moment Luke fired the fatal blast into the center of the space station. Regardless, the destruction of that weapon is the indisputable climax of the movie.

Indisputable, except to me.

The climax is usually near the end of the story. In this case, the Death Star exploding matches. But I asked myself some questions. (I eventually stopped asking teachers and other students because they never took my views seriously.)

-Was the battle of the Death Star objectively the most exciting part of the movie?

Action packed for sure, but so were many other scenes. That is kind of the point.

-Why couldn’t the death of Ben Kenobi be the climax?

 If the climax is when the protagonist is changed forever, surely this qualifies. Luke lost any semblance of viewing the whole thing as a game at that point. He was forever changed, even if not fully developed yet. When it was explained to a younger me that this was too early in the movie to be the climax, I pointed out how we said, “usually” the climax is near the end, but not always.

“Just, trust me,” is the gist of the answer I got to the question. He didn’t change enough and that was that.

The Empire still exists after the Rebels blow up the Death Star. They knew that even in the first movie. How is it a climax if the main antagonist has not been defeated by the protagonist within that first film?

Some version of “the Death Star isthe Antagonist in this case,” usually followed. But it isn’t. It just isn’t. Even today, that doesn’t fly with me.

A few friends tried to convince me that Vader was the antagonist. But he escaped. And even if Luke and the others thought Vader was dead, the climax isn’t for them, it’s for us, the viewer, and we know the antagonist in that case survived.

Nor was the protagonist defeated by the antagonist, whoever you choose as the antagonist.

I have plenty of other questions like these from when I first was taught about narrative climax via Star Wars. But you get the idea. In my Autistic mind, I could point to several places where the true definition of climax applied.

Perhaps more importantly, I didn’t see why I had to identify the correct scene anyway. Who cares when the climax of Star Wars happens, I asked myself. Or any story for that matter. If a story is being told that people enjoy, do we need to point to a climax? (or inciting incident, or falling action, and so on.)

These days I can accept why any given stated climax is the  textbook climax. And in my writing, sometimes a climax naturally shows up as the story unfolds. But I am still not locked in with the concept, because as an Autistic person I see through, around, over, under and deeper into the “obvious” climax of a day a year, a life. I live and perceive the world in moments that lead to moments, with no real climax. And though fiction supposedly “has” to have a climax,  I run the risk of a climax feeling forced if I label “ABC as the climax of a story as I outline it.

I tend to climb a plot until I find the peak. Then I go down the other side.

I guess to many, that approach seems, well, anticlimactic.

Autistic Writer Series: Conflict in Fiction

In last week’s post, I asserted characters were the most significant aspect of good fiction, despite solid counter—arguments that conflict holds that distinction.

I stand by my position. Still, the impact of conflict on fiction cannot be overstated.

Nor can the influence of an Autistic writer’s brain on same.

Conflict is usually defined as a battle between two opposing forces—the desires of one or more entities at odds with one another. For example:

Short, peaceful creatures must get to a mountain to destroy a magical item, as evil powers try to stop them and take the item for themselves.

In other words, forces not merely different from one another, but in direct opposition.


The conflict isn’t always as clear as this. And in the special case of literary fiction, it may not be there at all. But within proper genre fiction it’s there if one looks for it.

As someone on The Spectrum, I want and sometimes need my goals and by extension my conflicts well defined and quickly resolved. I prefer to tackle them head on as they arrive.

This isn’t to say I expect the work to be done for me. I’m willing to take on challenges. I would never expect someone to carry me to the top of the mountain in front of me.

That isn’t easy to achieve. Yet “climb the mountain,” strenuous and arduous as it may be, is a straightforward goal.

“Become a wiser, more patient man that masters herbal medicine and karate while coming to gradual terms with the feelings you have and have always had for your problematic travel companion during every step you take to the summit,” isn’t a straightforward goal to me. It isn’t even a list of goals. It’s chaos. Intentional chaos at that.

My brain wants to get on with it! Find the target, keep shooting. The sooner I hit that target the quicker I’m free to tackle the next obstacle.

But not before then. I want to keep tension low and responses deliberate.

This approach, at times necessary in my life, deadens fiction.


Conflict, conflict, conflict! There wouldn’t be enough of it. True, some fiction sinks itself in its own complexity. Too much conflict in too little time. But my laser-focused-almost-myopic-at-times Autistic mind contends with the opposite issue when I write; “enough” must occur.

My Autistic brain neutralizes conflict in one of two ways. The first is to solve/win it. The second is dismiss/abandon it.

If I choose to solve it, it needs to be solved as soon as possible. At times this happens at the expense of other things. It doesn’t always matter how I move that boulder, so long as I move it.

That can work in fiction. For certain genres and styles perhaps. In general, to be unconcerned with the “how,” and to avoid caring about the journey is the death of standard storytelling.

The journey is the story. So, if left to my total default brain mode of first drafts, I risk “getting to the point” too quickly. It becomes more report than story.

So I must remind myself to layer detail into the journey itself. Not just the overarching journey of the novel, but into anything a fully fleshed out character wants to achieve.

In other words, conflict.

Even in a completely interior struggle inside the heart of a character, I mustn’t rid the work of touchstones. Unlike my real-life tendency to eliminate friction ASAP, as an author I must guide the reader through the conflict and resolution by way of tension.

If I were to write conflict the way I often deal with it, it could be a short, pointless read to others, even if I know mentally there was great conflict involved in what happened in a character’s mind.

That mistake could lead to the worst tension of all in the world of the author: conflict with one’s readers.