Writing Neurodivergent Characters in Fantasy

This article is by Emma Lammers.

Author’s note: neurodivergent is term used to refer to people whose neurological functions differ from the norm because of an innate or acquired condition. Examples of these conditions include autism, learning disabilities, mood disorders, traumatic brain injuries, and more. People who do not have any neurodivergent conditions are considered neurotypical.

To the delight of many readers, more characters in fantasy literature reflect aspects of real-world people than ever before. Today’s heroes can be people of colour, people of any gender or sexual identity, people of nearly any age. Writers are answering the call for more diversity in their work, and oftentimes they do it well, portraying realistic, nuanced characters from marginalized communities.

Some people, however, aren’t as likely to see themselves accurately reflected in the pages of a fantasy story. I’ve searched long and hard to find literary characters who experience autism, anxiety, and sensory processing disorder as I do, and very few of these characters show up in fantasy – a detriment to my favourite genre. Villainous characters are often portrayed as neurodivergent because writers think that this will make them scarier, and you will encounter the occasional hero with post-traumatic stress disorder, but  these depictions tend to lack accuracy, diversity, and consideration for the people who actually have the conditions used in the story.

The ability to write characters who are different from you is a vital skill for any author, and creating characters who are neurodivergent is one way to put that skill to use. In this article I’ll discuss how to do research for your neurodivergent characters (NCs), different ways to portray them, and the challenges and advantages they might have depending on your fantasy world.

Step One: Researching Neurodivergence

First and foremost: avoid stereotypes. Many unrealistic and offensive portrayals of neurodivergent people stem from the writer’s reliance on their own assumptions and a few lines from the medical description of a condition. If you want your NC to have all the nuances of a real person, focus on books, websites, and videos made by neurodivergent people.

It may seem sensible to start with medical resources, but we neurodivergent folks are often very knowledgeable about our own brains and can give you a view from the inside. Neurodivergent creators can better help you understand things like flashbacks, communication differences, and sensory overload because we’ve experienced them for ourselves. Remember that we come from many different backgrounds and have a variety of habits and beliefs  – no two of us are exactly the same, even if we share a diagnosis. Therefore, to create a believable NC, you should immerse yourself in the work of diverse people, including those who are non-verbal, people of colour, and LGBTQIA.

For fantasy that features well-written neurodivergent characters, I recommend The Deep by Rivers Solomon and The Real Boy by Anne Ursu. Disability in KidLit is also a great resource, with book reviews by neurodivergent writers.

Step Two: Developing Your Neurodivergent Character

Once you start doing research, ideas for your NC will begin to form. You can help to shape your character by answering these questions:

First, consider how your neurodivergent character fits into the story. Do they lead the action, support or oppose the protagonist, or function as a love interest? Be careful of stereotypes here – for instance, the hyper-intelligent autistic character who exists only to give the heroes vital information. Give them passions and fears, hobbies and relationships, so that they aren’t defined by their diagnosis alone. At the same time, show how being neurodivergent in a neurotypical world can make mundane tasks more difficult to navigate because they aren’t designed to accommodate things like memory problems or different communication needs. Integrating brief examples of your NC’s status quo into the story can be a good way to make their different experience clear to readers without piling on the exposition.

Next, give some thought to your NC’s backstory. Are they troubled by experiences related to their neurodivergence, like a lost job, a failed relationship, or abuse? What have they learned to be ashamed of? Note that these things do not have to be the focus of your NC’s existence. A passion to do or have something that is usually inaccessible to neurodivergent people can also bring your character to life on the page. Show an NC striving for what they desire, or happily thriving even though they don’t meet regular standards of good health: these portrayals can empower neurodivergent readers and subvert expectations of neurodivergent lives.

Step Three: Neurodivergence in Your Fantasy World

Now it’s time to decide how your NC interacts with the setting you’ve created for your fantasy story. If your world is based on a specific culture or time period, you can target your research in that area; if not, I’d recommend exploring several real-world examples of the concepts mentioned below to help create something that suits your story.

Decide how the societies of your world view neurodivergence. They might have a religious or medical explanation for it. They might accept different behaviours from everyone, or only from people in a certain position. Or maybe they value certain traits (like hyperfocus, common in autism and ADHD) more than others (like compulsions or mood swings).

What accommodations are provided for your NC? Can they take breaks whenever they need them, or bring a support animal to work? If they need assistance (either with daily living or specific tasks), who gives that assistance, and how do they view their role as a caregiver –a sacred task, a burden, or just a regular job?

If your NC’s traits aren’t generally accepted or understood, what workarounds have they or their caregivers developed? This could be something mundane, like wearing discreet earplugs to help with auditory processing or regular exercise to relieve anxiety, or it could be a magical device or spell that serves a similar purpose.

Step Four: Neurodiversity and Magic

As the author, you can choose whatever style of magic you like, and whatever you choose will give your neurodivergent character different obstacles and opportunities. Perhaps they excel at making magical objects, but find the business of selling them hard to navigate because of communication difficulties. The possibilities really are endless, and you can have a lot of fun exploring them.

However, before you start writing your story, there are a few things about magic you’ll want to consider.

Magical “Cures”

If you want the magic in your world to be able to change a person’s neurotype, ask yourself why you want this – and why your character might want it. The topic of “curing” neurodivergent conditions is a controversial one, with different views stemming from different experiences. Someone with a worsening or isolating condition might long for a cure, while another person might be tired of shouldering the responsibility to adapt and demand that the people around them change instead.

Including a magic “cure” in your story with the implication that neurodivergent characters will want it will upset and anger many neurodivergent readers. Personally, while I’m not happy with every aspect of having autism and sensory processing disorder, I would not be the same person if they were taken away. They are intrinsic to how I think, sense, move, and communicate. Neurodivergence is not easily separated from a person’s identity, if it can be separated at all.

Magical Aides

You might consider including some kind of charm, spell, or potion that helps ease certain struggles for your NC. In order to prevent these aides from erasing the realities of being neurodivergent, you could make them difficult to find or use. An anti-depressant amulet might only last a few weeks, for example, or be dangerous to make and therefore expensive. Real-world examples of assistive devices and treatments (real and fraudulent) might give you some ideas here.

Magic Schools

Many neurodivergent adults (myself included) look back on their student years with regret or even resentment because of the lack of accommodation and understanding we had to grow up with. You might choose to reflect this in your writing, especially if you are drawing from a real-world culture, or you might subvert this trope and create a school that caters to all its students equally. Extended deadlines, quiet spaces, and access to magical or human assistance might be what your NC needs to succeed. Give some thought to how the social aspect of school might be different for your NC as well.

Finally, you could explore how learning to use magic makes a difference to your NC’s life. Does it give them a method of communication or self-expression? Are they more alienated by society for their magic, or do they struggle to meet people’s high expectations of magicians?

Parting Thoughts

There is no limit to the possibilities for NCs in fantasy. Neurodivergent readers deserve to see ourselves represented in all genres of fiction, and as I hope this article has shown, it’s possible to write accurate, engaging NCs with proper research and planning.

I wish you joy in your writing, and I hope that you come to love your neurodivergent characters as much as any others.

Do you think you will include neurodivergent characters in your writing? How would you incorporate them into the world of your story? What neurodivergent characters have you come across in books?

About the Author:

Emma Lammers is a writer and educator based in Ontario. Her current work-in-progress, a fantasy novel, seems to be nearing completion. Occasionally she blogs about books and life on her website, www.emmalammers.com.