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.

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Mad Swede
1 hour ago

One thing we haven't mentioned or discussed much is acceptance. By this I mean how society looks at those who differ in some way or, put more politely, how society sees eccentricities.This is an issue in real life, and it varies between countries and cultures. if we as authors are going to include characters who are intended to be neurodivergent then our world building needs to take a fairly deep dive into societal attitudes, since this will have a significant impact on the character and their interactions with others in that setting.

1 day ago

Our perception of neurodivergent characters is filtered depending on who they are and what position they occupy in life.
If someone is neurodivergent and on a relatively low income, I suspect we are more likely as a society to see that neurodivergence as a problem.

If, however, that same person happens to be a powerful politician or business leader, that same neurodivergence might well be accepted as some kind of positive trait.

A poor person in a lowly job might be considered to have Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. The same kind of behavioural issues in a highly successful business leader might be interpreted as "great attention to detail" or "highly focused".

I think you rarely see neurodivergent characters in fiction in general, let alone in fantasy. Almost certainly this is because such characters are difficult to write convincingly, unless written by someone who shares their neurodivergence. It is also a potential minefield. You don't want to end up doing something like upsetting the Autistic community or writing a character than turns out to be viewed as an inappropriate stereotype.

The Dark One
17 days ago

Going beyond the neurodivergent idea, there is an unfortunate trend in recent years where writers can be called out for including ethnicities, subcultures and types in their stories which go beyond their own personal experience. This is despite the clamour for characters beyond the norm, but try to write those characters and some may accuse you of cultural appropriation.

Fortunately, this hasn't happened to me (I'm probably not famous enough), but I suspect I run the risk given the diversity and oddness of my characters.

I also want to challenge myself by exploring parts of the human condition beyond my own reality. I've often been complimented on my female characters but how well can I write an unrequited gay crush? A lesbian fabliau? And if sex is included (there's always sex in my books but it tends to be subtle – in terms of action) how do I write the kind of sex I've never experienced myself?

Mind you, no-one's ever truly fought an Orc or been in hyperspace just yet but plenty of people write about those things. We writers have imaginations.

Charles Moore
30 days ago

I really like fantasy. But I never thought that character writing was so difficult. As difficult as making a competent literary review in a thesis. But luckily I know where to ask for help with literature and they'll help me do it successfully. It may be possible to find help for character writing, too. 

Jaq D Hawkins
29 days ago

Very interesting article. Having known many people, including a close relative, with some form of spectrum condition, I can see actually making a lead character more interesting because of their differences. After all, many Fantasy characters feel set apart from people around them for one reason or another.

The only story (series) I’ve come across with a clearly neurodivergent character so far is the Dragon Treasure series by Guy Donovan. It’s very well written, though there is a ‘cure’ involving a dragon’s psychic powers.

3 months ago

Of course this is a fantasy world we are talking about. If the author wants say autism to be known about and studied in his world, then there is no reason for that not to be a feature of his world. All it requires is for there to be a class of scholar who specialises in the human psyche, which there have been since Greek times. They didn't discover autism back in Ancient Greece, but there is no scientific reason for them not to have done so. Discovery just requires observation of the subjects, this is how autism was discovered in the first place, Asperger and Kanner both observed their subjects and wrote about those observations, no scientific equipment required. Of course you could give the condition a made up name that hints at neurodivergence without actually naming a condition if you didn't want to sound too modern.

Sure, and this is why a focus on the world building would be key for many stories that included such awareness of neurodivergent conditions.

I think this could actually add some interesting depth to the world building.

If having a class of scholars would not work for a particular world—and, that's one interesting possibility—then other features of the world might at least address or account for the knowledge. For instance, particular institutions might have the knowledge "baked in," so to speak. Theological institutions, military institutions, magical institutions, and so forth might have structures, practices, and policies addressing the existence of neurodivergent individuals, even if the details of the emergence of that knowledge, sometime in the past, are left unaddressed.

I still think an alternative approach would also work. A self-aware protagonist, the POV character, could acknowledge and frequently enough mention various indicators of their neurodivergent condition. "I'm never able to read others' faces. I don't know what they are thinking, or feeling. I've learned to act on my own and compensate for whatever reactions come my way." That sort of thing. This doesn't require deep knowledge of the abstractions but only a POV character's knowledge of their own reality and experience.

Neuro Archetypal
Neuro Archetypal
3 months ago

“To the delight of many readers, more characters in fantasy literature reflect aspects of real-world people than ever before.”

I don’t understand why you’d publish open bigotry like this.

Everyone are real world people. 

I clicked on this hoping to read about how I might better communicate NA character traits to regular people. Being on the spectrum myself, and working on my first novel, I sometimes struggle to understand how normally-wired brains process things.

Much to my dismay, I find a post that uses (weak, but largely beside the point) writing advice as click bait, so they can grab clicks and spread their bigotry.

I’ve never met a person in my life, or read a character in my life, that reflected me, and how terribly boring it would be if I did. I already live my own life.

Books are supposed to open minds and expand horizons, but all this blogger is concerned with is narrowing minds and thinking that some people are more real than others.

All my favorite characters are radically different than I am, because variety is the spice of life. Petty prejudice and fixation over trivial things like inborn demographic traits only reveal how deeply bigoted people are.

Whoever the blogger is should be ashamed of themselves, as should your website for publishing such naked prejudice.

3 months ago

Of course this is a fantasy world we are talking about. If the author wants say autism to be known about and studied in his world, then there is no reason for that not to be a feature of his world. All it requires is for there to be a class of scholar who specialises in the human psyche, which there have been since Greek times. They didn’t discover autism back in Ancient Greece, but there is no scientific reason for them not to have done so. Discovery just requires observation of the subjects, this is how autism was discovered in the first place, Asperger and Kanner both observed their subjects and wrote about those observations, no scientific equipment required. Of course you could give the condition a made up name that hints at neurodivergence without actually naming a condition if you didn’t want to sound too modern.

4 months ago

It wasn't until mid to late 19th C., sometimes well into the 20th C., that neurodivergent conditions first came to be diagnosed and studied.

I would say that even today, many of these conditions are not well understood by the general public.

Individuals now, then, and for all the time before those first studies began have had difficulty self-diagnosing—let alone being diagnosed by family, friends, acquaintances, and strangers who never studied in the field—and many people have gone through an entire lifetime not knowing, per se, that they are "neurodivergent."

Or, knowing that they have dyslexia. Or that they are on the autism spectrum. Or that they have ADHD. (And so on….)

I suppose, strictly speaking, that historical fantasy and contemporary fantasy are the only areas where some hard limits might be placed. In either case, an author can perhaps work around even these limits.

In any secondary fantasy world, general awareness of neurodivergent conditions can be built into the fantasy world however the author sees fit. Terms might change or even be unneeded if the general features of a neurodivergent condition are well known.

For example, perhaps synesthesia might be described when explaining that a given character was immediately accepted into a particular order of enchanters because she possessed the ability to hear the hidden musical notes and chords when reading runes and could use this awareness when casting enchantments. Her awareness of the hidden music made her enchantments that much stronger, and no one who could not do this could enter that special order of enchanters.

Alternatively, perhaps a main character might be denied entry into an order of enchanters because the notes and chords always distracted him when he tried to read the runic spells, and his enchantments would not work or would go awry. Others seem to not have this problem.

It is not so much having the specific terms that is necessary, but an author does need to be able to cast the neurodivergent condition into terms that a reader will recognize if communicating the existence of this condition is important to the author.

Also, I think that special consideration for the world being built may be necessary for explaining how a character can become aware of her own or another character's neurodivergent condition, especially if that character is a POV character. That character needs to come to terms with the condition, whatever those terms might be, in order to communicate its existence. Even if no clinical terminology exists, being aware of the neurodivergence and being able to describe it will require a world in which that can happen. In our modern world, even with 80, 150 years of studies, even with an Internet and knowledge just at our fingertips, a lot of people still can't self-diagnose for one reason or another. Some can; but those who can have the advantage of our modern world.

4 months ago

Well by know what you're writing I mean have it in your author notes or something. Don't necessarily need it in the story itself.

Mad Swede
4 months ago

You don't need terms in setting so long as you, the author, know what you're writing. Also, actually write with a condition in mind. As successful as the Big Bang Theory was it was still annoying how Sheldon was presented as generically neurodivergent at times.

No, you don't need terms. But they do make it a bit easier, because then you can concentrate on making the character(s) individuals. Not using terms and having a setting where the condition isn't even known makes for a very big writing challenge. As the author you have to convey the characters many nuances and differences without making the character unsympathetic, at the same time as making it possible for neurodivergent readers to identify with the character. Thats a fine balance which is very difficult to pull off, and it may be why there are (so far) relatively few neurodivergent authors out there.

4 months ago

You don't need terms in setting so long as you, the author, know what you're writing. Also, actually write with a condition in mind. As successful as the Big Bang Theory was it was still annoying how Sheldon was presented as generically neurodivergent at times.

4 months ago

In addition to Mad Swede's observations, another very important aspect going unaddressed is how the neurodivergence is written into the story in the first place when the setting might include none of the terminology and none of the recognition our modern world would have for the particular neurodivergence.

I suppose the question of whether it is written into the story—somehow made explicit, or left implicit, with all the shadings in between being possibilities also—is important.

I understand that some neurodivergent readers may wish "to see themselves accurately reflected in the pages of a fantasy story," but herein there be dragons. Metaphorically speaking. If the setting has none of the terminology and recognition for the neurodivergence, then the characters might have none of this for themselves and for others. A character might recognize her own difference and comment upon it clearly enough and frequently enough to make the neurodivergence explicit in the story. Alternatively, a character might allude to the existence of some difference, leave a lot unsaid, and thus make representation implicit. This might be especially true if the neurodivergent character is not a point of view character.

Considering the fact that some neurodivergent experiences might be shared between individuals who have different neurodivergent conditions, leaving things implicit or only hinted either a) fails as an example of representation or b) succeeds as an example of representation for readers who have different neurodivergent conditions.

This is problematic when considering accurate representation. There be dragons here. If the condition is not made explicit, some readers who key in on one hint or two might find other aspects of a character to be wrong or out of place. Alternatively, there is the issue of difference between neurodivergent individuals who have been diagnosed with the same condition; not all are affected equally in all ways. So who is to say that X character is…a bad representation, a failed representation, a so-so representation, a good representation?

Naturally, fully explicit descriptions, especially those set in a modern or future setting in our real universe, make this issue a little easier to handle in the actual writing.

Mad Swede
4 months ago

One thing which isn't really discussed here is the impact the setting has on the character. In a setting where diagnoses of these sorts don't exist (as would be the case for my dyslexia in a medieval setting) the character concerned may not know what is causing their problems. Neither does anyone else. That leads to a very different character from one who knows why they aren't the same (eg a soldier who got a terrible head injury in battle and has had problems ever since). Acceptance will be an issue, and it will vary – a military veteran injured in battle will probably be accepted in a way that someone with an undiagnosed condition might not be. In a society where most people can't read and write someone with dyslexia won't stand out and so will be accepted as relatively normal. So in addition to doing the research you need to think about how your character would develop in the setting you have created – and here it might be good to seek out older people diagnised late in life, because their experiences will be quite different to young people who were diagnosed early and got support..

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