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blog Writing Neurodivergent Characters in Fantasy

Discussion in 'Writing Discussions' started by Black Dragon, Sep 12, 2021.

  1. Featured Author

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    Featuredauthor submitted a new blog post:

    Writing Neurodivergent Characters in Fantasy
    This article is by Emma Lammers.

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    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...
    Continue reading the Original Blog Post.
     
  2. Mad Swede

    Mad Swede Inkling

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    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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  3. FifthView

    FifthView Vala

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    In addition to Mad SwedeMad 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 likes this.
  4. Queshire

    Queshire Auror

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    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.
     
    Pyrite Pen likes this.
  5. Mad Swede

    Mad Swede Inkling

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    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.
     
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  6. Queshire

    Queshire Auror

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    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.
     
  7. FifthView

    FifthView Vala

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    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.
     
    TheKillerBs likes this.
  8. <span>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.</span>
     
  9. FifthView

    FifthView Vala

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    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.
     
    Last edited: Oct 18, 2021
  10. Charles Moore

    Charles Moore New Member

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    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.&nbsp;
     
  11. The Dark One

    The Dark One Auror

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    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.
     
  12. Puck

    Puck Minstrel

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    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.
     
  13. Mad Swede

    Mad Swede Inkling

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    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.
     
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  14. Rosemary Tea

    Rosemary Tea Maester

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    Neurodivergent authors? Do you mean neurodivergent characters?

    I suspect the percentage of neurodivergent people who are authors may be comparable to neurotypicals. But we wouldn't necessarily know, because authors don't necessarily disclose that to their reading public, if they even know themselves. Plenty of neurodivergences tend to go under diagnosed well into adulthood.

    Granted, there aren't many who put their neurodivergence front and center on their author website, as Nalo Hopkinson did.
     
  15. Rosemary Tea

    Rosemary Tea Maester

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    Would dyslexia also create difficulty in certain trades, since it is, if I understand correctly, a visual disorder? Or would a dyslexic carpenter or cooper have no trouble at all getting the planks to align right, using the right nails, etc? Assuming, that is, that they don't have any disorder other than the dyslexia.
     
  16. Queshire

    Queshire Auror

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    I'm not as familiar with dyslexia as I am with other conditions, but I do not believe so.
     
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  17. Mad Swede

    Mad Swede Inkling

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    No, I mean neurodivergent authors. The blog post is an argument for both more neurodivergent characters and more neurodivergent authors. The thing is, it's hard to convey those nuances if you as author don't have an in-depth knowledge of the condition and what it means. It's also hard for many neurodivergent people to create a setting with normal people when they themselves are puzzled by what is sometimes called neurotypical behaviour. the two groups talk past one another as we say in Swedish, both in real life and in their literary settings.
     
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