Autism, Audience & Character Arcs

May 21, 2024

Of Autism and Audience 

There are a lot of different theories about autism, and some are better than others. Take the whole lack of empathy thing. I get it. Sometimes I do not seem empathetic at all. But it's not really about empathy, it's about communication. 

Autistics DO care about others, we just don't always communicate it. Sometimes we seem uncaring because we misunderstand  what others expect; sometimes we get snagged by our special interests and forget about people for a while. But it's not about a lack of caring. If anything, we probably care too much.

But what about autistic writers? Do we care about our readers? 

Some people (particularly those who've read an autistic first draft) might say we don't. But to me, this is a lot like saying autistics lack empathy. It's just not accurate.

Autistic neurobiology can affect our ability to construct a narrative (see my post, Autism and the Narrative Process). Poor narrative structure can create a confusing story.

We don't want to confuse anyone. We want people to like our work—and I think most of us want to be understood even more. 

Unfortunately, the characters we write about can add to reader confusion.

When Characters Annoy

I have belonged to various critique groups over the years and I've gotten some lovely feedback on my writing, but not all comments have been easy to hear. Part of the reason for this may be the specifics of what was said. But I feel that another more important part may be related to autism and what's called theory of mind (which is simply the ability to understand other people).

According to Julie Brown author of Writers on the Spectrum, because autistics may struggle with theory of mind (and understanding other people), we're more likely to base our characters on ourselves than most neurotypical writers. This tendency could make us extra-sensitive to negative labels being applied to our characters, especially if we have a history of being bullied.

This is something we have to come to terms with IF we want to publish our work, at this point in time, anyway, because we will get feedback at some point whether we want it or not. It is worth saying, of course, that nobody has to publish anything if they don't want to (which was my approach for most of my life). 

But my assumption here is that you might want to go public and that if you do you may run into people who think your characters are kind of like you. In my case, that's creepy or immature or messed up (or annoying). In your case, it might be something completely different.

People disliking your characters isn't the worst thing that can happen, however. The worst thing, in my experience, is to finish a novel and find out that the character development you thought was obvious is completely invisible to others.

When that happens, like it did to me, what can we do about it?

The Problem of Character Arc

While some stories are subtler than others, clarity is key in fiction and if people can't see your characters change over the course of the story, I think you need to fix it. This can be done with writer resources, a human critique group, or with AI collaboration. There are pros and cons to each. I don't want to take a deep dive on that other than to say I used all three.

The human critique group alerted me to the fact that my main character in Trancing Miranda didn't change enough. In some ways, given the addiction theme, I felt like that was kind of the point. In others, however, I could see that Miranda's arc was unclear.

So I turned to two of my favorite writing resources, Save the Cat Writes a Novel, and Romancing the Beat. I like these books because they present a simple approach to structure (and to me, writing is already complicated enough). I also like that you can use these resources to structure your story after you've written draft one.

Using these books helped me identify my individual character's themes and their primary wound or flaw. Then I was able to kind of retrofit what I'd written into the suggested beat sheets.

This was NOT easy. So I turned to Claude Sonnet 200k and brainstormed back and forth for several weeks. In the end, I was able to come up with a beat sheet that made sense. This involved taking things out and simplifying the story. A lot.

While I know this isn't an issue for all autistic writers I struggle with long-form fiction and complex plots. So for me, it's easier to aim for a novella or even a novelette and not worry about word count or high stakes events at all.

Where I'm At

I'm not done with Trancing Miranda yet but I do have a plan. Edits are going well. And I am not trying to make the story something its not.

I don't think that my stories have the kind of suspense that a lot of other paranormal fiction has. I am not writing kick-ass heroines or larger than life heros or marathon sex scenes. I'm trying to write about things like pain and healing and forgiveness and trust in my own odd sort of way.

Not everyone wants that kind of story, but those that do have to be able to see it.

I'm not there yet but I think I'm think I'm getting there. As always, I will keep you posted.

Save the Cat Writes a Novel and Romancing the Beat (affiliate links) are both available on Amazon. There are a lot of great books on writing out there. My all time favorite is Ray Bradbury's Zen in the Art of Writing (affiliate link). The beat books (first two mentioned), however, have helped me with structure and character development which are two of my biggest challenges. 

(Julie Brown's book Writers on the Spectrum (affiliate link) is on Amazon too. It's a great book but it isn't a writer's guide.)

I can also not stress enough how helpful brainstorming with AI has been and will be doing a post on that at some point. Claude will choke from time to time, but he will never tell you your main character is a creep!

Please note, if you purchase a book through one of my Amazon Affiliate links, I will receive a small commission at no cost to you.

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