Character Development

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To strengthen the bond between two characters whose friendship is one of the most important part of the book, I've been thinking about this a lot lately.

You don't think about this when you meet a new person. You become friends because you have things in common (interests, personality...) before you actually truly know them. When you really get to know them, there will be some things that you'll like and some you won't. If you decide to stay, it'll mean that you've decided that they are worth remaining into your life after all. Why? Because they'll make you laugh, because they understand you, ultimately; they give you something in return.

What does it take to become close friends with someone, apart from time? Some people, I've known for years, most of whom I barely talk to by now. We are just too different, and I believe we always have been. What they offered to me was temporary. We don't share the same values, and I probably wouldn't enjoy seeing them all the time.

Those I kept: I like the way they think, or I love the energy they bring which seems to collide perfectly well with mine. With some of them it's all about our conversations and how they bring something different to the things I observe, be it in my day to day life or my deeper thoughts. They do so each in their own unique way; they are all different. Still, some friendships are a bit more physical. Simply put; I just love spending time with them. They make me laugh, and even though we don't agree on all important things and may very rarely have long and intellectual conversations about the world for that very reason, it may never matter to us at the end of the line. Chances are, we will be too busy enjoying ourselves to think about such things. I believe that in such relationships, despite the fact that we may not be similar in our way of thinking, all similarity and connection found may mainly if not fully reside in the mechanical functioning of our brain. It is a rare thing to find someone with whom it is possible to be understood and communicate without the need of words. Most likely, what you are trying to express, they will be feeling it, too. Perhaps not in the same exact way, but surely close enough.

I've been thinking about two characters I've read about lately whose friendship has moved me beyond words. In the end I believe it was those both types of friendships - intellectual and physical - in one. It started as an intellectual friendship, and as the two grew into one-another, turned into a physical one as well without their noticing. The result was that they were rarely apart, reason being that they understood each other like they rarely, if ever, had with others, but also that together they brought an energy to every moment that passed that, surely, made everything better. It is a simple word but a large one: better in the sense that everything became more tolerable; easier and more enjoyable; filled with possibilities which, as time together must have proven, had ways of becoming stories that they might ultimately never forget, and share with others even after years will have passed.

To add to it, I believe it has also to do with what they brought in each other in terms of character. The way that they influenced each other was commendable, and if one of the two may not have noticed, it was shown many times that the other had. This led him, I believe, to become even more dependant on his friend than he may have been in the past, even when their appreciation of each other was already high. It is an interesting thing to observe. This side of him that has matured, he owes it to his friend. It is something that he regards highly of him. This influence, which is in part owed to the great kindness of his friend, sometimes feels, in the book, as though he is aware of it the way we are aware of warm covers on cold nights, or like a coat in a snow storm. Every time it showed, he seemed to be reminded of his friend and the way that he looks up to him for it.

I began writing this in hopes of discovering something new and different about strong friendships that I might have missed before, something almost mythical, like an old romance novel, but perhaps it can also be said that in every ordinary thing may reside something magical and rare. It could be that we are only too used to it to notice, or are not paying enough attention. In the end, it is true that strong friendships can only be built with time; to realize that we love the person in question and the things they bring to us, but also time to reflect what they mean to us and how far we are willing to go to keep them. I realize now that I may have been looking for a magical answer to bypass this element of time to create a bond between my two main characters, so powerful, that it would be strong right away like a platonic love at first sight. But there is nothing boring about time, if done correctly. We do not form such strong connections with every stranger we meet, it simply cannot be forced. Why do we find such delight in platonic romances such as Sherlock and Watson, Harry and Ron, Marty and Doc (each different in their own way, but relatable in their strength and sacrifices)? It could be for the very same reason that the romance genre has been dominating the movie industry for decades. It enviable because it is rare. We all have, or at least for the greater part of us, formed a romantic connection with someone, and there is not a person on earth that has never had a friend, but the connection that we find in movies, powerful as what made the Titanic such a historical sensation in its industry, same as Good Will Hunting, Forrest Gump or the Dead Poet society, are rare things indeed. We may never live to experience these ourselves, but it is quite nice to feel it through some other's eyes, for an hour and a half or more.

This may look like complete gibberish. I don't truly expect anyone to read it, but it has helped putting a lot of things into perspective. Also english isn't my first language.....
Why are characters so important?
One of the most important aspects of fiction is the characters. Stories are all about people (and creatures or things which, to all intents and purposes, act like people). No matter how good your plot is, or how realistic your setting, if the characters don’t work your reader won’t enjoy the story.

Readers need to feel that they understand your characters. This means that their motives need to be clear, their actions need to make sense, and the reader needs to be able to empathise with them. That doesn’t necessarily mean they like them, just that they can get inside the characters’ heads and understand what they are thinking and feeling, and why.

The problem of empathy in autism
There are two main types of empathy: cognitive, and affective. Cognitive empathy is the ability to understand other people’s thoughts, feelings and perspectives, and affective empathy is the ability to share in and reciprocate others’ feelings. People with autism and aspergers often struggle with cognitive empathy, which makes it harder for us to work out what other people are thinking and feeling, and what they know and do not know. Often we have to work this out logically from knowledge we already have or patterns we have observed previously, rather than doing it spontaneously or naturally through our interactions with people. Sometimes our understanding of other people takes more time, and we realise things about people after the interaction has already finished.

How does this problem of empathy apply in writing?
A character is not a real person. Even if it is based on a real person, the character itself is not real. However, empathy still applies when writing a story. When you are writing a story, there are two perspectives influencing what gets written down: the perspective of the author, and the perspective of the character.

Writing the story from the perspective of the author is a problem because the author already knows everything about the story. He/she also knows everything about all the other characters. So if the author’s own perspective ‘bleeds’ into those of the characters, it distorts the characters’ points of view. The character will appear to know things that they should not know; or they might think, feel, say and do things which do not make sense in the context of the story (for example if these thoughts, feelings, words and actions are those of the author).

So in order to correctly portray your character, you have to take their perspective. You have to put yourself into their mind and think not about what you are thinking and feeling, not what you know or would do in their situation, but about them. In other words, you have to empathise with your character in just the same way as you would with a real person.

Lets look at an example to illustrate this point. Our main character is a little boy called Simon. Simon’s parents are arguing behind a closed door. Simon can’t open the door, or his parents will know he is listening. However, he can’t hear his parents’ whispers well through the door, so only hears fragments. Later, Simon is telling his sister what he heard. In order to know what he knows, the writer has to empathise with Simon. What can he reasonably know in this situation? And which parts of the argument (which you, the author, already know) represent knowledge he cannot have? This is crucially important, because it will affect the realism of the character and of how he chooses to act on his knowledge. If he acts on information he shouldn’t know, his actions will appear unrealistic.

A further complication: ‘double’ empathy
Your characters are interacting with other characters. That means they also have to empathise. So you have to take the perspective of one character and then consider what he/she knows about other characters. So we have to get inside Simon’s head and work out what he knows about his parents’ argument. Now we have to think about how Simon will understand what his sister is thinking and feeling, and what she already knows or does not know, during his interaction with her. For example, when he tells her that he heard the word ‘divorce’ through the door, his sister will react. But what does this reaction mean? That depends. Does she understand what the word ‘divorce’ means? If so, she might be shocked. If not, she might be confused. Could she already have known that her parents were talking about divorce? And how does Simon know that she knows this?

As you can see empathising with characters is not simple. It’s easy to get tied up in knots thinking not only about what your character is thinking and feeling and what he/she knows, but also about what they know of the perspectives of other characters and how this interplay of perspectives affects their communication and interaction.

Strategies for writing characters
So empathy, which is a fundamental difficulty in autism, is central to writing realistic and consistent characters. But all is not lost. There are things you can do to make this easier, and they mirror the strategies you might use when trying to empathise with people in real life.

Ensure your body is regulated
Unmet sensory needs will affect your information processing. Empathy is a cognitive process, so sensory dysregulation will impair your ability to take your characters’ perspectives effectively. Before you start writing, or even thinking about writing, do what you need to do to regulate your body. That might mean moving around, fidgeting, or making some noise if you are a sensory seeker, or adjusting the environment (e.g. lighting, background noise, resonance in the room etc) if you are hyper-sensitive to any of these things. Take regular breaks while you are working to check you are still regulated, as sometimes bodily and sensory dysregulation can creep in and affect thinking without you realising it—especially if you are very focused on what you are doing.

Slow down
This is easier when writing than when interacting with a real person. Sometimes it takes time to process information about others’ perspectives, and this is true when writing fiction as well. When you are writing, you have the luxury of slowing down and taking the time you need to work out your character’s perspective.

Work backwards
It can be hard to start from a character’s current position, take their perspective, and work out their actions from that point. Sometimes it’s easier to start with what you want the character to do next. Then, consider what would cause them to do that, and what would they need to know or understand in order to do it. Then you can fill in the gaps in the detail of the character’s perspective linking one action to another, while keeping their actions consistent with their state of mind.

Go back and forth between inner monologue and actions
When you’re re-reading, keep going back and forth between your descriptions of your characters’ thoughts and feelings, and the things they do as a result of them. Ask yourself if it makes sense that they would say or do what they did in light of their internal state.

Ask someone to check your characters’ actions
If you’re not sure, check with someone else whether your character’s actions make sense in light of what you have told the reader about them (i.e. what they think, feel and know). If they don’t, then it’s possible that you have misjudged or miscommunicated something about your character’s mindset.

Base characters on people you know
Because they’re not real, characters have the potential to do anything. That leaves a lot of scope for them to behave in ways which a real person might not. If you base your characters, even loosely, on people you know well, then it can be easier to take their perspective. This is because you can draw on past experience of interactions with that person when determining the actions they take as a result of their situation.

Include characters with autism
If your main character is autistic, you can be explicit about the fact that they don’t know certain things. This takes some of the burden of empathy away. This is probably a short-term fix, however. The reason for this is that in order for the plot to progress, they will need to learn things that they didn’t know before, which means you need to know those things and find ways for your character to learn them; you also need to be conscious of the things your character doesn’t know, which in itself requires empathy. However, it may be easier to empathise with an autistic character if their mindset more closely reflects your own.

Make detailed character sheets
This will help to consolidate your characters’...
Why write autistic characters?
Recognition of autism is improving as society learns more about what it means to be autistic. We now recognise that autism is prevalent throughout many aspects of society, and are understanding more and more about both the challenges and advantages it brings. It is statistically likely that everybody knows somebody with autism, whether that person knows they are autistic or not. And it is for this reason that I think there should be more autistic characters in literature. Autism is part of the human experience, bringing a unique and sometimes quirky perspective and novel ways of solving problems. These factors alone create the potential for autism to influence character and plot in interesting ways.

What is autism?
Autism is a congenital neurological difference which results in altered perception and information processing. This might sound very different to other descriptions of autism, which often focus on impairments, disabilities and social difficulties. However, these difficulties are secondary to the main difference in autism. Think of the brain as a computer; there are inputs (keyboards, mice, touch screens etc), which are akin to the senses, and there are outputs (displays, speakers and hardware devices) which resemble human communication, movement and action. Between the input and the output is the processor, which is what makes sense of the input and decides on the most appropriate output.

In autism, the inputs (i.e. the senses) work differently. Some of them are more sensitive than usual, some of them are less so. This can mean hyper-sensitivity to certain senses, such as finding light over a certain brightness or noise which is relatively quiet very overwhelming. Conversely, hypo-sensitivity can lead to things like not noticing certain sensations and therefore craving them in order to feel regulated; this is often associated with the need to spin around or flap limbs, which are due to reduced vestibular and proprioceptive senses.

The effect of all this is that information is processed differently by the brain. Things to which the person is hyper-sensitive is given a higher priority, because it is the most demanding of attention. Things to which they are hypo-sensitive is given reduced priority, because it is unnoticed or not considered to be important. And the processing of information, which is required in order to understand it, is slowed down or altered by the overwhelming amount of stimulation which is bombarding the person at any given time.

The reason why this affects social interaction is complicated. First, in this whirlwind of sensory information, social behaviours from other people may simply not be noticed. I don’t see that you are angry because my visual cortex is burned out trying to ignore the patterns on the wallpaper. Or I can’t take in your tone of voice because the police siren down the street is too distressing. As children, this means that autistic people often miss opportunities to learn about social interaction by observing it in others. Furthermore, people are often very unpredictable, and in a world consisting of overwhelming sensory information, autistic people tend to be drawn to things which are consistent and safe. This is the reason why autistic people often withdraw from social situations. The sensory onslaught is overwhelming, and the social demands too great to cope with. This leads to huge amounts of stress, fatigue, and ultimately shutdown.

That all sounds terrible. Why would I want to include an autistic character in my writing?
The same aspects of altered sensory and information processing which cause a lot of turmoil for autistic people also brings many gifts. Sensory hyper-sensitivity can lead to amazing attention to detail, noticing things that others wouldn’t (or couldn’t). Hypo-sensitivity can be more of a challenge, but at times can work well, such as by filtering out irrelevant stimuli which might be distracting to other people. This can help massively with focus. On the subject of attention, it tends to be single-channeled in autism, rather than multitasking. This means that autistic people can focus strongly on one thing at a time, and with such strong focus to the exclusion of all else they can accomplish more in a shorter space of time. Interests for people with autism tend to be narrow, and this allows them to learn huge amounts of information and develop amazing skills within these interests. This is partly due to the search for safe consistency previously noted, and partly because once a motivating interest is found it tends to become a passion. In childhood this looks like obsessions (such as loving a particular cup and spinning it round and round over and over again), and in adulthood it tends to mean a narrow focus on particular topic areas.

For these reasons, autistic characters in fiction can provide an interesting perspective. They will notice things around them in ways which other characters don’t. Some things that the reader might expect them to be aware of will go unnoticed, and this will cause confusion and misunderstandings for the characters. They will read different things in to other people’s intentions, and will solve problems in different ways. They will interpret situations differently, and can present these interpretations in ways which can intrigue readers and make them think about their own perceptions of the environment around them - not to mention the people within it.

How to write a good autistic character
I am by no means claiming to be an authority on writing. Far from it - I am an amateur at best. But I am a specialist in autism by profession, know many autistic people, have autistic relatives, and am on the autism spectrum myself. So I do know a lot about autism, what it is, and more importantly, what it is not. So here are my tips on how to portray autism in a way which will accurately reflect the truth of its differences, while at the same time allowing your reader to empathise with the character.

Meet real people with autism
Characters in fiction will portray their surface behaviours, and perhaps some of their inner monologue and thought processes. But they won’t really explore the processing that is going on under the surface. So you might see that a character is covering their ears when a train goes by, and they might even say that the sound is unbearable, but you won’t necessarily get deep insight into how that affects that person at the time (e.g. that when they are experiencing am overwhelming stimulus in one sensory modality they are unable to process information from other senses). Also, they probably won’t explain how this experience affects them moving on from there, i.e. the time it takes for the sensory system to return to baseline. You might also see the social difficulties they have, but not necessarily the reasons for them. It is important to understand not only what’s going on on the surface, but also the processing differences which are associated with them. And the best person to tell you about those things is a person with autism.

Read autobiographies about autistic people
Wenn Lawson, Ros Blackburn, Clare Sainsbury, Jim Sinclair, Zaffy Simone... these and other autistic adults can tell you, from a first-hand perspective, what it is like to experience the world as an autistic person. Reading their accounts will help you get inside the mind of an autistic person and take their POV.

Beware of stereotypes
Rain Man has a lot to answer for. As does The Big Bang Theory. These are catchphrase characters who portray stereotypical autistic traits. Outside of fiction, we are bombarded by historical figures who are posthumously diagnosed with autism. Mozart, Einstein, Lewis Carrol and Alan Turing are all touted as autistic, and all on the grounds of genius or prodigious abilities and/or an aloof manner with people. Yes these can be characteristics of autism, but not necessarily. Focusing on these traits and basing ostensibly autistic characters on them risks giving a stereotyped and two-dimensional view of autism. So don't write a character who flaps his hands and hums to himself and repeats the same phrases over and over again. Yes some autistic people do those things, and yes your character might do them at some points. But if it's all they do, and if you don't explain why they are doing, your character will seem shallow. This is unfulfilling for readers, deprives them of an opportunity to learn about autism in an enjoyable way, and is annoying for people with autism!

Get empathy right
It is a myth that people with autism lack empathy. There are two main types of empathy: cognitive, and affective. Cognitive empathy is the ability to understand other people’s thoughts, feelings and perspectives, and...