Writing neurotypical characters: a guide for people with autism and Asperger Syndrome

Discussion in 'Articles' started by mashers, Aug 9, 2017.

By mashers on Aug 9, 2017 at 11:27 AM
  1. mashers

    mashers Contributor Contributor Community Volunteer

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    Writing neurotypical characters: a guide for people with autism and Asperger Syndrome

    Discussion in 'Articles' started by mashers, Aug 9, 2017.

    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’ personalities, which is important for taking their perspectives. I would also suggest updating character profiles throughout your story. For example, after writing a scene you could add to the character sheet new information they have learned, or how their emotional state, opinions or attitudes have changed in light of recent events. This will help to keep track of what all of the characters think, feel and know at each juncture in the story.


    Make reference to characters’ mindsets when planning your plot
    The turning points in the plot will depend on the actions of your characters, and those actions will be influenced by what the characters think, feel and know. If you plan your plot without a clear idea of your characters’ perspectives at each point, then your plot will be inconsistent with your characters. I like to plan using a flow chart which shows which characters are involved in a scene, and what their goals and intentions are for that scene. This helps to track how their interactions affect the development of the plot.


    Make a conscious effort to account for double empathy
    Endeavour to get inside your character’s head, and then from the character’s perspective get into the head of another character. That will help you to ensure that their thoughts and actions make sense in light of their interaction with other characters.


    Summary
    Empathy is harder for autistic people, and this can make it harder to understand not only other people, but our own characters. This can be a problem when attempting to make characters’ actions consistent and realistic, and plots coherent. Hopefully the above strategies will help you to overcome some of these difficulties and make your writing more enjoyable and more effective.


    Please comment if you have any opinions, whether you agree or disagree with anything, or if you have any other ideas for strategies autistic writers can use to help with characterisation.
     

Comments

Discussion in 'Articles' started by mashers, Aug 9, 2017.

    1. mashers
      mashers
      @Bill Chester
      Thanks for your suggestion of this article. I hope you find it helpful :)
    2. Odile_Blud
      Odile_Blud
      Sorry. Ignore the comment I made on your other post. I hadn't seen this one yet. Thanks!
    3. Chris Before
      Chris Before
      A really interesting article for all writers in the creation of their characters. It is easy for the author to slip into a single voice for characters, peering over the shoulder of their characters. I especially like the note on double empathy, it brings all the key elements into sharp focus. Personally I wonder if it is a touchstone i should place on every character's shoulder, even if they are alone. A check on the character's perspective, how they think and feel internally and interacting with others.
    4. mashers
      mashers
      No worries! You still made an interesting point on the other thread so I responded anyway ;)
      Odile_Blud likes this.
    5. Odile_Blud
      Odile_Blud
      Thank you! :)
    6. mashers
      mashers
      Thanks for your comments! And yeah, characters will be reflecting on other characters even when they are alone. They will still be reacting to other characters' previous words and actions, and those reactions still need to make sense. So yes, I would say that double empathy still applies.
      Chris Before likes this.
    7. ChickenFreak
      ChickenFreak
      I wonder if the question of indirect/non-literal speech in dialogue would be relevant here? I realize that would probably be part of a whole section on "things neurotypical people do that you may not do", so it may not fit the structure.

      I edit to note that I seem to "speak" both languages, which means that I at times act as a translator.
    8. mashers
      mashers
      That’s a good point. Neurotypical characters will use idiomatic and indirect language, whereas autistic ones will tend to communicate more directly and literally. Thanks for pointing this out :)
    9. mashers
      mashers
      Just another quick note about this, I have an autistic character who uses idioms very deliberately. He has learned the meanings of some, and says them to himself in context. At times, I allude to his understanding of the idiom, which is not always complete (because he learned them by rote, so is confused about why they mean what they do).
    10. Bill Chester
      Bill Chester
      Hi mashers,

      I only discovered this thread when I went looking for your other autistic thread. Lots of good points--pretty much how I work.

      There's another problem that Aspies face, though. Intimacy.

      I retired ten years ago when an old friend from my 20s emailed me after a twenty-seven years absence. She had recently recovered from ovarian cancer and wanted me to come to Nova Scotia to spend our last years together, knowing that eventually, the cancer would relapse.

      In the old days, we described our relationship as 'buddies.' She had other boyfriends--and girlfriends, too. That never interfered with our friendship.

      But now we were husband and wife and something was very wrong. Why couldn't I be intimate?

      We discovered that I am an Aspie five years ago when Asperger's was a celebrity thing. I read a book, The Patient, about an Aspie doctor and realized my old friend Lynn (from that time in my twenties) was an Aspie. She was obsessed with plants and I loved to listen to her while she cooked dinner. How could anyone know so much about plants?

      I made the connection to myself, of course. There were all sorts of tests on the Internet. My wife and I took them together--she always came out pure NT and I was pure Aspie.

      That solved our intimacy problem and, in fact, has made caring for her as she gets sicker easier than it might be for an NT who would be far more emotionally invested.

      So, intimacy is the emotion that I would have to fake. My characters never express intimacy. (I just realized this.)

      I also have quite severe prosopagnosia (face blindness). Things started to go bad in my first marriage when, it seemed, I looked directly at my wife on the bus and walked on by. She was wearing a new hat.

      Well, that's enough,
      Bill
    11. rktho
      rktho
      There's a lot of possibility for drama in the area of white lies. Neurotypicals tell them all the time. Aspies do too. You ask them how they're feeling, and they'll say "fine" if they think it's none of your business in what way they messed up this week. But the thing is, Aspies don't know whether to take white lies at face value or just pretend to, or even flat out call them out on it. because maybe you're just paranoid, and they mean what they said even though it's not adding up. You've never been good at math, you just assume you're the one who's wrong. But you're not who's wrong. You're what's wrong. No neurotypical tells you honestly that you make them uncomfortable unless they flat-out hate you. But eventually the white lies can't be sustained, and they can't take it anymore. But instead of coming clean, they just drop you cold and cut off contact. Maybe by then you've realized your mistake. Maybe you still haven't added it up. But all you know is your friend is lost and it's your fault.

      Gosh, that's a lot of story potential. I should become a writer.
    12. mashers
      mashers
      That sounds like an extremely depressing story. "Autistic person makes neurotypical friend. Neurotypical friend tells white lies to make the autistic person feel better. Friendship eventually falls apart."

      What kind if moral is that? I would much rather read about two people learning to understand and accept each other so they can have an honest and genuine friendship.
      Bill Chester likes this.
    13. rktho
      rktho
      Well, the hero would learn from his mistakes and win back the friend. And that process would involve learning to understand and accept. Because usually NTs don't realize Aspies are autistic. Weird things seem weirder when they assume you're normal. The friendship crumbling would only be the conflict, not the resolution. It would be a story of determination-- the Aspie misplaced his determination and seemed... clingy? Stalkerish? Insert appropriate adjective depending on the specifics of the story... and he realizes that his determination to be friends pushed that person away. So he wallows, cursing himself and his forwardness. But then he is inspired to use his determination to win the friend back. So he puts his skills to use. He realizes that they were never as close as he thought they were, but by the end of the story, that has changed and they are true friends.
    14. mashers
      mashers
      So the only person who needs to change is the person with autism? No development in understanding from the NT character? That just reinforces the idea that autistic people can’t have relationships unless they pretend to be NT.

      That would seem to be a failing in understanding on the part of the NT character.

      Because the aspie character has learned how to act like a different person? Not because the NT character has learned to understand him?


      I don’t mean to sound disrespectful, but I would hate to read a story where ANY character’s development involved learning that they were unacceptable at the start of the story, and learned to pretend how to be a different person by the end. I don’t think this sends the right message. I don’t pretend to be somebody else to fit in with NTs. I am me. Some people like me for who I am, and that’s great. Some people don’t, and it’s tough shit.
      ChickenFreak likes this.
    15. ChickenFreak
      ChickenFreak
      If you're going with "person adjusts the way he behaves to keep friendship" why can't the neurotypical friend stop telling the white lies and in other ways adjust his behavior? Friends adjust to each other all the time. If NT friend demands that the other person do all of the adjusting, well, he's the one who should get dropped, and the Aspie character can go find a better friend.
    16. rktho
      rktho
      They BOTH change in the story and learn to understand each other. I dunno. Maybe the concept is too realistic to be anything but depressing and a realistically happy ending with a positive message that isn't yawn inducing is beyond my abilities.
      Last edited: Sep 12, 2017
    17. Bill Chester
      Bill Chester
      When I realized that I'm an Aspie, at age 65, five years into retirement and a new wife, so much of the weirdness became understandable. Both my wife and I had to learn how to relate in regard to my emotional limitations and heightened senses.
      We really are best friends.
      rktho likes this.
    18. mashers
      mashers
      That would be better. It just didn’t sound that way the way you described it initially. It sounded like the aspie was fucking everything up, realising what he was doing “wrong” and then changing who he was as a person to fit in with what the NT wanted from the friendship. I can tell you from experience that that is a recipe for destroyed self-esteem.


      Well, it’s no different to any other characters who are in conflict with each other within their relationship and who are striving to overcome that conflict in order to improve the relationship. It’s just that the nature of the conflict will be different if one of them is autistic.
      rktho likes this.
    19. GuardianWynn
      GuardianWynn
      This reminds me of two times I wrote something of especial emotional depth. And I was focusing so hard on the characters feelings; I began crying so uncontrollable I couldn't open my eyes and had to take a break from writing while I calmed down.
    20. fruityloops
      fruityloops
      this is really spot on advice.
    21. Vivian Baskerville
      Vivian Baskerville
      Very unusual being in a "writing forum" posting articles about "autism". Most autistic people don't seek forums to write if they have a severe learning/COGNITIVE disability.
    22. ChickenFreak
      ChickenFreak
      Vivian, I didn't quote your post because I'm hoping that it will be deleted.

      It seems clear that your ignorance with regard to autism is extensive. You might want to do some research.
      Odile_Blud likes this.
    23. mashers
      mashers
      I don’t understand the point you’re making. What’s unusual about writing about autism on a writing forum if the article is about writing? And it’s hardly unusual for autistic people to spend time on Internet forums. Also, most of us don’t consider ourselves to have a “severe learning/cognitive disability”.
    24. Odile_Blud
      Odile_Blud
      I disagree. Highly. I have autism (diagnosed by an actual doctor, not Web MD) and writing is my passion. I come to forums to discuss writing with other writers, see how others go about building their craft, and yes, learn more about writing. You'll find that most people on the autistic spectrum tend to be very passionate about the things they enjoy which often leads to them learning more and more about the subject. People on the spectrum become quite the professionals when it comes to their favorite subject due to their hyper focus on it. Also, autism isn't necessarily a learning disability as much as it is a social disability. While many people on the spectrum may have ADD/ADHD and other learning disabilities, autism has more to due with human interaction.

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