I was diagnosed with autism two years ago at the age of 22. It explained a lot of problems with social skills I’ve always had. My problem is that I really want to be a writer, and I’m scared being autistic will get in the way of that. I read and write literary fiction, and there seems to be an assumption that if autistic people are interested in reading at all, it’s science fiction. I don’t know of any famous writers who were autistic and a lot of their lives are described like ‘He was the life of the party and would go out drinking with his friends in Paris until dawn’. I couldn’t ever do that.
I’ve won one writing competition and been highly commended in another and published several short stories. Before I got the diagnosis, I never doubted that if I worked hard, I could write and publish a novel. I’m currently writing a contemporary literary novel that’s partially autobiographical, although the heroine isn’t autistic. I’m about two thirds through the first draft.
I enjoy constructing sentences, but I’m scared that my characterisation will seem shallow and unconvincing. I sometimes have a hard time telling what other people are thinking or what’s socially expected of me, and I worry that also means I’m not getting into the characters’ heads a lot. I don’t ‘see’ the world through their eyes. A lot of the advice I’ve read for writers says ‘Ask yourself what your character is thinking and feeling at this point’, and sometimes I just have to shrug and say ‘I don’t know’.
The heroine’s actions, such as not speaking much, hanging back in social situations she doesn’t understand and not advocating for herself, are meant to show that she’s introverted and she’s been socialised to believe that girls should be passive and people-pleasing. But I’m worried she’s so much based on me that it spills over into her ‘acting autistic’, or acting in ways that don’t make sense to neurotypical readers. (I don’t want to change it to a novel about an autistic heroine, because that wouldn’t suit the story I’m telling, although I’d love to include an autistic main character in the next thing I write.)
You seem like you know a lot about writing and disability/ intersectionality issues, so my questions are: Can I be a good writer if I’m autistic? And do you have any ideas for working around the problems autism can cause to understand my characters better? Thank you!
—Autistic Wannabe Novelist (she/her)
Dear Autistic Wannabe Novelist,
I’m really honored that you trusted me to answer these questions. But I don’t think I’m the right person to give you an answer in depth, so I brought in two guest contributors, Corey Alexander (they/them) and Rose Lemberg (they/them). Both of them are published authors, wise teachers, and autistic. Their responses are below. I’m grateful to them for contributing their kind, thoughtful words to Story Hospital.
I also want to give special thanks to my Patreon patrons, whose patronage enabled me to pay these contributors an honorarium for their work. I’m very glad that I was able to not only amplify autistic voices but directly support autistic creators. And that reminds me to remind you, dear letter writer, to value your work and expect to get paid for it! I know marginalized creators often have an extra hard time asking for compensation, but your work takes time and effort and deserves to be recognized in tangible ways.
Time to turn the microphone over to Rose and Corey. I join them in assuring you that you absolutely can be a good writer, and wishing you all the best.
From Rose Lemberg:
Dear Autistic Wannabe Novelist,
First of all, kudos on reaching out—it takes bravery to do so. And congrats on your publications and the competition win! That’s great.
I would also like to congratulate you on your diagnosis. Personally, I feel that autism diagnosis/self-diagnosis is a good thing—ideally it makes you aware of your needs and questions, encourages you to seek out peers and advice, which is exactly what you are doing now. I firmly believe that neuroatypicality of any kind should not be a source of anguish, but a key to deeper self-knowledge and acceptance.
Let me tell you a little about myself. My name is Rose Lemberg, and I am a self-diagnosed autistic, queer, non-binary writer (they/them pronouns) who is also an immigrant. I write fiction (fantasy, magic realism, science fiction), poetry, creative non-fiction, and academic non-fiction (linguistics). I have been a finalist for a variety of awards, including Nebula, Crawford, Tiptree (longlist), Rhysling, Elgin, and more. My SFF writing is very character-driven, and I am often praised for my characterization. I love the perspectives of different characters.
Can I be a good writer if I’m autistic?
Yes. OMFG, yes. You can be an excellent writer as an autistic person. Being abled and neurotypical is not a requirement for success in any field whatsoever, and this includes writing.
In the field of SFF, which is the field I primarily belong to, a number of autistic writers immediately come to mind: A. Merc Rustad (Nebula nominee this year!), Corinne Duyvis (creator of the #ownvoices hashtag and author of On the Edge of Gone), Ada Hoffmann of Autistic Book Party (who just got agented—hurray!!), and last but not least, my spouse, Bogi Takács.
Corey Alexander, who writes primarily erotica and romance but also SFF and nonfiction, is another autistic writer who immediately comes to mind and will answer your question as well.
Perhaps SFF writers are simply more out about their disabilities and neuroatypicalities than litfic writers.
and there seems to be an assumption that if autistic people are interested in reading at all, it’s science fiction
This assumption is just that—an assumption, and an incorrect one. For example, I read SFF, litfic, poetry of all kinds, memoir, architecture and design books, folkloristics, memoirs, grammars of ancient and medieval languages, tractates on textile pigments, the backs of shampoo bottles, lists, the farmer’s almanac, other people’s rough drafts, comments to Youtube videos, etc. I read slower now that I am writing so much, and my brain has been kind of fried lately, but I read widely. My spouse, the aforementioned Bogi Takács, reads hundreds of books a minute and is well known to the hardworking staff of the local library (check out eir book blog, Bogi Reads the World). E reads even more widely than I do because e also loves topics such as sports scandals, neurosurgery, etc.
Some autistic people read a lot, others don’t; some autistic people write, others don’t; just like neurotypicals.
Neurotypicals like to stereotype neuroatypicals. It’s an unfortunate thing, but we are pushing against this, and I hope that you too can push against this.
Each writer has their strengths and weaknesses. For example, I do not naturally have a good feel of pacing, or what constitutes as standard Western-style pacing, perhaps because as an autistic person I do not watch movies (too overwhelming). I know that pacing is my weakness, and so I work on it. I would like to believe that I am improving. As writers, it is also important to recognize our strengths. Mine are worldbuilding, language, and characterization. No writer is perfect: readers fall in love with your strengths, and have more tolerance for your weaknesses.
The heroine’s actions, such as not speaking much, hanging back in social situations she doesn’t understand and not advocating for herself, are meant to show that she’s introverted and she’s been socialised to believe that girls should be passive and people-pleasing. But I’m worried she’s so much based on me that it spills over into her ‘acting autistic’
A hundred thousand neurotypical novelists have written through their characters about their own desires, thoughts, character traits, childhoods, likes and dislikes etc.—otherwise the concept of Mary Sue/Gary Stu would not exist. Self-insertion is how most aspiring writers learn about characterization, and so many published novels have at least one MC who is suspiciously like the author! If you are worried about your MC “acting autistic,” I would encourage you not to worry about that at all. There is nothing wrong with “acting autistic” in real life or in novels. Your character does not need to be officially autistic. Just keep writing this piece until it is done, then see what you have learned from it.
True story: In 2015, I wrote “Geometries of Belonging,” a novelette in which Parét, a depressed middle-aged mind-healer, refuses to heal a young autistic patient, Dedéi, who “does not want to be remade.” Ada Hoffmann was reviewing the novelette for Autistic Book Party, and later told me that she knew the story had an autistic character and wondered at first if that character was Parét, because he has sensory overload. I said no—he knows about autism because he knows people like Dedéi in his practice, certainly he would have realized it about himself if he was autistic?
Well, a year later I wrote a whole novel about Parét when he was in his early twenties—expelled from school, about to become homeless, depressed, catatonic—and then the world goes belly-up and he needs to save the Goddess Bird. I wrote this whole thing about him, with all his circuitous thoughts, catatonia, speech production issues, sensory overload, STILL not realizing what I was doing until my alpha reader (Corey, incidentally) said that Parét felt autistic to them as a reader. And that’s when it hit me—yup, he’s autistic, he might not realize it, but he’s autistic. I have written this character, who is very much not like me, but I have written this rep as an autistic author. I’ve written other autistic characters intentionally. This one was not intentional, but it still counts.
This is a good thing. Let somebody else write only allistic characters. You can write a character who is probably, or maybe, on the spectrum, but this does not need a huge reveal or internal struggle—it can just be a thing you do, among other things you do, as an author. I have written NT and autistic characters. A greater range is a good thing. You do not need to change anything about your character, just write what you are already writing.
I don’t ‘see’ the world through their eyes. A lot of the advice I’ve read for writers says ‘Ask yourself what your character is thinking and feeling at this point’, and sometimes I just have to shrug and say ‘I don’t know’.
The thing that helped me tremendously with this was writing in first person. When you write in first person, you are forced to see through the character’s eyes. I started doing this as an exercise, to try to better understand my characters. I also wrote in 3rd (felt that I was kind of supposed to do that) and 2nd, but the 1st person was so useful to me as an autistic author that it kind of stuck. Now I write almost exclusively in 1st person because I love it so much. When I was starting out, I wrote sketches (in 1st person), and I also interviewed my characters. I still do that from time to time. Also: there are tons of tips and tricks floating around to help writers with characterization—it is not only an autistic writer’s issue! You should do the exercises and see what works for you. 😀
In short, being autistic is not a detriment to becoming a published author. It could be a strength in many ways (I love my hyperfocus!), but above all else, I strongly believe that being autistic is value-neutral. Reading and writing a lot will improve your writing, just like they do for allistic people. Good luck!!!
From Corey Alexander:
Dear Autistic Wannabe Novelist,
Hi there! My name is Corey Alexander, and I am an autistic writer, one of two who are going to answer your letter. I self-diagnosed just a few years ago, too; it’s an intense and complex experience to find yourself with new information and a name for something about yourself that has gone unnamed for so long. I am really glad to know; it felt like such a relief, made things make sense, and was also very overwhelming. It’s not easy to integrate all at once. I know for me, I go back and I question and rethink and reframe so much, still. What’s hard, too, is getting good trustworthy information about autism. So much of what’s out there is steeped in ableist frameworks, and in approaches that pathologize autistic people. Connecting with other autistic folks, especially other writers, has meant so much to me.
It sounds like you are going through a process of going back, and questioning things you thought you knew about yourself, and one of those things is whether you can be a good writer. That until the diagnosis, you knew that you were a good writer, and the world mirrored that back to you, with publications and awards and recognition and commendations. And now, you are wondering if it is even possible for you to be a good writer, because now you know that you are autistic.
I can tell you my answer to this question.
Yes, it is definitely possible for you to be a good writer as an autistic person. You were always autistic, and were already a good writer before you knew you were autistic. Knowing more about yourself will likely make you an even better writer. What is difficult, with this new knowledge, is self-trust. (Which I think comes with time, and doing the act of writing, and acting as if you can do it until you believe.)
And, perhaps it is also difficult to believe that autistic people can be brilliant writers who are skilled at characterization.
The fear that it is not possible to do deep characterization as an autistic writer feels connected to a common myth about autistic people: that we are not capable of empathy. This myth is rooted in old (bad) research that pathologized us and said that we don’t have empathy or what was called “theory of mind”—that we cannot connect to or imagine the feelings and thoughts of other people. (This idea about autistic people has been challenged, and shown to be based on bad research.)
I firmly believe that autistic people have deep capacity for empathy and emotional connection with others. In fact, it has been my experience that we are often highly sensitive to what’s going on with others (as well as to sensory experiences), and often get overwhelmed by other people’s emotions, because of that sensitivity. Our capacity for empathy can get misunderstood by neurotypical people, because of the ways we protect ourselves around that sensitivity, and our difficulty with understanding social norms and parsing indirect communication, but that does not mean we don’t experience empathy.
I can tell you that some of my most favorite writers are autistic, and that characterization and strong voice are core things I love about their work.
I can tell you that I am autistic, and I’m a writer known for stories that feel real and visceral, and are deeply characterized. I’ve been publishing short erotic fiction for over 15 years, and recently put out a collection of my best work, which got some stellar reviews citing the connection readers felt with the characters, and the emotional impact of the work. I also write romance, a genre that is all about emotion and showing how characters feel.
I spent about the first dozen years writing stories in the first person, up close and inside the character’s experience. It’s only recently that I started writing in the third person, and including multiple characters’ perspectives in my work. I am still feeling my way through writing this way, and figuring out how to convey internal experience in the third person. I think I’m getting better at it. I always have more to learn as a writer, and I love that about craft, that we can keep learning and growing in it.
You asked for ideas for understanding characters better. Writing in first person and reading first-person fiction helped me tremendously, so that’s my first suggestion.
I have found that regularly writing about and talking about stories and novels I am reading (and also movies and tv shows I am watching), trying to break down what characters are feeling and thinking, what their arcs and motivations are, also really helps me. Reading reviews that go in depth in those areas also helps me. I would suggest reading fiction in the genre you want to write, but also considering reading romance and young adult fiction, because those are two genres that focus a lot on how characters are feeling and thinking.
Another reading tool I have used is something called a dialogue journal, where you make two columns and put a quote from the story on the left side and talk to the character on the right, ask questions, make guesses about what they are thinking and feeling. It helps me puzzle things through and come up with language and think about what’s going on with the character. I find in general that the work I do to understand characters while reading helps me a lot when I’m writing.
One of the things I often do is write things in layers. I find it intense and overwhelming to try to connect to multiple characters at once, or to figure out action and what characters are feeling at the same time. So I often go into writing a short story having an idea of the arc, where the characters might struggle, what the conflict might be. I start there. Then I focus on one character’s experience, motivations, feelings, and thoughts, connect deeply. Then I go in and look for opportunities to illuminate other characters’ points of view.
For me, not trying to do all of it at once helps me do each layer more skillfully, and honors that doing this kind of characterization takes deep focus. It’s ok if it’s not in the first draft. It’s ok if it takes particular intention to draw out that aspect of the story. It’s ok if I have to work at it.
I wrote a blog post about this process when it comes to writing BDSM erotica and making sure the top has emotional vulnerability, the top’s feelings are shown to the reader. Though it focuses on writing erotica, the same principle might be applied to writing any genre where you write characterization in layers.
There are a lot of resources on characterization out there. I want to mention a couple that I have particularly found useful for me.
I find the sortinghatchats system for thinking about characters really interesting and useful for thinking about characters and motivation and reactions. I especially find the burned primaries concepts and posts insightful. If I want to deepen my characterization, this can be a helpful framework for that. This system feels really satisfying to me as an autistic person: the sorting, categorizing, and thinking through character using a specific structure.
Another tool I have found helpful is one I adapted from something Stephen Sondheim said in the film Six by Sondheim. I think about the kinds of words a particular character might talk about in their everyday life, and make a long list of them. This also includes catchphrases, language specific to the character. (My go-to example of a catch phrase is the way Maria uses the word “whatever” in Nevada, by Imogen Binnie. That phrase so perfectly captured Maria that Amy Dentata discussed it in her review.)
Sondheim talks about the words eventually connecting to each other to help form a picture of the person, and create a lyric. For me it’s about getting clear on how the characters thinks and talks and the language they use and what their everyday life consists of. It helps me to do this and really get into hyperfocus on making the list, let my brain ride that, which can be really satisfying. Then I draw from the list when I’m writing. I did this with one of the main characters in my novel WIP and it strengthened her voice tremendously.
Characterization is something that many writers work on and struggle with, not just autistic ones. You are not alone in wanting help with it, as the characters tag at Story Hospital can attest!
I wish you luck in your writing endeavors!