On Writing Neurodivergent Characters
When my first novel went on submission, I heard a lot of “this feels somewhere in between middle grade and YA.” At the time, I was completely baffled by this comment. I literally wrote the book as a high schooler, about being in high school. How could it be anything but YA?
I ignored the comment and kept writing, but the comments continued. “The voice feels a bit young for YA,” I heard about my next project. “The scene with her mom would make for a tender middle grade novel, but feels too young for YA.” My next agent called my protagonist “too naïve,” “vulnerable,” and “childish,” asking why my protagonist was at her first party, and had her first boyfriend, as a high schooler. But what bothered me the most was that I also began to hear a rising chorus telling me again and again that my protagonist was “unlikable.”
All of these comments completely confused me. Since I started writing, I was told my strength was in my compelling, realistic characters. I had poured so much of myself into my protagonist, Lotus. When my agent called her childish, naive, and vulnerable, I couldn’t help but feel she was calling me childish, naive, and vulnerable. And why? Lotus embodied what I perceived in high school as my strengths: my blunt honesty, my conviction to follow my own interests instead of following trends, my lack of fear.
As I sat with her feedback, I did see parts that she was right about—parts I had thought were strengths but instead reflected my own ignorance—but I still couldn’t understand this idea that Lotus was too young, vulnerable, and unlikable. Eventually, my agent parted ways with me over the manuscript, but beta readers only came back with comments echoing similar concerns. I tried sending to other agents that showed interest in the past to nothing. It was clear I needed to move on from this manuscript.
But Lotus continued to tug at my mind. After I wrote my middle grade novel-in-verse Good Different, I returned to Lotus, but added the point of view of her best friend Prue. The narrative took on new life. The previous critiques of Lotus haunted me every time I sat down to write, but a new realization occurred to me. Writing Good Different, I focused on my neurodivergence, and in the drafting process was formally diagnosed with autism. With this new knowledge of myself, I turned to Lotus and now saw a reason why some readers didn’t like or get her: she was neurodivergent.
It’s important to note that not everyone hated Lotus. Her first few iterations were loved by my close readers and friends. I realized now it was because they are probably also neurodivergent, or from a similar marginalized experience in high school (likewise, I realized my former agent was probably neurotypical).
It’s also important to note that I tried to label Lotus as autistic in earlier drafts but was discouraged from doing this, and at that time, I was not formally diagnosed as autistic, so I didn’t feel fully comfortable labelling Lotus.
So I tried to write a neurotypical Lotus, and this I realize was my big mistake. One reason is because I clearly know nothing about how neurotypical people think. But the other reason is because Lotus was so innately, incredibly neurodivergent in my head. Trying to make her neurotypical squelched the life out of her, the very reasons why I loved her in the first place.
Hearing from other neurodivergent writers, it doesn’t sound like my experience is that uncommon. Neurodivergent protagonists are often labelled unlikable, naive, young, or another host of negative traits. What I’m coming to read that to mean is: “I don’t understand your neurodivergent perspective.”
If we have largely neurotypical gatekeepers, judging neurodivergent experiences from their neurotypical perspective, I’m concerned this trend will only continue. As shows like Girl Meets World and Sia’s Music show, we still have such a limited, problematic understanding of what it means to be neurodivergent (or in those examples, specifically, autistic).
I still struggle, trying to understand the comment that my protagonist was naive and vulnerable. What makes a neurodivergent protagonist inherently naive, or vulnerable? When I look at Lotus, I see her neurodivergence as her strength. Her faithfulness to her own convictions, and her stubborn loyalty to her best friend despite all odds, are positives in my eyes, not negatives. Her unique angle on life, and her authentic interest in people for who they are as opposed to their social standing makes her likable. Her hatred of fakeness makes her (in my opinion at least) less likely to fall for social flattery or manipulation.
She is of course flawed. She takes too much pride in her academic intellect, which can be at the expense of her social intellect. It also sets her up to proudly think she’s invincible from anything “going wrong,” that she “knows all the answers,” as falls hard when she’s proven wrong. She can be impulsive when she gets caught up in a cause she’s passionate about. She can be so blunt it can come across as hurtful. She can get so caught up in her agenda that she forgets to be thoughtful of how others might feel about her actions.
But if our protagonists only have likable attributes, how human are they? I’m drawn to complex characters that have strengths and weaknesses, likable and unlikable traits. I want my characters to make mistakes. But I also want them to learn from those mistakes. Vulnerability is critical to a compelling character—vulnerability, I’d argue, is a strength, not a concern, in writing.
It seems that as neurodivergent writers, we have to pay particular attention to spelling out the thought process of our characters. Neurotypical readers won’t make the same jumps we will. When writing neurodivergent character, we may take for granted how intimately we understand our characters. Lotus is such a real, living and breathing person to me. She’s been with me as a character for over ten years.
Sometimes, as I revise, it can be hard to explain on the page explicitly who Lotus is. It feels obvious to me after all, she’s Lotus. As frustrating as it is, feeling like I have to do extra work to explain characters like Lotus to my readers, I know that it can only make my books stronger. Having to explain Lotus pushes my craft to be more specific on the page. Digging into why Lotus is the way she is (read: why I think the way I do), I’ve had to confront ugly sides of myself I wasn’t aware of. I’ve come to better understand myself. I’ve had great “aha” moments, and Lotus is a better, more developed, and nuanced character as a result of that work.
Not everyone will like Lotus. I doubt my previous agent will ever understand the Lotus Spaulding she signed on in the first place. But I’m also learning I don’t need to win everyone over. I can’t win everyone over. Writing a book is taking a stance. It’s choosing sides. We write because we have an argument, something we need to say. That means not everyone will be on my side, or Lotus’s. And at this point, I’m OK with that. I don’t have any interest in people-pleasing in my writing anymore. I want Lotus to just be…Lotus.