Autism and Likeability: Preliminary Notes

I’ve been dragging my feet on the post I promised Charlotte Ashley I’d write – an analysis, following my theory of character likeability, of why people claim that autistic characters are unlikeable.

I finally noticed the reason I was having trouble talking about this: It’s outside my experience. This has not actually happened to me.

Here are some complaints I’ve been given more than once (in critique groups and by beta readers) about my characters:

  1. They are too generic; we don’t get a sense of who they are as people.
  2. Their relationships are too generic; we don’t get a sense of why they care about their supposed love interests, or (in some cases) if they really do in the first place.
  3. They are too weak, passive, victimized, whiny instead of carrying the story. They just give up at the end.
  4. They come off as immature, selfish, or shallow
  5. They make too many stupid decisions, ignore obvious solutions to their problem, or generally flail around not knowing what to do / not planning properly.

Some of these are relevant to likeability, but none of them are quite the thing Charlotte was talking to me about. And the really tricky part is, I don’t think any of them specifically relate to writing autistic characters. For me they happen just as often, maybe even more often, when I’m trying to write an NT.

You could make an argument that some are related to me being autistic. It’s certainly easy to draw comparisons between 1 and 2 and a lack of cognitive empathy. But I really don’t like this line of thinking. Generic, shallow characters are a problem 90% of newbie authors have, regardless of neurotype. Writing deep and complex people is a skill. It’s learned! I’ve seen other aspiring authors on the spectrum wondering if they should quit before they start, because they’ll never be able to write deep and nuanced characters the way NTs do, and that makes me mad. When NT authors have problems like this, they get told to build their skills and given the tools to start doing that. I’ve improved a lot at writing good characters over the years, though of course I still have a ways to go – so I see no other reason other autistic authors can’t do the same damn thing.

Plus, while these five issues are chronic issues for me, they don’t appear in every story. In fact, I’ve been complimented on some of my characters and their likeability! It just depends what I’m doing, who I’m writing, and how in-tune with the story I am.

I find that, when I have a long time to experiment and play with a character – longer than the short-story medium generally allows – I get to know them much more deeply. So my most popular characters are in RPGs for the most part, which is perhaps not helpful.

As for weak, passive, victimized, whiny, shallow, immature, selfish, or bad at decision-making – I don’t think any of those are inherent traits of autistic people, though some forms of social skills training perhaps attempt to inculcate them into us. (I don’t think I got that kind of training, but there are other reasons why I struggle with character agency, which is the root that ties all of those complaints together.)

So, instead of having some grand and sweeping thing to say about autistic characters, I actually want to open up the floor. If you’ve tried to write autistic characters, or if you’re on the spectrum somewhere and have tried to write any type of character, what problems do you typically run into? What do you typically get told about your characters’ likeability or lack thereof? Have you built your skills at solving some of these problems? Or do they seem insoluble? Or do you feel that they’re problems with reader prejudice (like the problems that can crop up with “unlikeable” female characters), not problems that originate with you?

I’d like to hear a wide variety of viewpoints on this if people are comfortable sharing, and I’d be happy to hear experiences from allistic people, too, especially if you have some other marginalization which affects how you write characters and how your characters are received by readers.

6 Replies to “Autism and Likeability: Preliminary Notes”

  1. 1. I’ve written one autistic character for something and everybody loved the character. He was likeable. It was a love story, btw.
    2. I don’t always write likeable characters. Once I asked my husband about a character and he said ‘She’s a bit of a bitch!’ and I said ‘Good! That’s what I’m going for.’ Because sometimes people are assholes, bitches, conceited, etc. But they can still be interesting characters and if you are a good writer you will be compelled to follow their story despite their flaws.
    3. Speculative fic readers in the USA and Canada are used to a specific kind of ‘hero/protag.’ The man or woman of action. They don’t seem to like passive characters, or whiny characters, etc. However I don’t think I would be a good writer if I didn’t have some passive characters, some whiny ones, because it is true to who they are. You just have to accept that if you are writing genre in English there are several common mindsets you are going to encounter and one of them is the ‘likeable’ protagonist (who is active, follows a Cambellian narrative, etc). Literary fiction offers a greater space for ‘unlikable’ characters. After all, no one could say Humbert Humbert is really likeable and yet we have the masterpiece that is Lolita, the infamous Madame Bovary, the irritating captain of Moby Dick.

    1. 1. Ooh, I want to see that story!
      2 and 3 are really good points. Personally, I like the way you write characters, even when they are assholes, bitches, conceited, etc… You have a sassy way of writing that pulls those things off in an entertaining way. 😀

      1. 1. Sadly that story was fan fic I wrote under my secret fan fic identity which I use when I am bored and don’t want to do the heavy-lifting.
        2. Let me show you some comments about a story of mine (This Strange Way of Dying, which has a sheltered, early 20th century uper-class teenage protagonist):
        “I found the protagonist to be a self-entitled whinerbaby.”
        “The MC kind of drove me up the wall with her passivity”

        and here, about “Jaguar Woman” (the woman has been raped and is being kept as a prisoner/slave of a Spanish conquistador who murdered her family)

        “I find it hard to relate to a character so wrapped up in their self-pity.”
        “The man in the is story is villianized for being a foreign invader in two senses of the word. One, he is a Spaniard, this has its own obvious issues which would better be discussed in a history course. Two, he doesn’t speak with her much, and would rather have sex with her. The language doesn’t suggest that he is violent or cruel, to the contrary; he seems to care for her, gives her gifts, and actually seems upset when she freaks out over one of his gifts.”

        Just to show you how some readers think ANY character that even has the slightest element they find “unlikable” (no matter if it is autism or not) will be deemed wrong. Maybe it’s even worse with women characters, ha.

        1. Baaaaah those comments are awful.

          (I *liked* the protagonist in “Jaguar Woman”! I was rooting for her! YES GO BE AN AWESOME CAT AND ESCAPE COLONIALISM PLZ.)

          1. Right? Ha.

            At least I hope you can take some kind of sense of comfort that maybe it’s not YOU who is doing stuff terribly wrong, but rather people get freaked out easily if they are moved out of a comfort zone. Autism maybe be an uncomfortable zone, but maybe one of many. That doesn’t offer a solution, but…silver lining?

  2. Judging from your experiences, I would have to agree!

    (The trouble is that at times – not with the work that I’ve seen from you, but I think sometimes with me and others – it can be both? And then how do you untangle THAT mess.)

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