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:
- They are too generic; we don’t get a sense of who they are as people.
- 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.
- They are too weak, passive, victimized, whiny instead of carrying the story. They just give up at the end.
- They come off as immature, selfish, or shallow
- 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.