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mathgnome

Neurodivergence in fantasy

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First off, for people who are unfamiliar, neurodivergent means "having a brain that functions in ways that diverge significantly from the dominant societal standards of 'normal.'" This can include autism, dyslexia, mental illness, etc. - basically any condition or difference resulting from or relating to a significant difference in brain functioning and/or structure.

 

I have generalized anxiety disorder and social anxiety myself, so seeing neurodivergent characters in the books I read is kind of a big deal for me. Brandon Sanderson does an excellent (in my opinion) job of including neurodivergent characters in his novels. I realized, however, that I can't think of any other fantasy authors/books that I've read that have clearly neurodivergent characters. So I was wondering what you all think of this and if you are aware of any books that do a good job of showing neurodivergence. Thoughts?

 

(Just as a note, my preferred way of representing neurodivergent characters is to make their neurodivergence clear and indisputable, but not the main focus of the story (at least in SFF). It should be a real part of their POVs and their choices and have an impact on what they do and consequences for the main plotline. If there's no impact, then to me it reads like the author's attempt at "flavor" without fully understanding or thinking through a character's needs and struggles.)

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A classic that includes neurodivergent characters would be The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy - it has a depressed android, and I'm pretty sure Zaphod Beeblebrox is Douglas Adam's take on DID.

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I'm on the autism spectrum, but it's not a condition I tend to write into my characters often. The one time I did (this was several years back), the character in question came across as whiny and annoying.

 

I don't really go around looking for fiction with autistic characters. I prefer to read books with subjects I find interesting, and I expect that most other autistic people would be the same. We'd rather read about our special interests than the mere condition of having autism. That said, it should be obvious that anyone who wants to writes autistic characters should treat them with the same respect as they would any of their other characters.

 

One thing to keep in mind when talking about neurodivergent characters in fantasy worlds is whether people in the typically pre-industrial fantasy world would recognize the neurodivergence as such. How would medieval or ancient-era people make sense of such individuals? They might regard autistics as either eccentric or nuts, transpeople as simply effeminate men and mannish women, schizophrenics as possessed by demons, etc. You get the idea. Also keep in mind that, in many cultures, infanticide was an acceptable way to dispose of children they considered unfit to survive in society (e.g. there are certain ethnic groups in Ethiopia that put kids whose teeth emerge in the wrong order to death). It's possible that kids who would be placed in special education today would have simply not lived for long in such a setting.

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Tyrannohotep[/member] I think I can see where you're coming from on that. I don't necessarily actively seek out stories about anxiety, but it's kind of an added bonus when it's there. I have read and loved plenty of books without a character with anxiety. I just like to find stories where it's about "fantasy stuff" and hey, the protagonist has anxiety, this is part of their character, but it's not what the story is about. I guess what I'm talking about is stories with neurodivergence that aren't about neurodivergence. It's just a part of the characters like any other trait.

 

As for not recognizing neurodivergence as such in the typical fantasy settings, I don't think it needs to have a specific in-story label that other characters would recognize. I'm thinking more of traits, behaviors, thought patterns, etc. that to a modern reader read as "oh hey, that's [insert thing here]."

 

What I like is to read a story and think, "Hey, I do that thing that [character] is doing" and by doing so see myself in the character. And then I can keep reading and see "[character] is awesome and saves the day and falls in love and all of this happens without ignoring their anxiety. Maybe I can do that too."

 

Just because that's what I'm looking for doesn't mean that's what everyone else wants to read, though!

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Sherlock is highly intelligent and observant. He calls a spade a spade without being aware he may be hurting someone's feelings. Honestly, his brutal honesty is fascinating. His sidekick, John Watson, is there to soften the blow of his friend. He's the human element. A beautiful friendship.

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I would love to include more neurodivergence in my works. My biggest worry is making the character seem too much of a token character or somehow dealing with their difference in an insensitive way. Unless it was something that I've experienced myself, I would probably need to research it quite well to feel comfortable that I'm portraying it fairly and accurately. Also, I feel like I might fall into the same trap as Tyrannohotep[/member] mentioned - if I write what I know (anxiety), I'm worried the character would just come off as depressing/annoying. It needs some work, but I would definitely like to explore it in some of my writing.

 

How do people go about writing about something that they don't have personal experience with which might be a sensitive topic to some people?

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I would love to include more neurodivergence in my works. My biggest worry is making the character seem too much of a token character or somehow dealing with their difference in an insensitive way. Unless it was something that I've experienced myself, I would probably need to research it quite well to feel comfortable that I'm portraying it fairly and accurately. Also, I feel like I might fall into the same trap as Tyrannohotep[/member] mentioned - if I write what I know (anxiety), I'm worried the character would just come off as depressing/annoying. It needs some work, but I would definitely like to explore it in some of my writing.

 

How do people go about writing about something that they don't have personal experience with which might be a sensitive topic to some people?

Like I said, I'm a neurodivergent individual, but neurodivergence isn't a theme I usually explore in my own writing. I would recommend writing the kind of themes and characters that interest you, personally, rather than forcing tokens into your story only to win social justice brownie points. Most social justice advocates worth their salt aren't big fans of tokenism anyway, and the same could be said even of those obnoxious tumblr trolls (believe me, the latter will look for any excuse to tear you down, no matter what you do).

 

Honestly, it can sometimes be easier to write about completely fictional demographics than groups that are real but outside your own experience. I can make up whatever I want about cultures that have never existed, and I can also fill in the blanks with regards to historical cultures that don't exist anymore. What I can't do is misrepresent the experiences of real people who are around today. Nobody knows what it would be like to be a Lemurian, or exactly what it would have been like to be an ancient Sumerian. But if I were a rural Congolese living today who read a novel by some white American suburbanite about my own people, I'd be either laughing my ass off or seething with anger at everything they got wrong.

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How do people go about writing about something that they don't have personal experience with which might be a sensitive topic to some people?

I'm currently writing a character with borderline personality disorder, which I don't have direct experience with. My strategy thus far has been to research (I need to do more) and try to connect with possible commonalities between anxiety and other mental illnesses. Once I'm satisfied with it, I'm going to seek out beta readers who have or know someone who has BPD to give me feedback on the portrayal.

 

would recommend writing the kind of themes and characters that interest you, personally, rather than forcing tokens into your story only to win social justice brownie points.

 

Absolutely. I write neurodivergent characters because it comes naturally to me. (Seriously, I have to stop myself sometimes and remind myself "That is how I would react. How would someone without anxiety react?") I also just really like seeing my own struggles in characters.

 

I think a major difference between tokenism and representation is how impactful the neurodivergence is in the character's choices and plot. Real neurodivergent people make decisions and suffer consequences that are at least partially informed by their neurodivergence. Tokens don't. An example I'm thinking of is two different books I've read recently with characters with addictions. In the first, it's hinted that the character is addicted to a substance. But it never really impacts his choices or relationships in any meaningful way. It just kind of disappears at key moments. The second book we also see a character with an addiction. However, we can clearly see how much this character struggles with the addiction, how it impacts his relationships and his view of himself, and how it impacts the plot. (His self-loathing almost prevents him from taking action at a key moment). I don't have experience with addiction, but the second portrayal seemed much more sincere to me.

 

 

Sherlock is highly intelligent and observant. He calls a spade a spade without being aware he may be hurting someone's feelings. Honestly, his brutal honesty is fascinating. His sidekick, John Watson, is there to soften the blow of his friend. He's the human element. A beautiful friendship.

 

I'm still not sure how this analogy applies to a discussion of neurodivergence in fantasy?

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I like to include neurodivergent characters in my stories because I know positive representation is really important and a lot of the time it just seems to come naturally to a lot of the characters I'm writing. Writing is also a very cathartic thing for me, so a lot of my characters have some form of depression or social anxiety because it helps me to work through and understand my own problems a little better.

As for writing things you haven't experienced first hand, read books and articles by people who do experience that stuff. Find someone willing to answer questions and ask them stuff. Then, as mathgnome[/member] said, find a beta reader who can tell you if you got stuff hilariously wrong or offensive.

 

How would medieval or ancient-era people make sense of such individuals? They might regard autistics as either eccentric or nuts, transpeople as simply effeminate men and mannish women, schizophrenics as possessed by demons, etc. You get the idea. Also keep in mind that, in many cultures, infanticide was an acceptable way to dispose of children they considered unfit to survive in society (e.g. there are certain ethnic groups in Ethiopia that put kids whose teeth emerge in the wrong order to death). It's possible that kids who would be placed in special education today would have simply not lived for long in such a setting.

That's the beauty of fantasy though. Unless you're trying to write a story about how how being oppressed or misunderstood affects someone's life, you can just hand wave it and say these prejudices don't exist. I know in my stories, racism, homophobia, and transphobia are nowhere to be seen. The only problem any of my gay characters (read: all my characters) have that are related to being gay is a queen who's worried about the state of the crown if she doesn't leave any heirs the nobles will view as legitimate(adoption isn't a big thing in their society).

 

While we're on the topic, can I just suggest The Real Boy, by Anne Ursu, as what I think could be a good example of neurodivergence in fantasy? Because of the type of setting, it's never mentioned by name or anything, but the main character is autistic coded and it seems to be done very well. I can't say for sure, but my autistic friends who've read it liked it.

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I just found this article and it is wonderful. I think it sums up a lot of what I find valuable about reading neurodivergent characters. (Major spoilers for the Stormlight Archive if you haven't read that.) https://www.tor.com/2018/06/05/ideal-heroes-mental-illness-in-brandon-sandersons-stormlight-archive/

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I feel like, to a point, that when a writer in fantasy is writing a decidedly non-human character with decidedly non-human thought patterns and mannerisms, they often write them as something approaching neurodivergence, and good writers will get (perhaps accidentally) pretty close to something that resonate with neurodivergent people, I think.

I've noticed this with a couple of novels I've read recently concerning human-appearing main characters with dragon or semi-dragon thought processes ("The Dragon with a Chocolate Heart" by Stephanie Burgess and "Seraphina" by Rachel Hartman, respectively). Their disconnects with some aspects of human interaction feel super familiar. I find this empowering, personally, because there are a lot of fantasy writers, then, writing neurodivergence into their plots without even realizing it! But at the same time, they're not usually the character the author intends you to identify with. In these, that's not the case and the character is absolutely who you are meant to identify with, but I am pretty sure these are a minority.

I'd still like to see more of that, though. It seems easier for non-neurodivergent writers to write this sort of character if they're not human, anyway. Maybe that's a bad thing. I certainly could see it being less than ideal for people who want to be considered human above all things, like, properly human human as opposed to just "a person to be respected." But it's a nice emergent thing, perhaps.

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Huh.

On 6/5/2018 at 11:08 AM, mathgnome said:

I just found this article and it is wonderful. I think it sums up a lot of what I find valuable about reading neurodivergent characters. (Major spoilers for the Stormlight Archive if you haven't read that.) https://www.tor.com/2018/06/05/ideal-heroes-mental-illness-in-brandon-sandersons-stormlight-archive/

I've read almost everything Brandon Sanderson has written (he's my favorite author but I'm a little behind), and as a neurotypical I never really noticed him representing neurodivergence in his work. Which just goes to show, I think, that including neurodivergent characters deepens the world and characterization, but doesn't alienate neurotypical readers. Or at least shouldn't! And if it does, it's probably because someone with a bias caught wind of the presence of neurodivergence in the story and more or less decided to take issue with it. >< People are ridiculous.

I think Brandon Sanderson's work is a particularly cool case, though. It kind of shows that neurodivergence isn't as hard to understand or relate with as some people make it out to be. And that window into someone else's life and the ways it differs from your own is really valuable. 

On 5/28/2018 at 9:51 PM, rkcapps said:

Sherlock is highly intelligent and observant. He calls a spade a spade without being aware he may be hurting someone's feelings. Honestly, his brutal honesty is fascinating. His sidekick, John Watson, is there to soften the blow of his friend. He's the human element. A beautiful friendship.

 

On 6/1/2018 at 9:35 AM, mathgnome said:

I'm still not sure how this analogy applies to a discussion of neurodivergence in fantasy?

It's discussed in fandom whether Sherlock Holmes is an unspoken autistic character. He does have certain traits common to some cases of autism. It's a complicated topic though, and there's nothing in canon that I know of to "prove" whether he is neurodivergent.

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Sarah J. Maas’s main characters in both the Throne of Glass and A Court of Thorns and Roses series both suffer from PTSD—and due to the PTSD and grief they also suffer from some depression, though it’s depicted more in ACOTAR. 

As for other obviously neurodivergent characters I can’t think of any? But I only got back into reading original fiction recently. (There was a long period of time where I mostly just read fanfiction because I didn’t want to ask for books. Now I can buy them myself! And do. To the point that my unread stack is almost as tall as I am, haha.) 

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On 12/13/2018 at 9:30 AM, kherezae said:

Huh.

I've read almost everything Brandon Sanderson has written (he's my favorite author but I'm a little behind), and as a neurotypical I never really noticed him representing neurodivergence in his work. Which just goes to show, I think, that including neurodivergent characters deepens the world and characterization, but doesn't alienate neurotypical readers. Or at least shouldn't! And if it does, it's probably because someone with a bias caught wind of the presence of neurodivergence in the story and more or less decided to take issue with it. >< People are ridiculous.

I think Brandon Sanderson's work is a particularly cool case, though. It kind of shows that neurodivergence isn't as hard to understand or relate with as some people make it out to be. And that window into someone else's life and the ways it differs from your own is really valuable. 

I didn't notice a lot of the neurodivergent characters at first, but now that I know what to look for it's super easy to see how Kaladin has depression and such. My favorite representations are Vin (who has some anxiety/PTSD symptoms that are familiar to me from my own experience) and Shallan (because she gets to be an artist and kick butt and have a mental illness and have an awesome guy stand by her and so I can do all those things too). Someday, if I ever meet Sanderson, I want to thank him for writing all these awesome characters.

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