In my every day world, I regularly interact with people who think differently: some clinically diagnosed with things like “being on the autism spectrum”, “having bipolar disorder”, and “suffering Post Traumatic Stress Disorder”; others with no clinical diagnosis but whose brain chemistry or life experience causes a different interaction in the world than what a lot of people consider “normal.”
Everyone does. But a lot of people simply don’t realize it at best, or worse, ignore that fact. Or at the worst, actively persecute and bully these “different” people.
I’m not here to discuss the intricacies of real life, though. I live in fiction. And my fictional worlds are populated similarly to the world I live in.
In my novel, The Kelpie, Heather’s father has bipolar disorder and takes medication for it, her younger brother Rowan is on the autistic spectrum, and her sister Lily went through some severe abuse at the hands of her birth mother. That might sound like a lot for one family, but really, it isn’t. Many of these things are genetic–even for different disorders. And while PTSD is situationally caused, the brain is still wired by those genetics, so persons affected by abuse or that level of trauma are very likely to react a certain way, and knowing family history and genetics can help psychologists or psychiatrists heal the person.
I’m what you call a “pantser” in the writing world; I don’t plan a lot out before I start writing. My characters come to me and demand their stories be told. And they come to me with all their multitude of differences, histories, and various brain wiring. I usually don’t realize this until it comes up in a character’s dialogue or I notice a pattern of behavior and look it up.
But that puts me in a difficult situation because I also want to treat things like someone being bipolar or having autism or suffering PTSD with respect. So I end up doing a lot of retroactive research and running my story by psychologists or people with firsthand experience in these things. Fortunately, I’ve yet to have someone say I totally got something “wrong” or that I was being disrespectful.
That said, my characters clearly are born from my life experience. When I was in my late teens, I ended up working for a year or so as a nanny for a child with autism. He didn’t speak at all, but he could “say” an awful lot with just the look on his face and in his eyes. Amazingly intelligent, this child could build all sorts of things and enjoyed having someone talk to him and explain things as we were doing them. His mother introduced me to the writing of Temple Grandin, which has helped me in more ways than I can count in interacting with all sorts of people–and animals!
I’ve also had a few friends, who prefer not to be identified, with bipolar disorder. Some on meds, some not. Some I didn’t know were bipolar until we’d been friends for some time. I just noticed their behavior patters and adjusted accordingly. One particular beta reader of mine was particularly insightful because she grew up with a father who was bipolar, and she spoke up during a critique to say how, when she was growing up, she was always hyperaware of his moods because they would have such an impact on her life.
People with PTSD, victims of abuse, survivors of heavy military combat, and similar people also have come and gone in my life. I tend to be a good listener and I care about people, so I hear a lot of stories and see the impact of serious trauma mentally, emotionally, physically, and spiritually.
I do honor all of these people, whether they are actively in my life or not. Threads, as fine and as powerful as DNA, from their lives clearly went into the wiring of my characters as they went from a zygote of an idea into a fully fleshed person on the page. I learned lessons by listening and being willing to listen…and many of them suggested various books to help me educate myself. To be a better friend and a better person.
While there are growing discussions about being inclusive in one’s writing–particularly in regard to ethnicity, race, gender, sex, religion, physical disability, etc., there’s not as much crowing about being inclusive of people who “think differently.” Unless the story is specifically about coping with a “disorder.” While I hear people talking about someone being a character, who, incidentally, also happens to be black or gay or a woman, we don’t get a lot of characters who, incidentally, deal with autism or go through depression/mania or have triggers. Heather’s dad is Heather’s dad, first and foremost, and while the depression he goes through affects the story, it’s not what the story is about.
The story is about Heather trying to figure out how to get rid of a child-eating faery horse before it kills one of her friends.
Similarly, Rowan, Heather’s brother, is autistic with particular strengths and weaknesses that help and hinder accordingly. (Lily, who has PTSD doesn’t have as big of a role in this novel. She will later in Heather’s life, though. )
How their brains are wired isn’t what defines them. It’s just what makes them the persons who they are. They are Real People on the page. And to me.
For writers who like to have more research, I’d highly recommend anything written by Temple Grandin–not just for the information she presents but for the “voice” of her writing and the manner in which she story tells. This doesn’t only cover research for autism, but gives insight to a lot of different thought processes. I’m also a big fan of Carolyn Kaufman’s book The Writer’s Guide to Psychology and her “Psychology for Writers” column.
The Kelpie is available through all online and brick & mortar bookstores, big box or your favorite independent store.
About the Author:
T. J. Wooldridge is a professional writing geek who adores research into myth, folklore, legend, and the English language. Before delving full-time into wordsmithing, she has been a tutor, a teacher, an educational course designer, a video game proofreader, a financial customer service representative, a wine salesperson, a food reviewer, an editing consultant, a retail sales manager, and a nanny. While infrequent, there are times she does occasionally not research, write, or help others write. During those rare moments, she enjoys the following activities: spending time with her Husband-of-Awesome, a silly tabby cat, and two Giant Baby Bunnies in their Massachusetts home hidden in a pocket of woods in the middle of suburbia, reading, riding her horse in the nearby country stables and trails (not very well), reading Tarot (very well), drawing (also not very well), making jewelry (pretty well), making lists, and adding parenthetical commentary during random conversations. She also enjoys dressing up as fey creatures, zombies, or other such nonsense at science fiction, fantasy, and horror conventions.