Following on from 'Autism Awareness Week' I thought it apt to discuss a plot element in my forthcoming second ‘Wolf Spear Saga’. Some time ago I was involved in a discussion online about diversity in historical fiction. You can read the blog post I wrote about it here.
Today, however, I want to focus on one factor from that discussion, which has become entwined in my second saga. When drafting book two, the conversation I had had with other authors about diversity lingered in my mind. I wanted to challenge many historical novels I had read in the past that ignored conditions that have modern names, but would have existed in the past nevertheless. I needed a strategy that would bring such a condition into my novel in a way that would be acceptable to modern readers, but also credible in a 5th Century setting. My portrayal of this character would have to be true to my genre and my contemporary audience.
“Invisible disabilities we experience today, such as elements of the autistic spectrum, would have no name in the 5th Century…”
In choosing to have a character on the Autistic spectrum, I knew I would be unable to label this condition with terms and phrases we use today and that those around the character would also lack this knowledge and vocabulary to describe him and his behaviour. I knew at the outset this would present me with some steep challenges and I was ever conscious of creating something too stereotypical and offensive. I knew other characters in the story would be governed by their spiritual beliefs and fear of things they could not explain or that seemed to be evil or magical. My character began as a complicated being with some undesirable and inherited personality traits, even before I decided he would be autistic. I had to consider these traits carefully and calculate how his autism would effect or enhance these parts of his personality.
“Public responses to these conditions would be ruled by culture and spirituality.”
I drew on experiences from my own life and enrolled the help of someone with daily, personal knowledge to also assist me. After some deep discussions with this individual I began embellishing my character and those around him who would be there to assist or abuse him, because of his outward behaviours and responses. I wanted to provide him with a very small circle who understood him and were there for him. I also wanted to explore those who were scared by him or deemed him dangerous and those who would exploit his behaviour for their own ends. Once I had completed my first draft, I had the specific scenes featuring the character proof-read to ensure the content was acceptable to a modern audience, but that it also contained authentic references and behaviours.
Here is a description by his older brother:
‘His brother was ruled by the Dark Mother. She held sway over the tides of his inner ocean, tossing him on wave after wave and drowning him in his own emotion. Their Queen had been his steer board; …adrift on an unrelenting, storm-ridden voyage, [he] heard no one else, for they were mere morsels of windswept words. Wulfsieg realised he would be wasting his breath. Like land-locked onlookers crying out from the shore through wind and rain, [his brother] would never hear him from his lonely one-man vessel.’
While language used to describe this character is embedded in the 5th Century, as I wrote I became more aware that attitudes to Autism continue to challenge wider society; that there exists even today, those who misunderstand the struggles of being on the spectrum. I found myself writing provocative scenes, displaying others abusing the vulnerability of my autistic character and contrasting, deeply emotional scenes revealing the extreme fragility of my character, despite his roguish outward persona.
I hope my readers will find reading about him as interesting as I found it to create him on the page.
And I hope others will be encouraged to be diverse in their fiction.
Have you tackled a difficult subject in your writing?
How did you decide to include it in your writing?
What were some of the challenges you faced?