Characterising the Unfamiliar Voice

Last Tuesday, you probably read my post about Creating Characters and if you didn’t, I suggest you go back and read it. What follows in this post is some tips and discussion regarding the creation of characters that are unusual or unfamiliar to us in some way. However, all of the basic character creating tips and activities should still be used to make your characters as realistic as possible.

I have always held the conjecture that, to be a writer, you must be greatly empathetic. In order to be a great writer, we must be able to create characters that are believable, even when they are greatly removed from ourselves. This is something that I enjoy doing in my work- my character’s are hardly ever a female in her twenties like me. Most of the time, my protagonists do not have the same age, gender, personality or mentality as I do. For me, this is a test of my writing skills and I enjoy the challenge. It would be incredibly dull to surround myself with characters who are just like me.

I’m going to turn now to one of my L.S. Harvey shorts, Shake it off, to help draw upon the ways I created the voice and character of Orla, an autistic teenager and her anxious mother. If you haven’t had a chance to read it yet, here’s the link to check it out:

In this short story, I alternate perspective between both Orla and her mother, using an asterisks to indicate to the reader when the change is about to happen. Whilst writing this piece, not only did I face the challenge of creating two characters very different from myself (I am not a teenager, nor a mother. I also do not have autism) but I also had to develop the narrative voices of these characters, since the fiction takes on their perspectives. Why do this? Well, as mentioned, I liked the challenge, plus the shifting of perspectives allowed me to deliver information to the reader, in such a way that the story has a twist at the end of the plot.

What I needed to consider first, was the fact that I was dealing with a potentially sensitive topic- autism. If you are going to tackle such a topic, I suggest you do your research. Real, thorough, research. Read other literature rooted in the idea. For example, I read many books with an autistic protagonist. I watched films with autistic characters. I needed to understand how this had been done by other authors. Further still, I delved into the critical response of such books and films. I wanted to see whether autism had been portrayed accurately, or in a way that seemed sensible. I spoke to friends with autistic family members. I researched the psychological and medical facts behind the diagnosis of autism and finally, I read accounts from those on the autistic spectrum themselves.

I decided that my protagonist would be female, since most literature in the field portrayed their autistic character as male.  Whilst from what I have read, autism is more prevalent in boys and men, this is no reason for the females with autism to be unrepresented in the stories we give to our readers. Moreover, I began to realise that practically every autistic protagonist I came across had what is called a ‘savant ability.’ That is a special ability in which the person with the diagnosis of autism has an almost inhuman ability or talent, such as being able to remember large quantities of fact in great detail, or being some sort of human calculator. Whilst it is true some people with autism have such abilities, medical evidence suggests most do not. I found that many autistic people had responded to such literature to argue that it is inaccurate and glorifies the idea of being autistic as a sort of ‘gimmick.’ Therefore, I decided to rid my character of all such abilities and portray, based upon my research, the side of the diagnosis that is not often shown. I refused to portray the disorder as something purely for the entertainment of my readers. Thus, the character of Orla was born.

So, writers, I urge you, do your research. Don’t just Google things, read real life accounts, read other work in the same area and speak to people in real life who have a link to your chosen topic in some way. Then gather what you have learned and use your judgement to decide how you want to portray your character. This is not just the case for characters with a medical diagnosis such as autism, but for characters who have suffered a trauma, are of a different ethnicity or sexuality to you, who have an extremely different lifestyle to what you have experienced and so on. Approach the topic with an open mind and a critical eye- other literary representations of such characters may not be what you consider to be accurate or sensitive. Whilst my work may not be viewed as a perfect portrayal of autism by everyone that reads it, I did my best.

Then, use your talent as a writer to empathise in the greatest way you can. Empathise with those who live a life of ill-health. Empathise with those who live a life of riches and luxuries. Empathise with those from other countries. Empathise with those who live with a diagnosis unfamiliar to us. Your job is not just to understand such characters, but as the writer, you need to be such characters- and empathising is a good place to start. For it is only by beginning to understand those different to us, that we are able to attempt to write through another’s eyes.

In the words of the American poet Walt Whitman “I do not ask a wounded person how he feels, I become the wounded person.”

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