I frequently put off writing my work-in-progress. I began writing this novel during the summer of 2015. I took a break at the end of October and wrote a completely separate Christmas novelette, which I had published by the first of December. So it isn’t that I have writer’s block. It’s that This Project is ominous. This Project is both extremely needed and extremely likely to upset someone(s).
I am writing this blog post now in hopes that airing my concerns, which for the longest time I remained in denial about, will finally set them free and out of my head. Hopefully, I can write this and move forward with my work.
The hangup is this: an important character, though not the main character, is a gender nonconforming autistic teenage boy. I do not know the specifics of how he feels about his gender because I have only now (as of yesterday) introduced him. I have put off writing about him for months because of how problematic his existence is likely to be.
There are many ways a person can be gender nonconforming. There are many words to use to describe a person as they appear and as they see themselves. There are also many words to avoid at all costs. I want to allow this character to define himself as the story unfolds, even for me as the author.
But here is the problem: gender nonconforming characters are rare. Representation in fiction is rare. There are a thousand different ways to present oneself within transgender, genderfluid, genderqueer, and other communities. Some desire bodily changes. Some desire appearance changes. Some see the world as the problem because society has mis-defined gender in the first place. These beliefs fall along a spectrum of degrees and not every person in these communities believe the same way.
To sum up my concern: I cannot write about a gender nonconforming person and have them represent an entire complex group of people.
Multiply this by 2 because the same thing applies about this character being autistic. There are thousands of ways to be autistic because autism is a spectrum disorder (even the word disorder is objectionable to some). My character is only being his own autistic and is not trying to be a poster boy for all of autism.
When writing a character who falls into an underrepresented category, people unfamiliar with such groups tend to think that character is, in fact, a poster boy. Look at what has happened with Rain Man. It isn’t that Dustin Hoffman did a terrible job acting his part. It’s that people assume every autistic person is like Dustin Hoffman’s role in the movie. Nothing could be further from the truth.
Every person who does not act in a way that is socially accepted for their birth-assigned gender *will not* fit into the same box and that shouldn’t even be expected. Why is there a box?
Every person who is autistic *is not* the same. They do not have the same struggles, strengths, or coping mechanisms.
So, why am I writing this character at all if it’s so difficult? If this character was real, he would likely be very misunderstood by the general population. And even within the groups he would most identify with, there would be people not quite believing him. Okay… so maybe they would believe him, but would they believe *me* as I tell his story? That is what I don’t know.
I have an autistic son, but not an autistic teen. I care about autistic representation in fiction, but I am not writing about my son. This character is his own person and no one I know in real life.
I know well a number of gender nonconforming teenagers. I care about how this subject is represented in fiction, but I am not writing about the teenagers I know, nor am I writing *for* the teenagers I know. This character is his own person and this story comes from within me.
Not to imply that real life humans have not informed me about who this character is. I have listened to many people’s grievances about how they are misjudged and stereotyped. I have thought about these problems on a very personal level because of the people in my life. I do not want to do harm to any community by the way my character is represented to a mainstream audience.
It’s a fine line, one I feel confident I can figure out how to walk. It is important to me that I do figure it out. But, it is also terrifying because I know, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that someone(s) will feel I did an injustice in the way I created this character. He will be picked apart no matter what.
And that is why I struggle to make myself write him into life. And maybe this speaks to why many other authors simply write cookie-cutter characters instead of risking having their characters unintentionally speak for entire groups of people.
I am not perfect.
My character is not you.
I love my character.
I love you.
And I hope some good comes of it all.