28 June 2010

What Surprised Me: My Heroine

By Jennifer Linforth

I am not autistic.

I met a critique partner of mine, an expert in the field of Aspergers, because I was blogging on anthropomorphizing--something commonly seen in autism and something I did as a kid. I am not autistic, yet I have an autistic heroine. What surprised me was how I came to write her.

This is where writing what we know turns into adding what others know and realizing our limits. I never sought to have an autistic heroine in my novel, until a reader asked me why she seemed autistic. Was I?

No, I'm not. I simply write what I know, and this heroine's thought process is similar to mine. I was taken aback. My delightfully quirky heroine was viewed as autistic? That was not what I intended! What now! I write historical fiction. This can't happen! I can't have autism in the 19th century, why that's--madness!

Sadly in that era...it was.

But that woman's comment made me wonder; perhaps I needed to see my characters through the opinions of others more often. We writers get locked in our stubborn little heads a lot and often don't come out. I am sure many writers have characters they refuse to budge on. I showed the draft of my heroine to others and they all said the same thing. I knew very little of the world of autism, in a particular Aspergers, but I started reading about it and until I met my critique partner I still was not convinced about his heroine....

Once I let go of my vision for her and embraced the vision of others--the story flourished.

If writers are going to tackle a project they must do so knowing the potential is there that we may be wrong. Our plots may be great, but we might be writing with the wrong characters. Once I listened to what I was being told and began the very scary process of research and networking in order to polish this heroine. (After all, like I said, I am not autistic. How do I approach someone and ask to interview them on very intimate details of their lives from daily living right down to love?)

I was delighted with how well she fit into the 19th century while still being compatible with 21st century readers. I was shocked during the research at how many people secretly supported books with heroes or heroines with challenges. They embrace the idea of reading a book with real characters with identifiable problems and hurtles. Many keep silent, because autism is a part of their lives and often something discussed only behind closed doors.

Sadly, that is madness.

I've learned that autism seeps into everyone's lives whether we realize it or not. In my line of work outside of writing I have yet to see a group of children that does not have one autistic child in their ranks. I am indebted to the people and experts I have reached out to who have educated me. My debut novel, MADRIGAL, was a whole other story--it involved years of research into expanding classic literature. I knew those characters inside and out. That success made me think I always would know my characters. What surprised me, is how important it is to remain open minded and accept the guidance of other writers, even strangers, when crafting our characters. More so, how important it is to sometimes say: I was wrong!