Representation matters, but it only helps if it’s done well. If you’re putting neurodivergent characters in your story, here are a few things you should avoid doing.
Whenever I hear that this book or that TV show has a neurodivergent character, I get a little excited and a little scared. On the one hand, it’s great to see more representation for people like me. On the other hand, the chances of that character being actually well written, instead of a caricature of what people think insert-syndrome-here people are like, are pretty low.
Representation is important, but it’s not helpful if you only give them a vague idea of a neurodivergent character. Here are a few tropes you need to avoid if you’re putting neurodivergent characters in your story.
Neurodivergent Character Cliche #1: Generically Crazy People
You see this cliche a lot when authors write villainous characters, especially in comic books or superhero stories. Why are all the villainous characters killing people, breaking stuff, or manipulating the heroes? They’re crazy, that’s why. If we’re lucky, we’ll get at least a little bit of an explanation for those characters, usually in the form of a tragic backstory that caused them to be crazy.
I guess I could say something here about how making all your villains neurodivergent (or all your neurodivergent characters villains) is perpetuating a harmful stereotype about neurodivergent people. But other writers have said that, many, many times, and most of them have said it better than I could.
The fact is, making all your villain characters crazy is just plain lazy writing. It fails all the requirements of good characterization for villains (how is “crazy” a motive?) and for neurodivergent characters (how are they crazy? What are their actual symptoms?).
If you’re going to make your villain neurodivergent, keep in mind that you’re at risk of following a very old, very tired and frankly dangerous cliche. A good neurodivergent villain shouldn’t be evil because they’re crazy or crazy because they’re evil – those two things have nothing to do with each other.
Also, keep in mind that “crazy” isn’t a monolith, by any means, and you can’t use it as a hand wave for any sort of villainous behavior. Which brings me to my next point.
Neurodivergent Character Cliche #2: Not Doing the Research
If your characters are part of a demographic that you’re not familiar with, it always helps to do some research. It helps to know what you’re talking about, even if you’re writing fiction – your work will seem more true to life and you’ll lower your chances of pissing somebody off.
But for neurodivergent characters, this research is really important, for the specific reason that a lot of writers seem to think it’s unnecessary.
After all, everyone basically knows what people with ADHD are like, right? They’re all hyperactive ten-year-old boys who can’t sit still, and that’s pretty much it. Or people with autism? All emotionless, obsessed with one thing, and good at math. And obviously anyone with a personality disorder has to be a villain.
Outgroups – such as neurodivergent people – tend to attract stereotypes, and people can’t be defined by a label no matter what that label is. But in the case of neurodivergent people, there’s also the fact that most mental illnesses are vastly more complicated than the images you see on TV.
If you’re going to get anywhere near portraying your neurodivergent characters accurately, you’ll need to do some homework. Unless your character is based on your own experiences with that particular disorder, there’s probably a whole world of information you’re missing. And even if you are basing them off your own experiences, it never hurts to back yourself up with research.
Neurodivergent Character Cliche #3: the Symptom Checklist
That being said, it’s important to realize that the research you do won’t be a perfect guide to writing neurodivergent characters. DSM-V labels are descriptions of groups, and the traits which are most often found in those groups. A single neurodivergent person probably won’t have every single symptom listed for their disorder.
It should also be noted that even if your neurodivergent character does have a certain symptom, the severity of that symptom can change due to circumstances.
I’ve got ADHD and I can attest: there are days when I genuinely don’t have trouble focusing. Then there are other days – usually when I haven’t slept, or when I’m overstressed – that makes even the smallest task seem completely impossible. Lots of neurodivergent people have the same variance in their symptoms.
Neurodivergent Character Cliche #4: “Curing” Your Characters
I’m not saying that symptoms never get better, or that neurodivergent kids can’t grow up to lead healthy, independent lives. Obviously that is not true. But the idea that neurodivergent people can be “fixed,” or that they can “get better,” is in most cases not true.
You can’t magically “fix” people, and plenty of neurodivergent people would rather not be fixed. Things can improve, but it usually takes time, therapy, and sometimes medication – and changes are rarely permanent.
I’ll provide a real example. I have ADHD – I am neurodivergent, and I have been neurodivergent for as long as I can remember. As a kid, I was a good student or a bad student depending on the subject, the teacher, and the medication. During quarantine, I very nearly failed several classes at once because I was desperately bored and couldn’t focus to save my life.
That’s what “healing” looks like for most neurodivergent people, and that’s what it will probably look like for your neurodivergent characters. Your symptoms never really go away. You just learn to live with them. Or you have a time when you’ve got more good days than bad days, but that doesn’t mean it’s gone for good.
Representation is important for any group, but a lot of “representation” for neurodivergent characters still relies on cliche and damaging old ideas. If you’re putting any neurodivergent characters in your next work, keep this in mind.