On Writing about a Character with High Functioning Autism Spectrum Disorder
The purpose of my own work is to tell a good story--in End of Summer, a good Southern fiction coming-of-age story, and in Unpardonable Sin, a scary
The main character in both my novels, Jeffrey Conley, is based to some extent on me and my own experiences as someone with High-Functioning Autism Spectrum Disorder (HFASD)--what used to be called "Asperger's Syndrome." It is clear, especially in the horror novel, that this is a fictionalized view of Jeffrey, but even when Jeffrey experiences the extraordinary, he experiences it from the standpoint of a child with HFASD. Thus, he has obsessive interests (in the physical heart and with death and the afterlife), is socially awkward, does not fit in well with "normal" people, has above-average intelligence, finds it difficult to understand other people's feelings, and lives inside his head. As a writer, the most difficult thing to communicate to people without ASD is that persons really exist who are like Jeffrey in their behavior and emotional makeup. Sometimes I get comments from people saying, "I found Jeffrey unrealistic--people just don't act that way." They respond in that manner even though I make it clear in the frame story surrounding the main plot that Jeffrey has HFASD, and I show how he does through the story. To say that this is frustrating puts it mildly. Of course every writer puts part of the self into writing, and I put my own quirks and ways of thinking, feeling, and behaving into Jeffrey. Even when Jeffrey does some bad things that I never did in my own life, he does these in a way that fits his HFASD, especially his naivete concerning other people and his inability to read people well.
A book I would recommend to writers and to anyone interested in ASD is Mark Haddon's The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time. The main character in Haddon's novel has more severe ASD than I, but his character rings true to life, and any person on the autism spectrum will see part of him or herself in that character.
Adding Multiple Points of View
One of the more difficult things a writer does is to add multiple points of view to a work. That is usually not advisable in a short story, but in a novel, it is sometimes necessary. It may be that you try to write in one point of view, but find that your story is incomplete without exploring the motives and emotions of other characters. This is the case with the novel on which I am working now, a Southern Gothic piece on murder following a church split. In my first novel, END OF SUMMER, I used a first-person point of view since the story was told in a manner that required a certain nearness of the reader to the main character. The work, while fiction, was intimate and personal, and thus required me to write as if I literally were the main character.
However, in my second novel, UNPARDONABLE SIN, I decided to use a third person limited omniscient point of view for the main character, and I used the present tense to add immediacy to the story, which fits horror very well. However, the novel required one more point of view since the demonic character, a Lovecraftean monster pretending to be a typical demon from Christianity, had to reveal its mind without having to speak. The only way to do so was to shift the point of view to the demon's in certain chapters. The experience of putting myself in the demon's shoes was chilling--I understand more why some authors drink too much. The novel, I found, worked better with the two points of view.
In my third novel, OBEDIENCE, I did something similar--third person limited omniscient for the main character, and shifting to Satan's (Sstan was tempting a father to murder his daughter) point of view at times. It was difficult to avoid slipping into a true omniscient perspective--generally I find that extremely hard to do. It is easier to have chapter or section breaks and shift points of view to reveal another character's thoughts. I would recommend that only very experiened and highly skilled authors use a true omniscient POV.
My current novel on which I am working requires three points of view--the main character, the antagonist, and the antagonist's daughter, all who play too key a role in the novel for the reader to only infer their thoughts. This also reveals the complexity of communication between people--that we can make good guesses on another person's motives, but, short of telepathy, we cannot literally read the thoughts of others. That can lead to miundersdtandings, and it also allows the reader to see attempts at deception by one character of which another character may be unaware. In horror, one of the creepiest questions of a potential victim who is betrayed and harmed is, "Do you really know this person?" Telling the reader a character's motives via his or her thoughts may lessen suspense at times, but if the story does not work without adding a POV, by all means, add it. You can still put in enough suspense to creep out the reader, and you can still use multiple POVs--Stephen King and other horror writers succeed in this a great deal.
Timing is important--when do you shift POVs? One way is to build tension to the breaking point and then ease off with a shift to another POV, a common tool in suspense novels. It also may be the case that the timing is right in the story for a scene shift, and in some cases a shift in POV fits best. You will need to develop a feel for this over time, and be sure to have good readers to point out when a shift in POV seems rushed, too slow, or about right. You also must be just as convincing about each character's motives and feelings; otherwise, the reader will stop "suspending disbelief," and if readers do that, it will be fatal for your novel. A good reading group can point out those problems before you send your novel to a potential publisher. Hone the skill of shifting POVs by practice--if you do, you will find yourself improving over time.
A Southern Horror Writer's Blog
When Does "Gothic" become "Horror"?
Gothic literature came into its own in the early nineteenth century with novels that had creaky castles, "ghosts," and other ostensibly frightening phenomena. In the early novels they were rationalized as tricks due to a villain's actions. Eventually the rationalization stopped and Gothic fiction merged somewhat with supernatural horror or, in the case of Frankenstein, with "science fiction horror." William Faulkner was known for being a pioneer of "Southern Gothic," which usually has no supernatural element, but old, dying families living in mansions past their best days plus dark family secrets. Harry Crews, Larry Brown, William Gay, and Cormac McCarthy have written fine Southern Gothic.
When does Gothic fiction merge into horror fiction? There are "Gothic romances" that hardly deserve the label of "horror," and there are novels such as Rebecca, with its skeletal creepy housekeeper, that have horrific elements. Certainly Faulkner's "A Rose for Emily" counts as horror if the reader "gets" its implications.
Gothic stories are not usually horrific in the sense of "jump out" scares, but the best ones cause the reader to have a growing sense of anxiety and dread. Cormac McCarthy's Blood Meridian adds the element of a landscape and people every bit as haunting and monstrous than anything found in supernatural fiction. Sometimes the immediate situation causes dread, as in "A Rose for Emily." Sometimes the dread slowly builds, as in Rebecca. Gothic fiction with supernatural elements is not always horror, though the supernatural elements may provide fodder for horror. To me, the most horrific Gothic novels cause increasing dread of disaster, the some dark secret will be revealed, or in the case of supernatural Gothic, that some malevolent entity is hiding in the woodwork. Daphne du Maurier wrote that style of Gothic fiction, as did V. C. Andrews, and John Farris' novels set in the South are good examples of Southern Gothic fiction that also counts as horror fiction.
In my own writing I try to combine Southern Gothic with horror elements, whether or not the story involves a supernatural entity. My forthcoming novel, Obedience, as well as my first novel, Unpardonable Sin, are supernatural Southern Gothic as well as horror novels. The novel on which I am currently working, Just Rewards, is a nonsupernatural Southern Gothic novel with horror elements, and I am trying to write it in such a way to allow the reader to experience a growing sense of dread as he or she reads. I am confident that will be the effect the finished novel will have.
"Thomas Wolfe Syndrome"
Thomas Wolfe, the North Carolina author of You Can't Go Home Again (rather than the contemporary writer Thomas Wolfe) had a terrible reception when he returned from New York to his hometown of Asheville, North Carolina. He had written Look Homeward, Angel, a fictional account based on his childhood experiences in Asheville. His family members and friends thought they recognized themselves in the book and considered Wolfe's treatment of them to be unfair. Wolfe's protests that his novel was a work of fiction did not assuage his family and friends with whom he grew up. You Can't Go Home Again reflected Wolfe's own experience of not feeling at home when he returned home.
Many writers' first novel is a coming of age novel based on their own lives. They base their characters more closely on people they knew than in later novels, though the characters are fictionalized. The danger always lurks that someone will see a reflection of themselves in a given character and become offended.
My parents did not like the fact that I killed the parents off in my first novel, End of Summer. I did that not to hurt my parents but for practical reasons. First, I wanted to focus on the main character, Jeffrey Conley's, relationship to his granddaddy. Second, in my debut novel I wanted to minimize the number of major characters. In my case my parents eventually understood why I made the choices I did.
In my second novel, Unpardonable Sin. i pulled out all the stops, and while all characters are fictional, as is the case with any writer I based some of them on people I knew. Now a character can be formed from an amalgamation of several different people. The problem is the edginess of the novel, especially the sex scenes. Could someone take a passage the wrong way? Absolutely. Yet in each scene the character remains fictional, and the events described never occurred. The problem is making the reading public aware that fiction is exactly what the term implies: the word a novel describes is its own world, a world in which events occur that never occurred in real life. The character most closely based on me in both End of Summer and Unpardonable Sin is Jeffrey Conley. In the novel, I pulled out all the stops and had Jeffrey doing the evil things I imagined doing at certain times in my life. Jeffrey Conley, though very much like Michael Potts in some way, is not Michael Potts. Other characters may resemble actual persons, but they remain made-up characters in a novel. Members of the public need not worry about their supposed portrayal in novels, for besides characters that are based on historical characters (for example President Kennedy or Thomas Edison) the other characters never existed, do not exist in reality, and exist only in the content of the text and in the mind of the writer and reader. Historical characters are used fictionally. What I would say to anyone who reads anything they think is about him or her in my writing is that he or she is making a category mistake, confusing real people with made up people. If the reader keeps that in mind, the reader can enjoy a novel by someone he or she knows without worrying about "What did the author say about A or B -- or me?"