It’s pretty common knowledge that I’m an advocate for diversity in fiction. Gender, sexuality, ethnicity. Those are where I’ve managed to, I think, do something with my books. I’ve actively tried to include people from diverse backgrounds in those areas, and I have intentions to include other kinds of diversity when I feel I can do justice to the experience. That includes religion and, more cogent to this post, neurodiversity. People with bipolar disorder, or dissociative identity, or on the autism spectrum. Which is what I want to talk about, but we’ll see about that very shortly.
I think the best way you can include diversity isn’t to make it overt. Not that there are no stories to be told in regards to all that. There are important stories with a very intense connection to the diversity they hold, and they need to be told. They need to be told with respect and knowledge and a damned good understanding of how fiction works, and they will be. But for me, the things I deal with and the way I tend to deal with them, I do my best to make the diversity less in your face. It doesn’t always work out that way, of course. I have characters who are a bit more “right there” with how they’re different.
I was thinking about diversity today, looking at which works I loved that really nailed it. And one came immediately to mind. One that made quite a stir in its time, is still much loved and respected among readers (And film goers, in that format.): Stephen Chbosky’s The Perks of Being a Wallflower.
Now, you might thing I’m talking about Patrick, who’s gay. But, as much fun as Patrick is, and as much as I love his story and his characterization, I would hardly call him subtle or understated. His plot is very much focused on how he’s gay and people are not okay with that. Super heart-wrenching for me personally, for hopefully obvious reasons, but not what I’m talking about.
I’m talking about Charlie, the main character/narrator. He’s a perfect example of neurodiversity done extremely well, in my opinion. Now, it’s not that it’s never brought up (Obligatory spoiler warning: turn back now if you want to burst into tears reading this book like I did.). Charlie was known to be suicidal, and that does come back around. He even medicates for it.
But that’s not the beautifully subtle part of his character that works so damn well. Now, I’m not a psychologist, but I think there are two very possible options, both of which have strong evidence. What matters most isn’t the exact definition of how Charlie differed from what’s considered average, but the fact that he did, we readers knew it, and we felt for him and loved him anyway. But for matters of clarification, I’m going to lay down two theories: Charlie was either on the autism spectrum, or he was suffering from PTSD from (More spoilers!!) being molested by his aunt as a child… and/or her sudden death that he blames himself for. Most likely and instead of or, if you ask me.
Charlie is emotional over relatively small things. He’s prone to depressive episodes, blind rages, violence. He doesn’t appear to know his own strength. He’s socially awkward, to the point of having only one friend, and for a while none. And so many smaller things that would be difficult to catalog. It's not clear cut to be labeled, especially when I'm not a psychologist in any sense. But they are signs of something other than what we consider baseline neural activity.
And that got me thinking about diversity, and a way things can be handled. We don’t make them a large spectacle, because sometimes that isn’t the best way to make an impact. Sure, sometimes it is, but not always. As a writer or a reader, you make that decision for yourself. But for me, I like to see it handled gently.
So I’m curious: what books do you enjoy that display subtle diversity? Let me know in the comments: always looking for good book recommendations, after all.