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One of the characters in my current piece is autistic. I'm on the spectrum myself, so I have some idea of what this is like, but I'm starting to think that I might be basing her a bit too much on myself. Here's the main reasons I think this:

  • Her role in the story is the radio operator, cryptographer and locksmith (basically, the resident hacker/electronics specialist). I'm a software engineer with an interest in IT security.
  • Both of us tend to think out loud, regardless of whether it's appropriate. There is a plot point around this (and the accompanying inability to know when to shut up), but some of her non-sequiturs are shout outs/references to various sources I find amusing (and sometimes reference in test code).
  • General obliviousness towards appearance - anyone's appearance.
  • When initially drafting scenes that involve her, she always ends up making sarcastic comments without changing her expression. I snark a lot.

It strikes me that making her a gender-swapped copy of myself is unimaginative. How can I avoid this?

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    Not-quite-an-answer, but good writing advice in general: Don't worry too much about preventing problems ahead of time. Trying to make sure your character is perfect before you've even finished your first draft is going to be a delay at best, and outright counterproductive at worst. It's like trying to optimize a loop that's called half a dozen times before you've profiled to discover that the disk I/O is the actual bottleneck. Sure, it probably won't do anything worse than waste some time, but you could be doing it better.
    – Nic
    Nov 5 '18 at 21:44
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    @NicHartley "Premature optimisation is the root of all evil"? Nov 6 '18 at 10:59
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    I would add: "It does not matter". I wrote a story about a guy that was very close to me when looking at character and behavior. Even though I never planned it, that character and the story took a completely different road while writing. And that character became WAY more interesting than myself. Simply write what you want to write. You still can fix it afterwards if it really is too close to yourself
    – Ole Albers
    Nov 6 '18 at 14:01
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Most fiction and much of the best fiction comes from real life. This even brings to mind the old writer's adage, "Write what you know." You haven't really said why you should change the details.

If The Story Is Good

If the story is good and the character is interesting and seems real there is good reason to not change things just because you identify with them. Also, most of those things are general characteristics that could be displayed by many people. That is a good thing, because it means your character is realistic.

However, if you don't want to be identified in the character that is reasonable and in that case you may just alter things to be analogous with the items you want to change.

Here are some examples:

  • Instead of speaking out loud, maybe have the character whisper to herself. The character (Brick) in the sitcom The Middle does that.
  • Maybe make the character hyper-aware of other people's attire.

    "Why do you always wear ties? Ties are uncomfortable. I don't like them."

  • Make the character extremely polite. Always apologizing and opening doors, and having others take the first slice of pizza, etc.

  • Finally, make the character a Nationally Recognized Chess Player instead of an technology person.

But, if you believe that all those changes have changed the character so much it is someone different, then now you know that the traits you pointed out are your character and they simply accurately describe the character you are trying to create.

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    Too small a change to suggest an edit, but if you add a space in front of each > sign in the quto, it will indent to properly align with the bullet-point text. Nov 6 '18 at 13:38
  • The whole "I should change this" seems more instinctive than anything else; it's basically a leftover from getting somebody to review an older piece several years ago, and they noticed that the characters all seemed based upon me. Nov 6 '18 at 16:11
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    @PhilipRowlands There's quite a large difference between "every character is me" and "one character is me", though -- in one, no matter who the characters are like, they'll all feel the same, and it'll get weird. In the other, it's highly unlikely most people will notice, or care if they do.
    – Nic
    Nov 6 '18 at 17:58
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    Close call between this and @J.G.'s answer...I think the last paragraph is what sold me. Nov 7 '18 at 11:21
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Speaking as a writer who's on the spectrum too, I can understand your concern. One of my recent WIPs had a supporting character who is obviously intended to be on the spectrum, although the story never says where, and she's been diagnosed for a while now and for her it's become quite mild, to the point her worries about it are disproportionate. That's partly because she's not the main focus of the story, and partly because she's 10 and I don't remember my social mistakes back then well enough to inject many of them into the story. I could have researched some that are true to someone else's experiences, but that would have been problematic for the same reason neither of us wants a character to mirror ourselves as authors too much.

You know, because we read a rule saying not to. No, I'm kidding; is because the character needs to be someone new, created for the needs of the story you're telling. That's not to say your locksmith mustn't be like you, but here are some tips:

  • Read about other autistic people. I don't mean whole books; just a few articles will do. You could discover ways the condition may affect them that are unlike you. For example, this discussion of how autists feel misconstrued mentions that they're less liable to use or even understand sarcasm than is widely believed. Now, obviously a generalisation that goes entirely the other way would contradict your own snarkiness, so I'm not saying anything someone else has written gets you more accurately than you do yourself. But the aim of this is to think about what you really want her to be like.
  • Read how autists have described their own experiences, especially the sensory aspects, and especially women. You owe it to yourself to read several paragraphs by Temple Grandin.
  • Read The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time. No diagnosis is stated, but the protagonist seems to be on the spectrum. Why?

You should get ideas for building a character as a hodge-podge that way. Ultimately, that's where all characters come from.

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  • I'm torn between this answer and that from @raddevus. If I could accept both, I would! Nov 7 '18 at 11:15
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Are you happy with your story and character in other ways? Is the only problem your worry that she's too much like you? If so, then I suggest you just keep writing. I assure you that the character you described isn't routine and boring. You're still using your imagination, even if you draw on your own life experiences and personality traits to round her out into a full person.

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Here's another perspective for you:

I am working on a novel with many characters. In quite a few of them, there is a bit of me: I give them my values, and then make them argue which core value takes precedence, much as I debate with myself. I give one character the mistakes I made with my first boyfriend, I give another what maturity I have gained since then. One character shares my love for the written word, another - my inability to sing.

Those characters also have my friends in them: quirks, traits I admire, way of seeing things that isn't my own. And there are the people who are not my friends: aspects I respect and aspects I despise are also woven into my story when I need them.

There is nothing wrong with drawing on your life, on what you're familiar with, when writing a story. Jim Butcher's characters in Dresden Files are geeks who love Star Wars and Star Trek and The Lord of the Rings, play D&D and eat at Burger King, just like him. Tolkien based Sam on men he knew during WW1, and gave Faramir his dream of a land overtaken by huge waves. Jane Austen had personal familiarity with the situation of the Dashwood sisters in Sense and Sensibility.

All of this becomes a problem only if all your characters are based on you to such an extent that they have no unique voice. If they are all the same person, with only minor differences, then you should look for other sources of inspiration, and distance your characters from yourself.

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What differences are there? Have you given her interests that you do not have? Perhaps traits that you lack?

Does she have likes and dislikes different from your own?

You mention similarities, but she must have more to her than what you have mentioned.

Take some of your other traits and flip them, then give some to her. We all have similarities, it is our differences that most people notice. In facial recognition, our brain creates a template to compare with known faces and does a quick comparison, sometimes erroneously, to see if a person is a match. If a person is not a match, then we note the differences.

Maybe she has a boa constrictor at home and when she talks about boas a passerby might think she means a feather one, not a real one.

She sounds like an interesting character, just give her a bit more that is unique to her. It is natural for some aspect of ourselves to be in some aspect of our characters, but our characters ought to be creations of our intellect, not reflections of it.

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I'm on the spectrum myself, and I have to say, it can be difficult. But, it helps me with character building a lot, because I have so many weird things I can distribute to other character. But writing about a character with autism is easier when you have an idea of what it's like.

Here's my advice:

Know your strengths and weaknesses

Most people with autism tend to have a better memory, a tendency to suck up immense amounts of information, but at the price of terrible social skills and a tendency to get sucked into things. I'm pretty sure you know this already, but I want to intimately understand them. How do these things set you apart from the "normal" people?

If you understand how your mental uniqueness affect you, you can better apply this to your character.

Know your tics

Everyone has a few nervous tics. If you know your tics, then you can change them in your character. If you tend to chew with your mouth open, have your character snap her fingers at random times.

Move the character further down the spectrum

If you're borderline neurotypical, consider moving your character a little further down the spectrum. Not much, you don't want a low-functioning character when you're goal is to have them out in the world at a reasonable time.

Change fields

There was another answer that said the same thing, and I thought it deserved a reiteration. Make the character a completely different field. You said you're a software engineer? Make your character a florist, or an actor. Oh, loads could be done with an actor with autism.

And that's it for now. Hope this wasn't just me rambling, and actually helped!

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Honestly, most of the previous answers are going to be better than what I am going to give. It's the whole dichotomy between getting what you want versus getting what you need. You asked how to avoid basing the character on yourself, but (to echo the room here) is that it's okay to have a character or plot that is to some degree based on yourself, your life, and your interests. If you have passion for a certain topic or personality traits it almost invariably shows through in your writing and makes the story better. If the story is good no reader is going to care if it comes from your life. After all, who is going to write a better story about a particular topic than someone who has a passion for it and knows its good points and bad?

However, if you want specific advice regarding your character...

  • Both of us tend to think out loud, regardless of whether it's appropriate.
  • General obliviousness towards appearance - anyone's appearance.
  • When initially drafting scenes that involve her, she always ends up making sarcastic comments without changing her expression.

These are all common (but not universal) personality traits seen in autistic people in general and I wouldn't recommend worrying too much about them. The first somewhat less so but I have seen the latter a lot.

When writing an autistic character, especially if you are on the spectrum yourself, the biggest difference between them and you is going to be their special interest. Special interests are not always visibly present in people with autism, but they frequently are. Special interests are going to influence a lot about how the character behaves: how they see the world, what their in-jokes are, the kinds of skills they have, and even the job they go into. This is true for anyone but is especially true for autistic individuals because they often eat, sleep, and breathe their interests. So if your character has interests different from your own the biggest challenge is going to be doing a lot of research on a subject that you might know nothing about or not have a lot of interest in, because you have to know enough to fake their deep interest. If both you and your character have interests in cryptography or computer software you have a head start.

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This is why I think "Write what you know" is some of the worst advice to give an aspiring writer... I prefer "Write What You Don't Know, but write it in a way that makes others think you know it." Or in other words, Research and into topics you're not interested in. I normally have my characters believe in ideals or things I do not (especially politics, as my books tend to have a political edge to them... and it's boring if my POV wins out among people who aught not agree with me.). Rather, I try and play Devil's Advocate to my own personal views. You do not have to be a software engineer to be good with secret codes... people have been using codes before Computers were a thing and having the ability to identify the techniques used for things like Substitution Ciphers, Caesar Ciphers, and Ciphertexts like the Beale Papers could easily be acquired for a love of history. Even today, One Time Pads are fairly pencil and paper communications that cannot be broken if properly used.

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