Not so long ago I wrote books with protags that I kept getting the feedback on that they were not relatable. I cried. Because those characters were like me. In lieu of finding protagonists that were like me in SFF, I wrote them Only to be told that they were not making sense, nobody would be/think/act like that.
And that hurt immensely because while those characters are not me, the things pointed out often were things that made them more like me. Especially the way they experience and process the world and emotions. (Not that I haven’t been told that I’m doing that wrong before.)
I have learnt a lot about me and about publishing since then. Do I write character that are more relatable now?
But no I do not cry about it the way I did before any longer. I have learnt that the things that make my protagonists stand out (like a sore thumb), the things that make them like me, are traits of my autism ADHD.
And agents have been no more trained to interact and relate to autistic characters than normal people. Of course they have difficulties relating. What am I expecting?
Truth be told? I don’t even know any longer.
Of course I could just reign it in and make my protags palatable. I thought about that, naturally, since I want to get pubbed really bad. Right now, I’m like, fuck it! With each book, my protagonists get more autistic. Maybe being blatantly obvious about it will work better.
But I want to be unapologetic about who I am. And I don’t want to have to justify and explain why I am the way I am. If you need an explanation to accept that I like eating the same thing over and over and love to bury myself under 13kg of blankie at night – fuck you.
People are weird. People are different in all directions. I don’t need to know why. (Unless they ask for help being less weird. Which generally, we don’t.) You can’t tell me people can’t relate to my character because they are like me, when I related to characters that were not like me my whole life.
I am also certain that there are people out there just waiting for more autistic protags in SFF. We want to see ourselves in the main character. And as it takes one to know one? We know. Better believe we know. We see it, when it’s there. And we want it. Want more of it. (Please rec me SFF with autistic protags. 🥺)
To circle back to writing unrelatable characters. I thought it was a me-problem, that I was incapable to write characters that readers can identify with. I have made it into a you-problem. I am writing characters you were not confronted with before. I am refusing to spoon-feed you the autistic experience. I am offering it to you in the form I experience the world (and it’s reactions to me).
I understand that tradpub doesn’t like it because it is new and untested. I understand that my voice is not seen as marketable. While some readers will easily identify with my characters, the majority is not used to them and will have to put some work into relating to them. Don’t worry. It gets easier over time. I’ve been doing it for over 40 years now and barely notice any longer.
This will not improve with more books. I am veering away from traditional, tightly-wound, fast-paced, three-act structure stories. I write what I want to read. And I know by the time tradpub deigns to publish some of that, I will be long dead.
Being relatable is a non-measure for a character. It is usually cut down to how much of a background you share with the person portrayed. And how much work you are willing to put into understanding them. I get now that for many people this amount is none. I feel I should be less surprised because it’s exactly what happens most times in life.
It was probably naive to think that things will be different in publishing just because it is allegedly a creative business looking for the fantastic. It’s still a business and what it looks for first and foremost is selling books.
My characters aren’t unrelatable. They are unprofitable.