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Today’s guest is YA fantasy author Elisa A. Bonnin! Her first two novels were both released late last year: Dauntless, described as a Filipino-inspired book in which “a teen girl must bring together two broken worlds in order to save her nation,” and Stolen City, in which “twin thieves attempt to pull off a daring heist.” I recently read Dauntless and adored the setting with its dangerous beasts and settlements amongst the branches of large sprawling trees, as well as the main character’s journey as she discovers there’s more to her world than she thought. I’m thrilled the author is here today to discuss writing characters and defaults in “Breaking the Mold, or ‘What even is neurotypical anyway?’”

Cover of Dauntless by Elisa A. Bonnin Cover of Stolen City by Elisa A. Bonnin

Breaking the Mold, or “What even is neurotypical anyway?”

I’m autistic.

Depending on how we know each other or whether or not you pay attention to my social media, this might be the first thing you know about me, might not come as a surprise, or might be completely unexpected. I’ve often been told “no, you’re not” by people who only see me when I’m masking or by well-meaning family members who share similar traits (I have bad news for them…). My autism was discovered when I was a child, when a difficult family situation triggered a cavalcade of meltdowns that sent even my normally skeptical mother running for medical advice (the doctor had some bad news for her too).

What’s interesting, though, is that even though I had the privilege of knowing I was autistic from a young age, because I was told I was “high-functioning” and that I “didn’t need to worry about it”, I never really bothered to learn much about what being autistic meant, and the ways that autism changed the way I perceived the world. (A shame. If I had, it might have saved me from major burnout in my late 20s. This will be my last aside for now, take a look here for a case against the continued use of functioning labels.) In particular, I had no idea how being autistic was affecting my writing, and the way that I described my characters’ reactions to other people and the world around them.

While I’ve been writing since childhood, I can only think of two times that I’ve deliberately tried to write an autistic character into my work. The first, from a draft in the early 2010s, was a character near and dear to my heart, a magical empath who channels all her frustrations into her art. The second character will be in my Winter 2025 novel. In between, I wrote a lot of characters, including protagonists, who I assumed were neurotypical. Time has given me some evidence that that assumption might be incorrect, and has also led me to question if I’ve ever written a neurotypical POV character, and more importantly—why on earth I thought neurotypical characters were the default anyway.

Let’s start with Seri. She’s the protagonist of my debut novel Dauntless. Seri is the kind of character who starts out soft-spoken and unassuming but grows into a warrior who fights for what she believes in. She was never written to be autistic. In fact, I started writing her just after finishing up a book with the autistic artist I mentioned above, so when I was writing Seri, I thought of her as neurotypical. The trap I’d caught myself in was one of thinking that being autistic meant having certain traits, and because Seri wasn’t a character with those traits, I couldn’t write her as an autistic character.

And…I mean…for the most part, I still don’t think Seri is autistic. She certainly wouldn’t score very high on any online tests that look for evidence of autism. But because I was writing her, there were some things about the way she saw the world that made sense to me and didn’t make much sense to my editor or my neurotypical readers.

It was the way she processed information. There were moments when Seri would be in stressful situations and, drawing on my own experience of being in stressful situations, I would describe how sound faded, becoming replaced by a high-pitched whine that I could hear in my head. I would know people were talking to me, sure, but their voices would be muffled and difficult to make out, a bit like adult Peanuts characters. I thought that this was something that happened to everyone.

Turns out it wasn’t.

Because Seri was never intended to be autistic, I removed the odd sensory elements from her narrative and moved on to Stolen City, a book with four POV characters. Stolen City eventually became my second novel, published the same year as Dauntless. As my first draft of Stolen City came back from edits, I read through it and realized that I had done the same thing again, with a character called Liam.

Liam was always meant to be a quiet bookworm, obsessed with the possibilities of magic and forever exasperated by his more extroverted twin sister Arian, with her blatant disregard for the rules and her love of danger. I’d known both of these characters for a very long time—all the characters in Stolen City are derived from characters my best friend and I developed in high school—so I thought I knew Liam in every way possible. I decided it would be fun to explore the dark side of him that we often hinted at while playing, and to do that, I built a situation where he would be incredibly stressed out. I made his ex-girlfriend betray him in favor of the same colonizing force that took his home and his family away, and he reacted rather violently to that betrayal.

Writing his reaction was cathartic for me, but when I got comments that parts of his reaction were unsympathetic, I had to do some soul searching to figure out why. I realized that though I never intended to, I had written Liam as autistic, and the explosion he had in that “unsympathetic” scene was a meltdown. Armed with that knowledge, I was able to dive into revisions and fix the scene so that it was focused more on his feelings, on the mental processes that were causing him to break down. The result was much more effective. In the end, Liam became my first (and only) published autistic character.

Or so I thought. Because when Stolen City came out, I was able to get an advance copy to my sister (also autistic), and when she read it, she praised me for my portrayal of Liam and my portrayal of his sister, Arian.

Arian, who I really thought wasn’t autistic apparently has some traits that have resonated in autistic people. And that happened completely unintentionally.

Now, while I’m writing, I’m much more sensitive to this tendency. I can see it happening often, especially when I write books that carry more emotion in them, books where the focus is strongly on a protagonist’s inner world. I see it happening now, in my upcoming Winter 2025 novel Lovely Dark and Deep, which is a magic school story wrapped around my protagonist’s struggles with friendship and identity. And I wonder if it might happen in my current WIP, which features my first extroverted protagonist. In fact, the more it happens, the more I realize that autistic might actually be my default for characters, and that I have to work to make characters neurotypical.

The answer to my existential crisis might be a bit obvious to you, because of course I keep making my characters autistic. I’ve never known what it’s like to be neurotypical. But because the neurotypical experience is always shown as the default, I never questioned why my characters were neurotypical until proven otherwise.

It makes me wonder just how many other “defaults” I’ve internalized without thinking about it. Straight characters are also perceived as a default, but could my characters all be bisexual until proven otherwise? (Actually yes, probably.) Also, considering it took me until Dauntless to figure out that I could write non-white characters in fantasy and set my stories somewhere non-European, it really does make me wonder why on earth a bisexual autistic mixed-race Filipino girl came to the conclusion that all of her characters needed to be straight, white, and neurotypical.

The operative question here is “why”, because I know “how”. All the stories I had ever read prior to creating my own had those defaults. I grew up with those defaults, even growing up in a non-Western country. And as a writer, I’m still working each day to break myself of these habits, to question my assumptions about what the audience does and does not need to be told about my characters.

I’m getting better at that, but I’m not there yet. I still make assumptions about my own characters, and I know that I’m much worse off when it comes to other people’s characters. I’m still surprised when a character from a piece of media deviates from this incredibly narrow thing I was raised to think was the standard, and I still need to sit down with myself and ask myself hard questions.

But as far as my characters go, I put a lot of myself into each POV character I write. And so it’s probably fair to say that as far as defaults go, my characters are going to end up quite a lot like me.

Photo of Elisa A. Bonnin Elisa A. Bonnin was born and raised in the Philippines, after which she moved to the United States to study chemistry and later oceanography. After completing her doctorate, she moved to Germany to work as a postdoctoral scientist. A lifelong learner, Elisa is always convinced that she should “maybe take a class in something” and as a result, has amassed an eclectic collection of hobbies. But writing will always be her true love. Publishing a book has been her dream since she was eight years old, and she is thrilled to finally be able to share her stories. She is the author of Dauntless and Stolen City.