So, one of the most common questions I get asked, especially after my post on being explicit, is how to be explicit with a character’s autism when writing a fantasy or historically based novel.
I’ve given a few different answers to this and have used a few different techniques myself, but I wanted to use this post to talk about my current favourite: meta-fiction.
Meta-fiction is adding another layer of fiction on top of the story in which you the author also belong to this world.
Usually, this takes the form of author bios or ancillary content in the back of the book.
One of my favourite examples of this is Girl Genius which is “written by Professors Foglio and Foglio of Transylvania Polygnostic University as textbooks for their “True Events in the Life of Agatha Heterodyne 101″ class” (Girl Genius FAQ Page).
Another is The Gift by Alison Croggon (also known as The Naming in the US), which starts with a note on the text explaining that it is a simplified translation of the Riddle of the Treesong, intended for a general audience.
Of course, there is no Transylvania Polygnostic University or Riddle of the Treesong. It’s all just meta-fiction, in which the authors pretend to be experts on the “true” events of the book. This allows for extra world-building in a way that wouldn’t clog up the story.
For example, the final of the Books of Pellinor (the series The Gift belongs to) ends with extra content telling the reader what happens to the main characters, without clunky epilogues.
Some books have this extra content without the meta-fiction layer (such as the A Song of Ice and Fire books) but I think that it’s important when we’re talking about autism.
To explain, here is the opening to my steampunk novella, Lady Ruth Constance Chapelstone and the Clockwork Suitor:
“The condition we now refer to as ‘autism’ was first recognised by the medical communities of Europe in the first half of the 20th century.
However, before this point, Autistic people still existed. Many were simply seen as ‘eccentric’ and certain euphemisms arose to describe them.
One such euphemism arose during the Industrial Revolution, within the upper class of London. Many of the great minds behind the revolution were referred to as having ‘an inventor’s disposition’.
The majority of the modern day technology we so heavily rely on – particularly automatons and other mechanicals – can be traced back to these inventors.
One such inventor was referred to only as The Owl, and they were single-handedly responsible for a great deal of both technological and social change during Queen Victoria’s reign.”
– Excerpt from The Owl: The Birth of the Automaton Age,
By Professor Lucinda Caroline Mawson
One paragraph of meta-fiction and I just explicitly said that my character is Autistic without using the term “autism” in a historical setting.
So, yeah, meta-fiction.