Monday, January 29, 2018

Inclusion in Your Storyline: Writing Characters with Cognitive Proocessing Issues with Kris Austen Radcliffe

Today, we are talking about diversity in our writing by including adults who have cognitive processes that are atypical - though atypical does not mean lesser by any stretch of the imagination. Kris can you give us a glimpse at your background and personal experience as it pertains our topic?

Kris -

I've always been interested in cognitive processing, even back when I was a kid. I was fascinated by the process of thinking -- and storytelling. I toggled back and forth between the two, wondering about people, and imagining them.

The fascination with storytelling resulted in a BA in film studies. The fascination with cognition motivated a lot of my post-graduate work.

My first dip into post-grad life resulted in me co-authoring a book about the differences in how people process information. This led to graduate work in Ed. Psych.

The plan was to get that PhD and become a science writer, thus melding my two passions. That didn't happen.

I have two kids, both of whom carry disabilities. Because of a lot of issues and reasons, life did not mesh in a way that allowed me to finish my degree. But it's the kids, really, that brought me to develop characters with disabilities.

My eldest daughter lives with severe ADHD. Being immersed in her life, plus my two passions for cognitive science and storytelling, led to the creation of Rysa Torres, the heroine of my Fate Fire Shifter Dragon series. Rysa, like my daughter, has ADHD.

I wanted to write a character who represented the struggles of ADHD for women in a realistic way, even if the universe is science fiction/ fantasy.

Fiona -
No two people experience the same disability in the same way physically, mentally, socio-economically. Can you explain how you looked at symptoms of ADHD and determined how to apply them to your character and how it impacts her ability to function in her role in your fantasy world?

Kris - 
I know there is disagreement about ADHD, about what it is, how to diagnose it, etc. Some people even think it's a made up syndrome meant to get naughty kids out of schoolwork.

It's real.

ADHD stands for Attention Deficit Hyper Activity Disorder, and like every syndrome, it manifests differently across all sort of factors.

Boys tend to be more hyperactive. Girls, less attentive. My daughter is also hyperactive.

Basically, with ADHD, the executive functions in the front part of the brain move from task to task too fast.

The underlying cause is often (but not always) counterintuitive, in that the jumping is caused by slow processing.

Look at it this way: The executive functions operate as gatekeepers, among other tasks. It's all about sorting and organizing thoughts, application of effort, delaying gratification -- all those fun things we associate with being an adult.

What happens with ADHD is that the operation of those control functions happens too slowly. A moment is not labeled important quickly enough, so it is passed by.

This is why Adderall and the other amphetamine drugs help a lot of people with ADHD. They speed up the necessary processing.

Now, with boys and girls, we run into all sorts of society's stereotypes about who is supposed to be active and who is not. 
Which is why boys get diagnosed earlier and more often -- physical hyperactivity is more obvious with them. With girls tend to fidget, get in trouble, and ignore their homework. They're more likely to labeled as not as smart.

But really, ADHD has little to do with intelligence, though it does effect working memory, which interferes with learning.

My daughter had all the symptoms -- and I mean all of them. She's a cut and dry, textbook case.

She still had an unending number of problems in school.

I wanted to give her, and all the women out there who are dealing with ADHD and any of the issues related to it, a heroine who represented them. So I wrote Rysa.

Fiona - 
Can you explain how you looked at symptoms of ADHD and determined how to apply them to your character and how it impacts her ability to function in her role in your fantasy world?

Kris - 

The character's journey into the fantastic side of the universe is fast, intense, and overwhelming, which mirrors life with ADHD.
She has a hard time keeping track of who has what power and why.
She also has a hard time dealing with her own power set because it's very much like dealing with all of her own little voices.

A common symptom with girls with ADHD is low self-esteem and hyper sensitivity to criticism.

Life's ups and downs are extraordinarily high and extraordinarily low, and everything is a high or a low.

This is one of the truths of Rysa's life -- that the battles ahead of her are extraordinary not only in a fantasy way, but also in an internal, "How is it that I have this power?" way.

And it's reflected in everything.

Rysa, like my daughter -- and me, to be honest -- has a rich inner life. All her struggles have a "voice" and she looks at the world in a metaphorical way, so her power set manifests for her as something that is not quite her.

My daughter will occasionally see her hyperactivity that way.
Her reconciliation of the otherness into the whole is also part of the character's ADHD.

But in the end, her scattered way of looking at the world, and her powers, are what allows her to save the world.

Ultimately, Rysa harnesses her ADHD for the good of everyone.
That's really what I wanted to do with the character. To have her grow into herself and to figure out how to live with and use her atypical cognition.

As a side note, it's really important for anyone with ADHD to have support. Most of the characters around Rysa help instead of hinder.

Fiona - 
When you're constructing your characters with atypical processing do you define this for your readers? Do your characters know they have, for example, ADHD? Or are you allowing those who have experienced this either within themselves or with friends and loved ones?

Kris -
Rysa knows she has ADHD and lampshades it.

Lampshade is  a TV Tropes thing: Putting a lampshade on an issue to point it out for the viewer or the reader. MORE HERE

Basically, it's when extra care is given to the explanation for a character's behavior because it's not "normal."

"Oh my God, he's sucking that person's blood!" "It's okay. He's a vampire." is an example. Without knowing that you're dealing with a vampire, that behavior could be all sorts of nasty.

Rysa explicitly tells everyone that she has ADHD. Now, it's also an excuse on her part, so there's a balancing there.

But the reader knows. They know they're in the head of someone who switches topics, moves between stimuli, and has a hard time paying attention.

It's hard from some readers. I have one review that says the reader wants to punch everyone with ADHD because of my book.
Again, though, a lot of people don't think ADHD is real. They think it's just an excuse for the character to behave "badly."

I also have the POV of Rysa's love interest, who doesn't have ADHD, as a counterpoint. He's not as... speedy. He also has a lot of compassion for her and her difficulties.

Oh, and there's a dragon.

Every girl needs a dragon, and like any good dragon, he's the wise one who takes care of everyone.

Overall, several other characters in the same universe live with some type of issue. One main character is hearing impaired, and his brother lost the lower half of his leg. Another is blind. Several suffer from an immortal form of PTSD.

There are genetic issues that arise when the two groups with different powers have babies. I try to bring in some scientific realism when fleshing out worlds, even in fantasy.

But then again, it's really a science fiction universe, so it's just world building.

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