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When Your Characters Don’t Agree on the Nature of Reality: Help from Literary Theory and Brain Science by Victoria Costello

by Writing Workshops Staff

A year ago

When Your Characters Don’t Agree on the Nature of Reality: Help from Literary Theory and Brain Science by Victoria Costello

by Writing Workshops Staff

A year ago

Know your genre, new authors are constantly told. A corollary aimed at new fiction writers goes like this… Publishing is impossible. Give your book a slim chance of success by sticking with one main character and one genre.

It’s good advice if you can follow it. This I discovered when I began querying my debut novel, Orchid Child, which blends no fewer than five genres to explore the intersection of Celtic folklore and neurodiversity over three generations in a tragedy-plagued, Irish American family—one not unlike my own. In this essay, I share how I borrowed a fifty-year-old work of critical theory, along with some cutting edge brain science, to create a neurodiverse world for my characters.

I spent most of the decade it took me to write Orchid Child searching for the right structure, aka genre, to contain the story I wanted to tell. In an early draft, I killed off my main character—Kate, a neuroscientist—on page seven, and had her narrate a series of encounters with her ancestors from a waystation in heaven. In another, I gave major story-telling duties to Kate’s voice-hearing nephew, Teague, and wrote it as Harry Potter meets The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time. Attempting straight historical fiction, I braided Teague and Kate’s journey to their ancestral home in West Ireland with the exile of a grandmother sailing in the opposite direction eighty years earlier. With each attempt at a single genre, it felt like a vital piece of my story went missing. It turns out there could be no Orchid Child without equal bits of history, science, mystery and romance along with a Greek chorus of ancestral spirits and faeries, and at least one Druid.

What’s a genre for?

Genre rules exist for good reasons. Traditionally they mirror specific shelves in physical bookstores. They also form the bases of social contracts with readers who recognize the tropes of their favorite genre as a set of codes that guide their book purchases—on and offline. With these rules in place, readers are (theoretically) assured that the incidents described in a memoir really happened while the characters and events in a novel flow from the author’s imagination. Mystery readers can safely assume that the fate of the dead body or missing person who appears on page one will be explained with a nifty twist by book’s end. Just like fans of fantasy understand that wizards and dragons live in wholly constructed worlds and readers of romance know the two paramours who meet cute in chapter one will overcome the great obstacle tearing them apart to reunite and live happily ever after.

With its kitchen sink of genres intact, Orchid Child found a home with Between the Lines Publishing, a small traditional press that will release it on June 13, 2023. As I’ve prepared to engage with readers about my novel, I’ve been searching for tidy answers to two questions I would be largely spared if I’d stuck to one genre: What kind of story is Orchid Child? And, why did I have to write it this way?

Borrowing from Literary Theory

I turned for help to an old ally, Tzvetan Todorov, who, as it happens, answered both questions for authors writing books like mine in The Fantastic, A Structural Approach to a Literary Genre, published in 1973. Todorov’s work has been on my shelf since 2018 when novelist and workshop leader Joanna Scott recommended it to me after she read the ‘scientist in heaven’ version of my novel. In her feedback, Joanna pointed to an inconsistency about the nature of reality in my draft. Did I want readers to buy into Kate’s heavenly journey as real? Was I privileging her medicalization of her nephew’s voices and visions? Or did I endorse Teague’s perceptions as an acceptable, even preferable worldview? Todorov gave me permission to decisively not decide; that is, to not privilege one of their points of view over the other.

The concepts and terminology he introduced in The Fantastic contain useful nuances that situate novels on a spectrum charting the relative degree of reality present in the worlds their characters inhabit. He borrowed from Freud to describe a work of essentially realist fiction as uncanny when a character experiences a strange event—a ghost, vision, or an unsettling coincidence—that is, eventually, explained away with a mundane cause. Typical causes include a simple coincidence, a character’s dream state or a temporary bout of madness.

Todorov applied the term marvelous to fiction when a strange event can only be explained by the presence of a supernatural or similarly unknown cause. Most of what we now call sci-fi and fantasy fits neatly in this category. According to Todorov, in both uncanny and marvelous fiction, the author explicitly or implicitly settles any lingering doubt about what is real.

But Todorov didn’t stop there. When an author purposely leaves the nature of reality in a novel unsettled, he suggested a new genre was required; one necessary for fiction to reflect the ever-increasing anxiety of Twentieth Century modernity. He called this genre the fantastic, defined as an unstable borderland between the uncanny and the marvelous. His favorite example was Henry James’ 1893 novella, Turn of the Screw, in which the author famously left unanswered the central question of whether a ghost was tormenting the governess—or not.

According to Todorov: “The fantastic lasts only as long as a certain hesitation: a hesitation common to reader and character, who must decide whether or not what they perceive derives from ‘reality’ as it exists in the common opinion. […] If he decides that the laws of reality remain intact and permit an explanation of the phenomena described, we say that the work belongs to another genre: the uncanny. If, on the contrary, he decides that new laws of nature must be entertained to account for the phenomena, we enter the genre of the marvelous.”

Here, in Orchid Child, sixteen-year-old Teague grapples with the fantastic.

Teague stops running and grabs the trash bin. There’s nobody in the square but him and an old man reading the paper on a bench. But the voices are almost as loud as they were back at the rock wall. A man says… Bloody hell, I’m hit. Fire… help me, a lady yells. He goes back over what the drug store guy told him. How the British wiped out a column of rebels hiding in the church before they burned down Main Street. But that was eighty years ago. His arms and legs vibrate as the pieces fall into place like a frozen cartoon. What if the rocks in the wall held on to what happened here the same way silicon chips store data? Silicon comes from quartz crystals and, duh, quartz is a rock. That must be it. The sounds stay around as a possibility, waiting for somebody to tune in at the right frequency. It could be a quantum thing. Like the ones who suffered back then still want witnesses to what happened. Or maybe he’s just thinking crazy shit. He’s still sorting it out when the church bell peals three times and drowns out the voices. Damn. He’s late for therapy.

Teague’s Aunt Kate, a neuroscientist and his new guardian, finds her worldview tested by Teague’s ability to see the future and the past, which, she discovers, in ancient Celtic folklore and even in her own family, is known as ‘second sight.’ Unfortunately, the idea doesn’t align with her understanding of the laws of nature.

In Kate’s thoughts… What exactly are these spectral things Teague sees and hears? Kate can’t help but run this question through the filter of her training. From what part of his brain do they come? Unless . . . they originate in some other, immaterial source. Or a different time? She shudders at the distance she’s allowed her thinking to drift from known knowns.

Borrowing from Brain Research

Even with the freedom conveyed by my choosing the fantastic as a genre for Orchid Child, I found it challenging to sustain and integrate these multiple realities, or worldviews, throughout the novel. Two scientific ideas that emerged in the early 2000’s, the ‘present day’ of my novel, became useful. One of these ideas was so pertinent I chose it for the book’s title.

Neuroscientists coined the term orchid child to refer to a youngster who inherits an unlucky genetic hand, a genetic variation that makes him highly sensitive to his environment. What startled researchers was that these same children, through careful parenting, can covert that genetically endowed deficit into the seed of later success, even brilliance. In my novel, this concept comes into play in the field research the character Kate is conducting in Ireland. It also affects her personally as she struggles to allow her orchid child, Teague, to come of age on his own terms.

The second popular idea with scientific roots that’s integral to my novel is neurodiversity. The concept was first adopted by autism self-advocates, and has come to represent a paradigm shift in our cultural understanding of mental illness. The idea of neurodiversity compels us to view people whose perceptions and thoughts may be different from those deemed neurotypical, not as deficient but as traits conveying both advantages and disadvantages. In recent years, neurodiversity has been adopted as a self-definition by people dealing with a variety of diagnoses.

As an author with lifelong major depression, also the mother of a neurodiverse son who inspired Orchid Child, these ideas from both literature and science have been essential to my creative process.

**If you’re writing a character whose thoughts slip outside the norm, Victoria Costello is teaching a one day workshop on October 14th called Writing Neurodiverse Characters in Fiction or Memoir to help you meet the threshold of authenticity for that character.

Instructor Victoria Costello is an Emmy Award-winning writer, teacher, and the author of six published non-fiction books, including her memoir, A Lethal Inheritance, and The Complete Idiot's Guide to Writing Memoir. Her debut novel of autobiographical fiction, Orchid Child, is forthcoming in June of 2023. She teaches writing at Southern Oregon University and for the online platform, Memoir University. See more of her work at

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