In the world of the books, Nicola lives outside of Chicago, where she serves as the Regional Master for the Porters, a magical organization founded by Johannes Gutenberg. She manipulates magic through song, and is powerful enough to knock you on your ass just by calling you on your cellphone and singing a little tune. She raises chupacabras, which she’s been trying—with some success—to cross-breed with poodles.
She’s also autistic.
I began writing this series shortly after one of my children was diagnosed as autistic. This is one of the reasons I decided to write Nicola the way I did, and one of the reasons I was so invested in getting her right.
What does that mean? For starters, it means I wanted her to be a real, fully-developed character. Autism is a part of her, but I didn’t want it to define her or her story. How many times have we seen a series bring in a character who’s “different,” specifically to tell a story about that difference. Whether it’s the wheelchair-bound teenager who teaches An Important Lesson about disability or the black woman who teaches An Important Lesson about racism or the autistic character who teaches—you guessed it—An Important Lesson about autism.
Nicola has her own story in these books. She has to oversee a bunch of stubborn, overly bright magic-users, including my protagonist, librarian Isaac Vainio. She also has to deal with sparkling vampires attacking Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, werewolves in pickup trucks, and her least favorite thing ever: magical politics.
I had absolutely no interest in trying to show how she does all of this “despite” being autistic. Screw that. Autism, like just about anything else, can certainly present challenges, but Nicola is at a point where she understands and is pretty comfortable with how her brain works. That wasn’t something I wanted to focus on.
But there had to be a little focus, some sort of acknowledgement within the text. Readers tend to assume the default. Don’t specify a character’s race? Many/most will assume them to be white. (Heck, look at The Hunger Games, which did specify Rue’s race. You still had people freaking out that they chose a black actress to portray Rue in the movie.)
So I added a scene where Isaac’s friend Lena, a dryad who’s in a relationship with a psychiatrist, comments on Nicola’s autism. She picked up on some of the stimming behaviors and a few other clues Isaac missed.
Those behaviors are a part of Nicola’s character. Some of them, I’ve modeled after my own child, and other people I’ve known with autism. Some of it comes through reading. There are details like her wardrobe choices, or the way she rarely stops moving, because she feels calmer that way. In Unbound (which comes out in January), we see a bit more of Nicola having to cope with overstimulation in unfamiliar environments.
When Julia Rios and Alisa Krasnostein invited me to write a YA short story for Kaleidoscope, I knew at once that I wanted to write about a younger Nicola Pallas, to show her struggling more to come to terms with her magic. With Nicola taking center stage as my protagonist, I knew I needed to get even deeper into her mind. And I knew I’d need help.
I ended up doing an open call on my blog, asking for readers with autism who would be willing to read the story and give feedback. It was an awkward and uncomfortable thing to ask for, but it was the right thing to do. I had several volunteers, all of whom provided me with insights and pointed out problems I wouldn’t have found on my own. They helped me to make Nicola a truer and—I hope—a more respectful portrayal.
It definitely would have been easier to write Nicola as another neurotypical character. But “easy” has brought us so many books and stories with bland, narrow casts of characters. I want everyone to be able to find themselves in stories. I want my son to be able to read my book and recognize a character who is, in certain important ways, like him.
I love this character. She has absolutely no interest in political power—she had to be persuaded to accept a position as Regional Master—but she’s also smart, competent, and more than capable of holding her own against whatever the author throws her way. I’ve worked hard to make her a genuine and honest character.
To my son, when he gets old enough to read these books, all I can say is that I hope I got it right.
Jim C. Hines’ first novel was Goblin Quest, the humorous tale of a nearsighted goblin runt and his pet fire-spider. Actor and author Wil Wheaton described the book as “too f***ing cool for words,” which is pretty much the Best Blurb Ever. After finishing the goblin trilogy, he went on to write the Princess series of fairy tale retellings, and is currently working on the Magic ex Libris books, a modern-day fantasy series about a magic-wielding librarian, a dryad, a secret society founded by Johannes Gutenberg, a flaming spider, and an enchanted convertible. His short fiction has appeared in more than 40 magazines and anthologies.
Jim is an active blogger about topics ranging from sexism and harassment to zombie-themed Christmas carols, and won the Hugo Award for Best Fan Writer in 2012. He has an undergraduate degree in psychology and a Masters in English, and lives with his wife and two children in mid-Michigan. You can find him online at www.jimchines.com.