Should We Label Characters?

I recently watched A Wrinkle in Time, a movie based on Madeleine L’Engle’s book of the same name. Watching this movie brought back memories of my childhood, when I fell in love with L’Engle’s characters. I remember finding in Meg a character sufficiently off-beat and unsure that I could truly identify with her—yet also courageous and powerful enough that I could look up to her and aspire to do what she did. It was something of a pivotal moment for me, realizing that however different I seemed from my peers there was someone, somewhere who understood well enough to create a character that resonated so perfectly with me.

Don’t get me wrong. I love stories and I delve into them heart and soul. I loved reading about the adventures of Lucy and her siblings in the Chronicles of Narnia or Bilbo and Frodo in The Lord of the Rings, among many, many others. I live and breathe these stories with a sense of reality that sometimes intrudes on the real world. These stories are why I became a writer. I hope to write stories that captivate people in a similar way, providing them with an enriching escape that helps them return to the real world better people for the experience of it.

But as much as I would attach myself to these characters I didn’t identify with them the way I identified with Meg. I’ve read hundreds of books and seen hundreds of movies. I’ve watched a few television shows in their entireties. Often this is a form of escape—not so much to get away from my life, but to get away from my sense of reality. But in all these stories there are so few that resonate with me the way Madeleine L’Engle’s stories have done.

So many characters seemed just a little too connected with their world—whatever world that happened to be. Even the outsiders (God, I love outsiders!) fit in just a little too well. But then there’s Meg. She doesn’t fit. Even when, as an adult, she merges, she doesn’t really fit. She’s different. And, at first, she’s uncomfortable being different. But she grows into herself, into her differences. That’s something I could identify with and aspire to long before I had any clue of the nature of my differences.

There’s a temptation among some people I admire to attribute neurotypes to characters and historical persons. As much as I respect their desire to do so, I think that such labels may be a little bit misguided. In the past, I’ve watched Bones and saw how Aspie-ish Dr. Brennan is. And maybe she is. Maybe, whether her creator intended it or not, Dr. Brennan could be labeled an Aspie. Maybe, whether L’Engle intended it or not, Meg could be labeled an Aspie. Charles Wallace certainly has some rather pronounced traits that suggest an autism spectrum neurotype.

As tempting as using such labels is, I feel that maybe we should resist the temptation. Maybe the label is not the point. Maybe it’s not necessary.

Human diversity is a vast thing that encapsulates each and every one of us. Neurological diversity is a vast thing that encapsulates each and every one of us. While our cultures and societies may try to cut diversities up into segments—some being desirable and valued and others being unfortunate and unworthy—diversity doesn’t really work that way.

Characters like Meg and Dr. Brennan help their audiences see that people really are different, and that those differences can be a source of a character’s strengths even as they represent weaknesses. Balancing strengths and weaknesses is actually something of a rule in writing, because it more accurately reflects human nature than flawless characters or pure villains do.

And maybe that’s enough. Maybe it’s enough that we recognize that people—and the characters patterned after people—are different, each and every one of us. Maybe we don’t need a label to summarize those differences so much as we need a willingness to attach ourselves to the others that surround us.

Stephanie Allen Crist blogs at Embracing Chaos.  Should We Label Characters? appears here with the author’s permission.

related:  Autism as Adverb

related:  “Autism” the Word, as Glimpsed in the Wild

on 10/1/10 in Art/Play/Myth, featured | 9 Comments | Read More

Comments (9)


  1. Gwen McKay says:

    I believe that I developed a much more expansive view of diversity as a child by reading “A Wrinkle in Time” and other books that simply took neurological differences in stride. It was quite a disappointment when I learned that the rest of the world wasn’t as broad-minded.

    I agree with your observation that putting labels on such differences causes people to make distinctions where there may be no need to do so. Although labels are useful in some contexts, such as finding services, they also tend to reinforce stereotypes and thus should be used with care.

  2. Stephanie says:


    I agree that “A Wrinkle in Time” (and much of L’Engle’s other writing) does reinforce the idea that diversity is a positive, enriching thing. I love reading her work, both her non-fiction and her fiction.

    When talking about real people, labels become both more important and more dangerous. It’s something of a double-edged sword. With a label, services and accommodations are much more readily available; but so is prejudice. I don’t have a solution to that-I don’t know if there is a solution to that. But we can hope.

  3. Mark Stairwalt says:

    I got around to watching the movie a couple of weeks ago. I don’t remember if she did this in the book, but I noticed that Mrs. Who does exactly the same thing Bud does as described recently by MOM-NOS here:

    Namely, they both express themselves by quoting words from elsewhere, especially at moments of high emotion when regular speech can be more difficult.

  4. Stephanie says:

    Mrs. Who does do that in the book. I don’t know if it’s common to people on the spectrum, but my oldest learned to talk by relying on words he’d heard from videos-until he could put words together on his own. Sometimes he still falls back on that when he’s unsure of whether what he wants to say will be accepted or not. My youngest is just starting to get into that now.

  5. Gwen McKay says:

    Considering how long ago the book was written, I don’t suppose that the author intended the aversive normalizing treatment given to the little boy who bounced the ball awkwardly on Camazotz to be a cautionary tale about the excesses of behaviorism as applied to autistic children; but it was eerily predictive of them.

  6. Mark Stairwalt says:

    Found this a while ago and just ran across it again tonight: (in which the writer wonders at L’Engle’s remarkably light touch with plot and character).

  7. Love, love, love this post! I read L’Engles books throughout my childhood and reread many as an adult. Her memoirs (starting with the Circle of Quiet) are a beautiful read for mothers.

    I adored Meg and Polly. Thank you for an amazing article.

  8. Stephanie says:

    You’re welcome. I’m glad you enjoyed it.

  9. Lizzie says:

    I figured that Meg has autism out in the first few minutes and I think she would excel if teachers and students encouraged her properly not telling her off and being mean (I learnt this from my personal experience)

Leave a Reply