Discovering the truth about your characters: Silvio in Dark Soul
The characters in Dark Soul, my gay mafia mini-series, are really old characters; they’ve been with me for twenty years, and I’ve grappled with them every now and then (when a writer has a character, the aim it to wrestle them into a book). But only recently did I understand what was at the heart of Silvio Spadaro, the enigmatic killer in Dark Soul, or his brother Franco.
Both men struggle to connect, each in their own ways. Franco doesn’t even enjoy touching or being touched and considers all tenderness a form of unwelcome “pity”. Silvio, on the other hand, is much more hedonistic and connects almost exclusively via sex. It’s his way to vent steam, to feel alive, to break his inner isolation.
Throughout the book, Silvio struggles reading people, and responds in unexpected ways. He’s slightly “off”, which only enhances his reputation as a fearsome mafia killer – people can’t predict what he’s going to do. They call him “barracuda” for his “soul-less”, blank stare.
But for many years, I didn’t know what was different about him, where the root cause for all of this was. Then, one morning, I woke up and thought, “Crap, he might be autistic.”
I mulled the theory for a while and discussed it with two of my friends online, one who displays some strong autistic characteristics, the other who is an Asperger. Both allowed me to run this theory past them (both knew the books), and both agreed that, yes, it rang true to them and that, indeed, Silvio is somewhere on the autism spectrum. And then everything made perfect sense.
The autism grew very much out of the character—which is how my characters work. They show up, I know something is “different” about them, and during the writing, I discover what it is, even if this can be a risk and means a fair amount of research.
In the end, I’m glad I did it, too, because I don’t think there are many sympathetic characters with autism in m/m, as far as I’m aware. Obviously, the “savant” – the super-gifted autist like we’ve seen him in Rain Man—is probably the more romantic character; the child-like disorientation and the gift with numbers or music, or whatever, makes for interesting developments.
Silvio is not one of those romantic savants (he’s dyslexic and can’t even read very well), he’s just emotionally off, compared to non-autistic people and struggles to parse emotion—that of others and his own, at times, and he really struggles to express emotion. Sex is a handy shortcut for him, and he doesn’t see the way he thinks and responds as a problem at all. But his autism, while it affects him, it doesn’t define him. As a character, Silvio is not about autism, and autism is not an illness—it’s just how he is, and he copes with that perfectly well.
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