When I was a kid, my parents read to me and my siblings all the time. It’s a habit that persisted after I learned to read to myself, and one that kept me up long after bedtime many nights. My favorites, the stories that have stuck with me from my earliest childhood memories, include Eloise, Curious George, and If You Give a Mouse a Cookie. As I got older, I moved on to Amelia Bedelia, then Anne of Green Gables and A Wrinkle in Time.
It wasn’t until later in life that I realized these remarkable characters, each quite distinct, had something in common. They were not the classic, straightforward heroes we tend to expect of our protagonists. They had glaring flaws that held them back sometimes, despite their best intentions and greatest efforts.
Yet I gravitated toward these characters because I recognized my own ADHD struggles in their vivid descriptions. In their stories, I recognized myself and a much-needed hope that I could overcome my struggles and be loved — even celebrated — despite them.
Recognizing My Symptoms
Like Amelia Bedelia, I have a bizarre talent for misunderstanding things in the most completely unpredictable ways (clever puns not guaranteed).
Like Curious George, I always start with the best intentions, but I tend to lose track of my path and purpose along the way.
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Like Meg Murray, I would whiz through the class curriculum, then struggle to explain everything in between (okay, she’s a couple points more brilliant than me), or do the things that seemed so easy to everyone else, like relate to my peers.
Like Anne Shirley, I get caught up in my own imagination and lose track of what’s happening around me, then inevitably find myself in some odd sort of scrape.
Finding Ourselves in Fictional Characters
I’m far from the first person to seek out my own ADHD symptoms in fictional characters. In fact, reader diagnoses of the characters they love is a somewhat odd but extremely common phenomenon. Did you know Jane Austen’s Emma Woodhouse character has ADHD? What about Sherlock Holmes? Tigger?
Why do we do this?
[Read: 10 Book Characters Who Make Us Smile]
We respond strongly when we recognize ourselves in a character, and perhaps it’s just human nature to want to pass forward the same label that others have affixed to our behaviors. But there is power in relating to the word on a page. When you’re accustomed to being misunderstood, there is great relief in this recognition.
In this way, Anne, Meg, and other characters who shared my struggles tapped into something deep in my soul, long before I knew what I was seeing in them. (And long before my diagnosis of inattentive ADHD in high school.)
After all, if they could drive the storyline despite their flaws, doomed to repeat their notorious quirks again and again in their world, well then, hey, maybe I could be a powerful and memorable protagonist in my own world.
What it Means to be a Protagonist
So what did mean for me to see myself — flaws and all — in these protagonists?
A protagonist is traditionally someone worth rooting for. A protagonist comes out the other side of their challenge having done more good than damage. A protagonist overcomes.
There were so many ways that I struggled to connect, to fit in, and to keep up as a kid. To see fictional characters struggling with the same problems I had was outright cathartic. Anne, Meg, Amelia, that little mouse who nibbled on a cookie and ended up with a haircut — these characters were the first to comfort me and help me cope with my ADHD symptoms long before I knew what to call them.
And more than that, these characters were well-rounded and dynamic – so much more than their shortcomings. Any author worth their salt will tell you, a good character has both weaknesses and strengths.
Even at times when my ADHD symptoms have overwhelmed me (and, admittedly, this is the root cause of some lingering baggage), I had these characters deep in my psyche, reminding me that ADHD is much more than a list of symptoms, bad stereotypes, or odd quirks. ADHD can also lead to creative insights, great adaptability, resilience, and even doggedly intense focus.
There’s Power in Representation
As an author, I’m biased, but I’ve always believed that stories and characters hold great power. I’d love to see more characters with an actual ADHD diagnosis in our school libraries — more stories like Rick Riordan’s Percy Jackson series, where the hero’s ADHD and dyslexia are part of what makes him special and superpowered.
Though I was drawn their stories because I saw my ADHD reflected in them, these characters are some of the most beloved all around, ADHD or not. They are popular because there is a glowing light within them that outshines their limitations and speaks broadly to our general capability to overcome. A hopeful light.
Fictional Characters and ADHD: Next Steps
- Free Download: The Funny Side of Living with ADHD
- Read: ADHD Film Characters We Love
- Read: 10 Middle Grade Books with ADHD Characters Who Slay
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