February 27, 2013

Writing Club Wednesday: Writing Characters with a Disability

Hello m’lovelies!

A while ago I hijacked the YAMF blog and talked about writing diverse characters. If you know me a little, it won't surprise you that I'm about to add another yay!disability post to that. Specifically, a rant post about how to write characters with a disability. So fasten your seat belts, and all that.

Two reasons. One, recently, I’ve been betaing quite a few manuscripts that had characters with a disability. Quite a few being about five out of a hundred, but comparatively speaking that is (unfortunately) a lot. Two, my #SecretSciFi has a main character in a wheelchair, so it’s something I’ve been doing a lot of research on. Oh, and maybe three, I have a disability. That does NOT make me uniquely qualified to talk about this, but it does mean it’s something dear to me. And honestly, the examples I have seen? They're awesome. But that doesn't mean characters with a disability aren't still horribly unrepresented.

And that's a shame, because ya know, we exist in real life. Adding diverse characters to your stories isn't as scary as it may seem. In fact, there are only four things you can do to horribly screw up *g*

Four things to keep in mind when writing characters with a disability
(aka how not to be an ableist writer)

1) A person with a disability is not an inspiration.
You guys, this is a very 19th century invention and seriously? It needs to stop, ideally yesterday. Talking about people as an inspiration only by merit of doing what able-bodied people are doing is insulting to the extreme. Can you imagine what it would feel like if someone were to walk up to you to say: “Wow, you inspire me. Doing your own groceries despite the fact that you’re a girl/Latino/red-haired.” Or worse still, how demeaning it is for a person to walk up to the person NEXT to you to say: “Hey, it’s awesome that you brought him here. That he manages to overcome his hurdles to enjoy a simple ice cream really inspires me.”

Slow AND Handicapped?
Creative Commons license. (c) 20after4
What would you do in that situation? Yet it happens. In real life. In stories. It doesn’t just happen, it’s entirely acceptable in the eyes of society to walk up to a person with a disability and tell them “I’m so impressed that you can achieves X despite all that proof that you’re a lesser person than I am.”

And that’s not just insulting, it’s dangerous. Because not only are we expected to smile and nod and accept it, we’re expected to act like it. We’re not expected to lash out or be angry at how fucked up life can be, because we’re immediately classified as “bitter”. We’re supposed to enjoy the things we *can* do instead of dwell on what we can’t. We’re not supposed to show that our imperfection is less than perfect. Because it makes other people uncomfortable. (Plus, we already have all those privileges. What are we even complaining about?)

So a good thing to keep in mind when writing characters with a disability: they need to be characters, not plot devices. It's easy!

2) A physical disability does not mean a character is less intelligent, less caring, has mental issues.
(...I wish I did not have to explain this.) 

Just because we’ve lost use of our legs, it does not mean we’re suddenly incapable of rational thought. Because we don’t have two arms, it does not mean we’ve lost the ability to speak to you as yet another human being. Because we’re prone to seizures, it doesn't mean we don't feel, hurt, fall in love, are happy.

It may be that what appears to be a physical disability is more complex and has mental ramifications as well. It may be that it’s a matter of both. But that doesn’t mean it’s okay to assume it’s the case any more than it’s okay to assume that random person you just bumped into in the supermarket has issues.

Make your characters complex (hey, please make your characters complex) but don't let their disability rule every aspect of their personality. (Fun fact: this is the reason most people prefer "person with a disability" as opposed to "disabled person".)

3) Not every person with a disability would automatically choose a cure.
Conversely, not every person with a disability would not choose a cure. And unless YOU are the person with the disability being given the choice, it’s not okay to judge. It really, really isn’t.

But even so, this pops up a lot in fiction and it's one of the more complex discussions. So when you've made sure your characters are complex, fully rounded, not plot devices, these are a few things to consider when it comes to (potentially) curing them. How long have they lived with a disability? What is their "normal"? What are the pros and cons of a cure? (For the love of Gallifrey, can we get rid of magical panaceas?) Is it likely for their world to have a cure? And maybe most importantly, why does your character have the choice (if it is “because he was evil before but he has found his redemption”, we probably need to continue this conversation outside) and why do they choose what they choose.

And finally:

Be prepared to stop
Creative Commons license. (c) Brent Moore
4) Research, research, research.
Originally, this point came with a lot more ranting. I have… strong feelings about all these points, but perhaps the strongest about this point. DO. YOUR. RESEARCH.

In this day and age, all information is readily available at your fingertips. If you’d research the layout of a town, historical events, cultural differences (and I sincerely hope you do) there is no good reason why you should not research the symptoms and effects of a disability. Google it, talk to people with personal experience (and by that I don’t just mean carers but *especially* people with disabilities themselves), read blog posts, etc. Really, for the most part this is exactly the same as writing any other character ever, but because we're talking about an underrepresented group in fiction, it's even more important to do it right. Educate yourself on both the disability and on the ableism people with disabilities have to deal with, because that’s unfortunately a very real problem too. (See points 1-3.) 

And above all? Remember this. A person with a disability is not defined by that disability any more than you’re defined by the color of your hair, the shape of your feet, the names your parents gave you. There is no mold for all people with disabilities. We’re as different and varied as the rest of the human race. Of course, disability makes our lives interesting, to say the least, but we are not our disabilities. Just write characters. And don't be afraid.

Tell me, Misfiteers, do you have characters with disabilities in your stories? If not, what’s stopping you?


Fida Islaih said...

I have a character with a disability and I'm about to do my second round of revisions for the story. This post came at the right time, thank you so much!

Kayla Whaley said...

Thank you, thank you for this post. I have a disability and I can't tell you how much I've had to deal with 1 and 2. Pretty much daily my entire life. The second one is especially infuriating. Just because I use a wheelchair does not mean I have a mental disability. And even if I did, you should NEVER talk to anyone like they're two years old unless they are in fact two years old. /rant over

Anyway! I would LOVE to see more characters with disabilities in fiction. Specifically, characters with disabilities who are actual characters and not, as you said, plot devices or stereotypes or tropes. (PLEASE no more disability as symbol for moral impurity/evilness).

I will say that writing characters with disabilities is definitely something that requires a lot of critical thought and research like with any marginalized group (even for me - I'm required to do just as much work for my characters because again, not all people with disabilities are even remotely the same). However, don't let that scare you away from it! Because, again, there needs to be significantly more representation.

Francesca Zappia said...

I do! But you already know that.

While I was writing it, I knew I didn't want him to be an inspiration. I wanted him to be upset and bitter about it, but I wanted him to adapt to it and ultimately grow because of it.

Wen Baragrey said...

Ah, what a great post :) I've got an "invisible" disability, the sort people can't see and therefore assume is probably all in my head. If I hear the words "but you look so well," or "you can do so much, why not try to work full-time?" one more time, I may get very sarcastic indeed.

Once you get past the believability factor, there's still numbers 1-3 to get through :)

Morgan York said...

This is a wonderful post! It reminds me a lot of the pitfalls people can fall into when writing any underrepresented group, such as LGBT characters. I hate the stories that are all, "Look! I'm being inclusive!", but the gay character is extremely stereotypical and has no personality traits other than "effeminate," "fashionable," "gay," "sassy,"and did I mention "gay?"

They're also usually single and fill the "wacky best friend" role.

Really enjoyed reading this!

VikLit said...

Really great post and I couldn't agree more. I think part of the trouble is fear - about the research needed, about getting something 'wrong' or somehow insulting etc. And that puts people off. Certainly my worry is about how to go about research, because although google is great it doesn't tell you everything and often doesn't cover what you need for a story (how people feel, rather than the mechanics of a disability), you need people for that, to speak to, and even then you might be getting how one person feels... or perhaps I am over thinking this!

I have been considering writing a book with an MC who has a visual impairment. This is partly because I have a friend who has a visual impairment and obviously I see her as my witty, caring, likes boybands friend who I happen to have to count the train stops for and tell her to get off in 3 more - and for me there's no reason why she can't be the heroine of my story (or someone similar!) and the impairment just part of it. I think.. part of peoples consideration becomes, well if I am featuring a disability, why am I doing that ? And then it becomes worthy or about dealing with a disability or a 'disability story' when really, why can't it be a mystery adventure and the person happens to be dealing with a disability.

Anyway it's given me encouragement to think about this more, I think!

Peter Bossley said...

#1 is especially rampant for me.
Last summer I was in the cafeteria area of my work places Medical center getting coffee with a good friend of mine. As it was fairly crowded, I had ahold of his elbow so that he could guide me around all the people, chairs, tables, etc. As we were putting sugar and such in our drinks, this girl came over to us and said to him, while totally ignoring me, "it's really nice of you to volunteer to help blind people. That is really amazing that he walks around with you and stuff."
My buddy was confused at first and then once he figured it out looked at her and said, "I'm not helping him, he's my friend. And he probably does more for me than I do for him."
I get that you're so awesome for doing things for yourself bit all the time. Stuff like this drives us crazy!
Thanks for the awesome posted and you hit it right on the head!

Kate Larkindale said...

Great post! I've just written a piece about a disabled kid, and this has given me stuff to think about as I revise it...

Dahlia Adler said...

Such a great post!! I'm writing my first character with a disability now, but she's a very minor one; I certainly hope to write a more major one someday! I tend to ease my way into writing things I know nothing about, BUT at least I didn't get any of these things wrong this time around!

Jae said...

Great post! I really enjoyed reading Michael Vey because the MC had Tourette's, which some consider a disability, but I was fascinated because the author wrote it in such a way it was like being able to experience and understand what having Tourette's would be like. And yet, in the story, his disability really isn't one at all. It was just kind of cool to experience. Nothing preachy or "Look, how inspirational!" just was. I liked that. Hmmm... I'll have to think of future stories where I do include characters with disabilities. Thanks for this post!

Kim Trotter said...

This is such an amazing post. I couldn't agree more with you. I have a friend who has a few disabilities, but she is perfectly happy with the way she is. She's clever and caring person.

And so, so, so agree with the research point. I can't believe some of the things that I read and have to stop and think "obviously they didn't do their research".

Maggie Hall said...

Such a great post! My MS doesn't have any characters with disabilities, just because that's not how they came to me, I suppose. But I also agree with VikLit's comment. I think I would be a little afraid to write a major character whose life circumstances (disability, race, sexual orientation, whatever) I don't have personal experience with. You can research a ton and even talk to people living in these circumstances, but it's not quite the same. I'd be so afraid of getting something wrong and offending someone. Maybe I'm worrying too much. :)

I wonder if that's part of why there are fewer stories out there with major characters who have a disability, though?

tawney13 said...

Great Post!Information I didn't know but much needed. I haven't written a character with a disability yet but I plan on it.

Maggie Hall said...

Addendum to my earlier comment: Just in case it sounded like I meant, "I will never write a character with a disability or who is gay or who is a different race!" I don't mean that. :) I guess by "major character" I mean POV character. I just don't entirely feel comfortable with expressing the thoughts and feelings of someone in such different circumstances from me, especially thoughts/feelings ABOUT those circumstances.

I'm making no sense. Hope you get what I mean!

Marieke said...

Thank you all for the wonderful comments! <3

I do agree, critical thought and research is very necessary, exactly to avoid the stereotypes and the tropes. But on the other hand, I really am convinced it's not as difficult and scary as people make it out to be. :)

Yes, there's more to think about, there's the possibility people could be offended, but we're writers! And unless you only write what you know, we're bound to step out of our comfort zone at some point. The beauty of the internet is that we can get in touch with people who do have the experiences, so we can always reach out to people to make sure we're doing it right. After all, we all know writing isn't a solitary affair, this is one way to make it more inclusive too. There is nothing to fear :)

VikLit said...

Maggie - was just going to say I knew what you mean and agree that it is perhaps fear stopping us. But Marieke - has been so encouraging and positive I feel more inclined to least start research, maybe send some tweets out and see....

Anonymous said...

This is a really interesting post and ties in with a writing competition that is trying to encourage more disabled characters in fiction. You can find out more about the competition here:


Simsy said...

I have two Character who have issues with their sight (a husband and wife one who is completely blind due to an IED while in the military and the other who is slowly losing sight but is not completely blind due to macular degeneration) in my sci-fi story who have both gone through university and have high ranking law enforcement jobs within the story.

i think the issue is that just like in real life there is this whole thing about making people with a disability less worthy compared to able bodied people... and i think that needs to stop. people forget they are more than just their disablities....

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