Wednesday, November 5, 2014

A few tips on writing believable disabled characters.

So if you read my rant on the portrayal of disabled characters in middle grade fiction last week, you may have been left with the impression that it was safest not to write a disabled character at all. Sorry about that! Of course you should write MG characters with real believable disabilities who kick A and take names. We need more of those!

I realize that some of the tropes I described last week come, originally, from a place of compassion. An author thinks about the disability that s/he's given the character. And maybe as soon as s/he thinks about it, s/he wants to solve the problem for the character. And the easiest ways to do that are to deliver a miracle cure (trope #4) or a superpower (trope #5) or to pretend that the disability doesn't really matter (trope #6).

But a writer's job is to dig deeper.

Acknowledge that the disability is part of your character's life, probably a permanent part, and that it presents challenges which the character lives with every day. Show us that the character's life is good and meaningful.

Here are a few ideas.

Ask yourself how the character's disability affects the story
If your disabled character is the protagonist, what is different for him/her because of the disability? How does it change the challenges s/he faces? How does it change the ways s/he deals with the challenges? If the disability were removed, would the story change at all? (If the answer is "no", consider scrapping the disability.... or working on it some more.)

If the disabled character is not the protagonist, make sure s/he has a story arc of his/her own. S/he shouldn't be there just to teach the protagonist compassion, or to make the protagonist feel grateful not to be disabled.

Remember the "able" in "disabled"
What can your character do? What's s/he good at? The character needs the same complexities as a non-disabled character-- flaws, good qualities, the works. Hopes, dreams, things that annoy the hell out of her. And like the rest of us, s/he should have a special talent or two... one not related to the disability, please. She might be ace at manipulating a wheelchair in tight spaces, but consider making her ace at factoring quadrinomials as well. Or make him a train buff with an encyclopaedic knowledge of the US freight-rail system which proves useful when push comes to shove. Whatever suits the story.

Research your character's disability
The external manifestation of a character's disability usually occurs to us fairly quickly. The character has a visual or hearing impairment, or wears a leg brace, or has one arm, or uses a wheelchair. But what caused the disability? A genetic syndrome, a disease, an accident?

Is the disability you've given the character one that actually exists? (It's surprising how often this comes up!)

What are the less-visible aspects of the genetic syndrome, disease, accident, etc? What treatment was required, is required now, will be required? Is this going to get better in the future? Or worse?

When you're researching the disability, you may discover things that you wish weren't true. Resist the urge to change the facts. You don't have to use all the facts in your story... but don't rewrite science.

Once you've done your research, of course, you should treat it like any other research you do for fiction, ie apply it with a very light touch. After all, if your readers wanted to read a treatise on osteogenesis imperfecta (or the Battle of Agincourt, or gemstone cutting) they'd go do the same research you did. Remember, the story is king.

Research is a vassal.

Try it yourself
Avoid the common authorly tendency to have characters scale Mount Everest in a wheelchair. (That's only a slight exaggeration.) To give yourself a sense of what your character will and won't be doing, try it yourself. When an author has experimented with wearing a blindfold or earplugs, or using crutches or a wheelchair, or avoiding using his/her hands, the details come through much more clearly and realistically in the book.

Experiment with due regard for your own safety and that of others! Don't walk around upstairs with your eyes closed, or try to cross streets in a wheelchair if you're not a skilled operator of same.

When you use this experience in your writing, be sure to think about whether your character's disability is new or old. If new, the character is likely to have the same difficulties and reactions that you had. But if it's old, the character will be used to some things and may not give them much thought. S/he may be skilled at tasks you found difficult (like carrying a cup of hot tea while on crutches) but stymied by others (like taking said cup of hot tea up a spiral staircase).

Consider the Mechanics
Humans make many things, and the things humans make are generally imperfect. Leg braces chafe, break and malfunction. They also weigh several pounds. Prostheses can cause sores and ulcers. Wheelchairs are as subject to breakdowns and damage as are other conveyances.

Figure out which aids your character uses, and research them. Make sure you consider the aid in the context of your story's setting. Will your character move easily on a ship, a sandy beach, a steep cliff, an icy lake? If your setting is historic, what aids would your character have used during your novel's time period?

Sensitive Language
Whether you're writing a disabled character or not, be aware of words and terms that are outdated and/or offensive. Such words and terms should be avoided in the authorial voice. If they're used in dialogue, they should be dealt with as an issue.

These include:
- cripple, crippled, and crippling (including figurative use, eg "A crippling blow" or "The crippled ship limped into port")
- retard, retarded (including figurative use, eg "A retarded idea")
- former medical terms that have become insults, eg mongoloid and spastic (also avoid "spaz")
- slang nicknames, eg "Pegleg"
- Disabilities used in a figurative sense. ("What a lame excuse," "He's blind to her faults." )
- "confined to a wheelchair" (a wheelchair is not a cell)

Consider the social aspects of the disability
Your character's interactions with others will be affected by the disability. The ways in which people-- children and adults-- react to disabilities are myriad, many-faceted, and bizarre. You may have seen and experienced this in your own life. If not, watch for it.

I started out to write a long list of examples here, but I've gone on long enough, and it will be more useful to you as a writer to make your own observations.

(In R.J. Palacio's Wonder, the social aspects of the protagonist's disability are the main focus of the novel. And kids love it.)

Anyway. I hope the above will prove useful to writers who want to write stories with well-rounded, multi-faceted characters with disabilities. Please do! We need more of them.

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