Monday 25 March 2019
Disabled Characters FTW! - The Creative Process
DISABLED CHARACTERS FTW!
I talked last week about representation (found here) and this week I want to touch on something near and dear to my heart, and that is: disabled characters. Now I've talked about this before (pieces here and here, video here) but it's been a long while since I really spoke about this issue. A lot of the time, it feels like disabled characters get forgotten about. We end up with the tragic ending, or being cured when actually we're just happy being in fiction. There's a lot than goes into this, some of it is the belief that disabled people are better off dead, some of it is the idea that every single one of us just wants to be cured magically and go on our way, and some of it is plain old ignorance.
When I started my AuthorTube channel, I did so without really saying much about my own disability. If you follow me there, you know that I regularly open up the floor for questions from my readers, you guys basically. You'll also know that a lot of the time, I got a lot of similar questions: what's wrong with you? It got to the point where I did a whole video addressing that because I just got sick of being asked all the time. (For the curious, the video is here) But what does that have to do with disabled characters and why you should write them?
I'm glad you asked. It's as simple as this. A lot of the time, I'm seen as tragic and/or inspirational because I both write and exist while being chronically ill and in a wheelchair. A lot of the unsolicited messages I get are from people unaware of what my deal is, and therefore asking what's up with me and how does it get fixed. And there in lies the problem. You can't "fix" me. I am, firstly, not broken, and secondly, there is no known cure. And I'm okay with that. There are some days when I'm not, but for the most part, I am okay with the way my life is going. Because of getting sick, I was able to start my writing career and if that'd not happened, I wouldn't be where I am today. But before you start telling me how inspiring that is, read on a little further.
A lot of the time, when people like me are in stories, they're seen as a warning, or a tragic ending. People fawn over them, feel sorry for them, use them as a way to build themselves up and generally the disabled character isn't at all well-rounded, because they are, at the basic, a prop to spur on the protag and save the day. And that's a really hard pill to swallow as both someone who grew up chronically ill, and someone who writes young adult fiction. As I mentioned last week, I don't think abled people should be writing about the struggles of being disabled, but that doesn't mean we have no place in your story. It also doesn't mean that for a happy ending, the disabled person has to be cured or die so that they are "no longer suffering."
I say it like that but I know there are a wide array of views when it comes to both the disabled community and the chronically ill community, the crossover between the two is a lot and everyone is different. I am not, by any means, claiming to speak for anyone but myself. I'm not the voice piece and I am only going by my own feelings and thoughts when it comes to disabled characters in fiction that I've read or seen talked about.
So what are my tips when it comes to writing disabled characters and how can you avoid falling into a trope plot hole that makes it more cringey than readable? Glad you asked, because you know that I love to give out tips on these posts so here's my top five when it comes to writing disabled characters.
#1 - NO INSPIRATION PORN
If you're not disabled, then you've probably never heard this term thrown around. Lemme break it down for you, inspiration porn is when you see a photo or video of someone in a wheelchair or visibly disabled doing something completely ordinary. It's then held up for all to see, usually with the words: What's your excuse? It's the bane of disabled lives because we're seen as so tragic that we simply exist to build up abled people and show them that if we can do x then they should be surpassing us by miles. It's a similar kinda thing to that saying: The only disability is a bad attitude. Which is crap and allows me to use this gif to convey it.
But this is something you should be avoiding at all costs when it comes to writing disabled characters. You should not be putting them up as the standard to live by, unless they're doing something exceptional for anyone. It should never be despite their disability. Of course mileage may vary here, but personally I find characters who are super awesome at what they do well-rounded when they're not being touted as so inspirational because they got the thing done while also being disabled.
#2 - CHECK YOUR TERMIOLOGY
This is something that applies to a lot of marginalised characters, and that is making sure you're using the right words to describe them. I can't talk on writing characters of colour and how to describe their skin tone and hair, but I can tell you that a lot of disabled people prefer being referred to as just that: disabled. Not differently abled. Not person with a disability. But disabled. Again, mileage may vary and it's not something you have to take my word for, as I said above, do your research and talk to people with that disability when writing these characters, especially if you're not disabled yourself.
Another word that I would rather not be used by those without a disability is the word cripple. It's been a slur against disabled people for a long time, and while some have reclaimed it, myself included, it's not something that should be thrown around. On top of that things like wheelchair bound are seen as a no-go. My wheelchair frees me, it doesn't bind me. In that regard something as simple as switching it to wheelchair user, can be a better idea.
#3 - HAPPY ENDINGS ARE OKAY
As I mentioned above, a lot of the time, disabled characters don't get happy endings. They either die tragically and that is seen as a happy ending, or they get erased from the whole thing. It's okay to write a character who doesn't get cured and yet still survives to tell the tale. On top of that, it's more than possible for someone in a wheelchair or with a disability to have a good ending. To have been part of the action and gone on to have a rich, fulfilling life. It's okay to let us be happy and it's okay for us to stay disabled.
#4 - LOVE HAPPENS
This is something that is shied away from a whole lot and it's a pain in my backside. Disabled characters can have love interests. We can even have sex should we wish to. We're not so faux pas as to never get the girl (or guy) because we also happen to wheel rather than walk. So if you're thinking that your love interest can't be with a disabled character because of the disability aspect, think again, it's possible, it happens, and it should be shown in fiction!
#5 - CURING ISN'T THE END ALL
I touched on this a little in some of the other points, but not all disabled people want to be cured. It was a big thing for me when J K Rowling announced that there were no disabled people at Hogwarts because they'd all be cured. It left a bad taste in my mouth because it just felt like erasure, which is what it is. Disabilities are real, they have a lifelong effect, and announcing that there are no disabilities in your world and therefore no need for adaptation etc, is lazy writing. There, I've said it, and I know I'm not alone there. Allow your disabled characters to stay disabled, because in the real world there are people reading who never get to see themselves in fiction, and who won't get a cure because there isn't one.
So those are my five tips and pointers when it comes to writing disabled characters. As always, if you have any questions, feel free to sound off in the comments below!
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