Today is Blogging Against Disablism Day 2014 #BADD2014, as well as the first day of the new #WeNeedDiverseBooks campaign, so I’ve decided to combine the two and talk about writing characters with disability in fiction.
Writing characters from a different background to your own can be intimidating, but it is also an inevitable part of writing. To a certain extent, writing a character who is disabled (or who has a different racial background or sexuality) is no different to writing any other character. Unless you are writing a very limited autobiography, you are always going to be writing characters who have different experiences and backgrounds to your own. Inevitably, you are going to have both women and men in your stories, so you are already writing from at least one perspective that differs from your own. And writing diverse characters is no different.
Yet, it is intimidating.
Writing disabled characters can be intimidating even when you have personal experiences with disability, because there is no one way to be disabled. It’s not difficult to find articles or book reviews online slamming authors for their problematic portrayals of disability. I know because I’ve written some of them. But it is important to realise that if you are concerned and conscious about the fact that there might be issues in your character portrayal, you’re already on the right track.
There are far too many books out there that portray disabled characters in ways that are deeply destructive and have a seriously negative impact on the understanding of disability in general. However (and this is a big however), most of these books are clearly written by authors who have not considered their portrayal at all, and who clearly fail to respect experiences that are different to their own. These are the authors who fail to realise that disabled people are also, actually, people. These are the authors who consistently portray disabled characters as, for example, useless and/or monstrous. But these aren’t exactly difficult tropes to avoid if you treat disability as a genuine character trait, part of the full colour of your character’s depiction, rather than an easy symbol or device for your plot.
There are a number of articles online about how to write disabled characters. Some of these are more useful than others, just as some are just as destructive as the novels they claim to critique, but read them critically (in the way you should read every text you consume) and you will soon realise that disabled characters are just like your other characters: people. Good, bad, angry, happy, fulfilled, lost, in love, ready for adventure, ready for loss, ready for all the ups and downs that authors must throw in the paths of all their characters. The important thing to remember is that disability should not define your character. Like all your characters, to portray them properly you need to give them a depth of experience beyond any one identity.
Ok, so disability is only one character trait, but it’s a character trait you need to understand before you go ahead and write it. Imagine that. You have to research the experiences of your character – again, this should not be something limited to characters with disabilities. Writing takes research. It’s hard work sometimes, but it will pay off in the end. Just remember that disabled people are not your writing-research guinea pigs. It’s not anyone else’s responsibility to answer your questions about their experiences for the sake of your fiction. However, we live in this amazing world where you can research all sorts of experiences from the comfort of your living room, without imposing on anyone else. Have a read of some of the many disability blogs out there and you might even find some people who want to answer any questions you have. Just remember that everyone has different experiences and everyone is going to feel differently about your attempts to understand those experiences. Be empathetic. Be grateful. And listen. Always LISTEN.
But what if, after all that, you write your story with your character who you’ve come to love or loathe (depending perhaps on their role in the story, but probably more on the point you’ve reached in your editing process), and someone hates your depiction?
First of all, everyone is going to respond differently to your writing. There are always going to be people who don’t like it. And you have to get over that. Cry in the corner for a while, then get up and start your next story.
But what if they hate it because you got the portrayal of disability ‘wrong’? That’s the real fear, isn’t it?
And look, I have to be honest, there’s a good chance you might get it wrong. Whether you have personal experience with disability or not, there is always the risk that you might write a character portrayal that inadvertently offends someone. Particularly for authors with no personal experience with disability, there’s also a chance you might write a story that inadvertently support certain ideas about disability that are negative and destructive.
But here’s the thing, we all get things wrong, but that’s no reason to stop trying.
We need diverse books. We need disabled characters. We need meaningful storylines for these characters to show that, like everyone else, they/we are just human. They/we are not a symbol for uselessness, monstrosity, or inspiration. They/we are people with full lives and a multitude of experiences.
Do your research. Read everything you can about how to portray disability productively in fiction. Then write. If you miss the mark, at least you’ve tried. Listen to those who critique your depiction. LISTEN and make it better next time. If you have at least attempted to treat disability as a genuine character trait/experience and part of a larger character depiction, then you’ve already done enough to contribute positively to diversifying fiction. You’ve already put down one brick in our path to creating a world where fiction reflects the diverse world in which we actually live.
Please check out the other blogs taking part in Blogging Against Disablism Day 2014, and if you are looking for information about how to portray disability in fiction, I recommend you start with two posts by The Goldfish (who is also an organiser of #BADD2014): 10 Things Fiction Writers Need to Remember About Disability Part 1 and 10 Things Fiction Writers Need to Remember About Disability Part 2. In my opinion, these pieces are essential reading for anyone writing a disabled character.
– Holly Kench, Visibility Fiction.