Getting it wrong – Writing disability in fiction

Posted by on May 1, 2014 in Disability and or Neuro-diversity | 11 comments

Blogging Against Disablism Day LogoToday 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.

11 Comments

  1. I got tired of disabled characters constantly being portrayed as “inspirational” in books, movies and TV, so I made up my own genre: cripfic, where disabled people are just normal people (Not to say that such novels didn’t exist before mine, but I made up that name.) Now I’ve had three novels published and my first play (crip theatre?) premiered in March.

    I wish people also paid attention to which disabilities they portray. Some are pretty common in books, like depression, bipolar disorder, alcoholism, learning disabilities, MS and “victim of a tragic accident which put them in a wheelchair”, and while often badly depicted, good depictions are hence also relatively common. That’s not to say they shouldn’t be written about, but writers can also expand the horizon of different disabilities. I’ve had characters with e.g. CFS/ME, Lyme disease, EDS, endometriosis, juvenile arthritis and psoriatic arthritis. Some authors pick very rare and exotic ailments like fatal familial insomnia, but even some common illnesses and disabilities are all but missing from fiction.

    As you point out, doing research is made so incredibly easy these days. Back in 1998 when I started writing a novel about someone with leukemia I had to carry piles of books from the library. Had I wanted to write about something more unusal there would have been no such books.

    • Woops! Sorry for the slow replies. I missed these comments…

      I can’t even imagine having to do research without the internet anymore.

      And yes, you are so right. People need to pay more attention to the disabilities they portray. To think about them closely and not as an afterthought.

  2. I really like your post. And I agree you. In regards to the research, it grates when the author messes it up and the answer was in wikpedia. Clearly, they didn’t care.

    • Thanks Crinllys!

  3. My own two cents on how disability is depicted in films, literature and even mythology. Please have a look and share your thoughts with me. http://writingcave.com/disability-literature-mythology-folklore-films/

    • Thank you so much for taking the time to write your thoughts, Amrit. Sorry I’ve been so slow to reply, but I’ll be sure to stop over at your blog and continue the discussion! 😀

  4. So important: not just that we show up, but that we show up ACCURATELY. excellent post. Happy BADD (a few days late, but I’m getting there 😉

    • I still haven’t finished reading them all… I’ll get there before next BADD! 😛 So many great posts.

  5. Thank you for this. My wife is a wheelchair-user, though she can manage to walk with crutches around the house, and I’ve spoken on a panel at last year’s Octocon, in Ireland, about representation of disability in SFF fiction.

    The single most important thing for any author, dealing with any minority group or potentially controversial topic, is to be aware that their experience, and as such their portrayal, may differ from a reader’s, and they must be ready to face some negative feedback.

    There really is no excuse for a lack of research these days. We have so much information available to us, and such a need for diversity in fiction, that authors owe it to themselves to learn all they can, and keep writing great characters as people, not as stereotypes.

    • Thanks, Paul!

      I completely agree about there being no excuse for a lack of research – like Maija said, it’s not like in the 90s when we’d have to hunt out information at the library.

      I also agree about author’s needing to be ready to face some negative feedback. I think even with really good portrayals there are going to be people who disagree, but if we can accept that everyone’s experiences are different, and accept negative feedback with real respect for those different experiences, it’s well worth it. 🙂

  6. For a unique perspective on disability, sex and love, you might take a look at my novel, LOVERS LAME, which tries to raise consciousness on these issues while expanding the audience.

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