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Monday, September 12, 2016

Writing Characters with Disabilities (ConCarolinas 2015 Writing Panel Notes)

So it's been awhile. Definitely a lot longer than planned. But when Stuff begets Other Stuff and one's world implodes just ever-so-slightly, and then one finds oneself the unfair target of several negative people in multiple areas of one's life, and then one starts to question one's own sanity, until numerous others come forward and confirm that no, one is not imagining things... well. It has been an interesting summer. Complaints have been and will be filed. And at least for one of the situations, my next filked song will be, "Screenshots Are a Gir's Best Friend".

You read the title of the post right: this is my last set of notes from 2015 that slipped through the cracks in my rush to edit a manuscript and then subsequent jetsetting, attending my sister's graduation then flying to this year's ConCarolinas and my writing group's retreat. I exhausted my spoons but still came back creatively invigorated and refreshed.

Today's topic is very appropriate, since this is nothing if not Difficult Topics week here. Coming in a few days will be my contribution to #HoldOntoTheLight, the mental health awareness initiative from SFF authors and bloggers. (Hey, might as well go for the stuff that matters.) The authors here bring their experience writing about characters with disabilities, and in some case, dealing with their own issues. This is another important facet in the movement for diverse books. Enjoy!

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Writing Characters with Disabilities
Rebecca Carter, Louise Herring-Jones, Dahlia Rose
 Moderator: Allen L. Wold

DR: Husband with PTSD
AW: Has written about disabled people; has strong opinions about this subject
RC: Writes short horror, focusing on people who are dealing with specific ailments, has a few issues of her own
LH: Writes much about people with various challenges, some with disabilities

Why would you choose to write about disabled people?
RC: It’s important to get a good read on the story. It’s hard when you can’t function the way you believe you should function. Wants to be able to relate to something.
LH: The story she wrote, the story structure, the deaf character came to her, and that diability became an ability.
DR: Husband came back from Iraq after two deployments, with a massive brain injury, and ptsd, and going to the VA, talking with other soldiers, felt like people wanted to pity them rather than seeing them as they really are. People see the scars, the injuries, and she shows in her books that they have to learn a new way of life and are not to be pitied. They don’t want a handout, they just want to learn to do it differently.
AW: The people are people, and don’t want pity.

What actually entails a disability? (Thinks it’s rude to say “differently abled”) What does comprise a disability and what are things not a disability?
RC: Anyone who has a physical or mental roadblock to be able to function the way society generally would.
LH: Skewed viewpoint, as an attorney: disability specifically defined in law, something that impairs a major life function. Not reading glasses, but yes special eyewear for legally blind. Looks at what people can do, not what they can’t.
AW: Saying something is “differently abled” is condescending to him. What about injured soldiers? Do you agree, DR?
DR: Agrees completely. Helped husband retain his right to his own power of attorney because it means more to him and her.
AW: Yes, disabilities are part of who disabled folks are. But that doesn’t mean it’s the only thing about them.
LH: The key is to write about it respectfully. If a not-nice character in your story has a certain characteristic, some readers might not like it. Everyone has logic, even if the logic is illogic.
AW: If you’re going to write someone with disability, acknowledge the disability, but that doesn’t mean you should spend much time with that disability if it doesn’t do much in the story. What is the point of the character?

How much time do you spend working on the disability in your characterization, and how much on the rest of the story (unless you’re making a specific point)?
DR: Just treats it like another characteristic. Yes he has a missing arm, but it should just be a thing, not the focal point that impacts the story.
RC: Trying to find the line, just because a little point is a fact in the character’s life. Unless that’s exactly what you’re writing about.
LH: Latest issue of Discover – about echolocation in visually impaired in the real world. Different btw people born with sight and live that way, but the earlier you lose your sight, the more skilled you are at echolocation.
DR: An accident required a corneal transplant, couldn’t see well for a few years, had to rely on other senses and found ways to work around that.

If it serves the story … how could you best portray a disability without being condescending or overly detailed?
AW: Not about the disability, but about something else.
LH: Jamie Lannister’s story arc since losing his hand, it’s the impetus for his character development.

Can you imagine a situation where a typical disability can prove to be the benefit necessary for the continuation of the story?
DR: Social awkwardness – with disabilities in general, when soldiers are scarred or injured or hurt, there’s the emotion, the anger, the self-pity, and they do lash out. You can’t just write a perfect hero, you have to write their mental and physical attributes because of what happened. Can cause destruction of a family, of a person who’s gone through it, and it’s hard to see a person who was so vital before drawing away from life in general and you’re trying to pull them out and you’re feeling a desperation. It affects the people around them, too.

How would you write folks with specific disabilities?
RC: Probably would, but what’s hard is that people can only relate to people who are different to a certain extent, and if the story’s not entirely about what they’re facing, then readers can’t entirely connect to the stories because it’s hard to understand what others are going through. You empathize the most with the people you can relate to most.
AW: If that’s just one facet of his personality and the rest of the character is interesting by themselves, you can definitely deal with that. Don’t dwell on it, but let it be a subtext that makes the character richer.

Aud: What if the purpose of your story is to open up your reader to the difficulties of a character?
DR: Sheldon is socially awkward. But as the show progresses, it shows different people opening up. Showing how nerds are just like regular people. A colour of a skin, a person’s social awkwardness, if you take a moment to learn about it, it gives your reader something to mesh with. It opens up the story to the readers.
AW: The first thing you have to do is give them only one problem and not seventeen. Limit the number. One disability, even if that’s not true, is something you can focus on and clarify, so that otherwise your character is sympathetic, someone you feel with them (not pity). So don’t layer on several things at once.
RC: Beyond sympathetic, don’t need to have too much. One thing at a time because a lot of people start to instantly feel guilt if there’s too much the person is suffering from.
LH: Not much into message literature. But there’s also a social issue of whether or not can a person of one race or ethnicity truly write about someone of another race or ethnicity? John Hartness “The White Guy” and learning to open his eyes, Alice Walker’s scathing essays –  LH disagrees, thinks it can be written. Whether it’s race, gender, ethnicity, disability, write it. Do it respectfully. And if it’s something you understand personally, then all the better.
AW: If you want people to be sympathetic to the character, having some knowledge helps you write it better.  
LH: And if you want to write something amazingly controversial, make a sff world and put those differences, and it’s amazing what you can get by with.
DR: Speaking as an African American, you don’t write them differently. You just write them as you would any other character.
AW: Portray people as people. Then if you can empathize with that character, then regardless of their disability or other characteristics, then
RC: People aren’t stereotypes. When you come to mental disabilities. The only stereotype you see of women with mental health issues is the “one type” of “crazy lady”. You rarely see women with legitimate mental disabilities.

Audience Question: What should we do if we want or need to include a person with some kind of difference? How do we portray that person: ignore it, accept it, or is it something that can affect the story? Show how they’ve overcome it?
DR: Yes.

Audience Question: Are characters with disabilities more prevalent these days?
AW: Less of a shame, less embarrassing, because we’ve been working on this for a very long time. It’s easier now to put them in fiction. If you’re embarrassed about somebody’s differences, you shouldn’t be including it in a story.
LH: A trend in calls, stories about people with disabilities, people “underrepresented previously in literature”. If you want to writer about an unrepresented population, now’s the time. Know people. Talk to people. Pay attention.

AW: We’re all still people, and that’s what we’re writing about. Stories with people.

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