1. maskedhero
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    maskedhero Active Member

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    disabled characters

    Discussion in 'Character Development' started by maskedhero, Jul 16, 2013.

    This one is an interesting issue to bring up, and one where discussion is sought out purposefully. Get the feel of the community, as it were.

    Since we write characters, we may write characters with various physical and/or mental disabilities. Even if we are of a progressive or tolerant mindset, how do you temper, or alter, your portrayal of those with disabilities?

    Is it patronizing to have people with disabilities 'overcome' them in some way? Is it easier not to portray anyone with a disability at all?

    What about portraying someone with a disability in a negative light?

    Should you put emphasis on this aspect of their character, or just make it a small part?

    How do you deal with the portrayal of those with disabilities in your stories?
     
  2. GingerCoffee
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    GingerCoffee Web Surfer Girl Contributor

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    It depends on your story, there's no way to answer "should" in they way you've asked. I think disabled people are about as varied as people with intact physical bodies. They are no less or more 'different' than any other character and that means, it depends on the story.


    I think you can look to real people to answer how to deal with the disabled in your story. There is no shortage of examples.
     
  3. ChickenFreak
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    ChickenFreak Contributing Member Contributor

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    Characters are characters. Altering the portrayal of a character with a disability because you think that you "should" depict people with disabilities in some particular way, is a mistake, IMO. And so is making the character nothing but a portrait of a disability. They have a disability; now move on and let them live their fictional lives.
     
  4. jmhoffer
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    jmhoffer Contributing Member

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    My opinion? If you can't visualise yourself with the issue, don't write the issue.

    Stay away from mental health unless you either have the issue yourself, can relate because you have mental health issues yourself and have studied the issue to death or you have a psychiatric degree.

    You can at least visualise a physical disability and you can find people who actually have the disability, find out what it does to them and how they cope.
     
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  5. Mckk
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    Mckk Moderator Staff Supporter Contributor

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    if it's been clear that you write with sensitivity and understanding of the particular disability that your character has, then I think attention to the negatives of the disability, including how it might affect the way the character treats other people and/or himself, would serve to enhance the novel. It's a human flaw like any other, and realistic characters are good characters.

    What matters is you must not write a cliche, a stereotype - that combined with a disability is extremely insensitive.

    I remember I watched a documentary about a blind teenager who looked down on other blind people. His arrogance was evident, and it was certainly a negative in him, but at the same time, it's the attitude the average teenager would have. He's just being his age. The only thing is he's focused on blind people because he himself is blind - it's a sensitive subject to him. It's a subject we might think we should never pick on, because we are seeing (physically), but we just pick on other things that matter to us personally. So the negative is related to his disability, but he's just being human. The fact of being blind actually has nothing to do with his attitude - if he weren't blind, he'd just be the same about something else, I imagine.
     
  6. obsidian_cicatrix
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    obsidian_cicatrix I ink, therefore I am. Contributor

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    I think the question a writer needs to ask when trying to form a character is; can I truly slip into this character's skin?

    It makes no odds whether the character is abled, disabled, coloured pink or bi-polar. If we are writing about a real place we have yet to visit, what do we do? Do we make it all up, and hope that the reader will be convinced by it, or do we do a little extra research? I fall into the latter category.

    The story I'm writing at the moment, involves a character who has been castrated. I'm female, and as this is something that's definitely not within my realm of experience or imagination, I've used the internet, to speak to castrated men at length about the physiology and emotional impact. I've found that although experiences differ greatly, (excellent scope for a writer) there are some things that all these men have in common, and that is where I chose to start. All else is is a matter of creative licence.

    As for mental disabilty (and I feel I can speak on this subject with some authority as my diagnoses are as long as my arm) I think the same applies for the most part. For as long as someone has the power to express themselves, there is something to be learned.
     
  7. chicagoliz
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    chicagoliz Contributing Member Contributor

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    I think it is hard to write a disabled person unless you have a very good understanding of what it is like to have the disability. I think the key is really to treat it similarly to a character's race and ethnicity. That is, it only comes up when there is something specific that makes it relevant. For example, someone who is Irish or Chinese doesn't sit around and think about how they are Irish or Chinese. It might come up when they're interacting with another character, especially an older family member, or around a holiday specific to that culture. But for most activities in the day to day existence, it's not something one would focus on.

    When I was in law school, I had a friend who was in a wheelchair. Most of the time, we weren't thinking about the fact that he was in a wheelchair, but sometimes it would come up, like when we were planning an event a restaurant, we had to make sure that it was wheel-chair accessible. Or once, there was a set of concrete stairs at an outdoor party, and four other guys lifted him in his chair up the stairs. Now, he was not happy that this happened, but there really was no choice in the matter. The other guys at the party were happy to do it, too. But I expect this made him frustrated and sad -- this sort of thing would be a great situation to explore in a story. The conflicted feelings, how even when people went out of their way to include him and wanted him there, he still would wish that this were not the case and didn't want to need any special consideration or assistance.

    So, if you were to write a story about someone who used a wheelchair, it would certainly be a big part of his life, and there would be practical realities that would impact things that he could do and his daily life, as well as issues when he first meets people. But for other large chunks of the story, where this character would be affected in essentially the same way as any other person, I wouldn't focus on the wheelchair aspect. There would probably be stretches where he, and the reader, and the other characters would almost forget that he had this disability.

    If you were to write about a character with that disability, I'd suggest doing something like renting a wheelchair and seeing how it affects everyday activities. Even when I just was pushing a stroller when my kids were babies, I was suddenly made acutely aware of which places were harder to access for people in a wheelchair -- how many entrances didn't have a handicapped entrance, how you had to sometimes really go out of your way to find an elevator instead of a stairway or escalator, how not all doors would fit, how not all clothing racks and store displays were wide enough, etc. And I just had a stroller -- it would have been exponentially more difficult to be the one actually in a wheelchair.

    I think writing about a mental disability would be much more difficult, because that would affect the character's entire way of thinking. Of course a physical disability would, too, but it wouldn't affect the thought process. You could do things to enable you to experience something close to what it would be like, whereas you couldn't really do this with a mental disability. In either case, research is your friend. And it would require a lot of it.
     
  8. jazzabel
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    jazzabel Contributing Member Contributor

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    I think the best way to write it is to not focus on disability too much. When I suffered a health setback, I faced basically a disability. From an extremely active, upbeat, can-do person, I became a person who can't go up the stairs, let alone walk any reasonable distance. Let alone leave the house because I had constant asthma attacks. I felt disabled, that's for sure. And the only bearable moments in my life were those where I could forget my limitations, such as writing or researching or getting absorbed with a project. I am much better now but I still feel a lot better when I can forget about medication and the rest of it. So if I was writing a character in a wheelchair, or what have you, I'd occasionally reflect on it, but not more than that. Just because someone has a problem, it doesn't have to define them every step of the way.
     
  9. EdFromNY
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    EdFromNY Hope to improve with age Supporter Contributor

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    ^This.

    Every once in a while, someone will post a question wanting to know about some mental health issue or a developmental disability - autism is very popular these days because of all the attention it gets, especially all those cute blue puzzle pieces. Having two grown children with developmental disabilities, one of them with autism, I am admittedly sensitive to the subject. But maybe, here, that's a good thing.

    What usually puts me off in these discussions is something like this: "I'm writing this story, and one of the characters is autistic..." or "...is depressed..." or "...has this issue about cutting herself..." followed by some variation of "how do I make this work". It's as if the writer has decided that autism or cutting or depression is a really cool topic and might make for a really cool addition to the story. So, [MENTION=54164]maskedhero[/MENTION], I am very glad you have raised your question in this way, because the answer gets complicated.

    My short answer is that if the writer has just decided that it would be really cool to include someone with autism in their story, not only is it likely to be patronizing but very likely will be a stereotypical and ultimately misleading portrayal. My daughter is 29, and I have learned a great deal about autism, and I would not, at this point, try to write about a character with autism, because although there are commonalities, there are almost as many variations of autism as there are people with the diagnosis. Moreover, among the people who work with both children and adults with autism, there is a line that divides the truly effective (be they teachers, therapists, or DSPs) from the rest, and that line is defined by a certain intuitive understanding of the person as well as the nature of the disability. In other words, just reading up on it won't tell you everything you need to know. One of the reasons I was so impressed by the film "Rain Man" is that both Dustin Hoffman and Barry Levinson clearly "got it", and a lot of the nuances were reflected in the film (which also explains why I can't see it very often).

    But pick any other disability, and you will find similar issues, if to varying degrees. So, to anyone who is considering including a character with a disability, I would say you must make certain that you do the person justice - be prepared to fully develop the character and to fully research the disability, including talking with people who have it (Dustin Hoffman spent months with a young man with autism before making "Rain Man"; Jane Fonda talked with numerous people suffering from ALS before she did "33 Variations" on Broadway). There is no reason to think you should portray such characters as overcoming their disabilities or as succumbing to them. In "Rain Man", Raymond simply made a connection with his brother and reached a little beyond his closed-off world - a small triumph, you might think, but a very real one. I have seen my daughter have similar ones. Jane Fonda's character succumbs, but she does finish her work.

    Sometimes, our greatest triumphs are in making the most with the hand we're dealt.

    Sorry for the rant. Hope it helps...somebody.
     
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  10. EmmaWrite
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    EmmaWrite Member

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    I would suggest reading On Being a Cripple on Nancy Mairs (it's not that long of a read and easy to find on the internet.) It's a complex look at disability from someone who is disabled. Maybe it'll give you some ideas.
     
  11. anebereb
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    anebereb New Member

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    Being a wheelchair user myself I remember reacting to children's books that featured children in wheelchairs when I was little. Those kids were always the same, very smart, good at school, doing their exercises with physical therapists without complaining, nice to everyone... It's like writers do not wish to say anything bad about the disabled, so they make them these boring little goodie-goodies. People in wheelchairs can be just as different as anyone else, not all children on wheels love to read books and do science experiments.
    By the way, I have a sister who is adopted and it's the same thing there: In childrens books, adopted kids are generally really smart and good students and all that... Doesn't make much sense to me. Everyone is different.
     
  12. KaTrian
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    KaTrian A foolish little beast. Staff Supporter Contributor

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    If a non-disabled writer does their homework, I see no problem in venturing there. Stephen King wrote Suze, the woman in a wheelchair to the Dark Tower series, but as I've understood, when he started, he was still relatively uninjured and non-disabled himself (the hit-and-run happened later).

    There's that danger, but on the other hand, if the writer can pull it off so that they take into account how difficult indeed it can be to overcome them, it's inspiring rather than patronizing, to me at least.

    Maybe to a writer who hasn't one. On the other hand, a writer with a disability may benefit from adding something similar to their character(s). It can be about wanting to do something different, it can be a form of therapy.

    What about portraying a human as a human with warts and all? It's difficult, it's challenging, but we should have the writer chops to put something else than rainbows and butterflies in there as well.

    I would say it depends on the disability and how long the character has lived with it. The culture they live in may also affect the decision as would the economic situation of the character etc.

    It starts with research, a lot of it, and doing "mental exercises" to get inside a person with a certain disability. Suppose it's like acting, to a degree, even though that might sound stupid.
    Let's see, T and I have written a blind character, a mute character, a character with mental retardation, plus a wide array of mental problems. The MC of our WIP will also become disabled later.

    I got courage to try and write disabled characters after I met this American researcher, Howard Sklar, who's researched fiction that includes disabled characters and written about whether non-disabled writers have the right to portray disabilities or not. Interesting stuff.

    In the end, I don't mind if someone who's never suffered of e.g. some mental disorder writes a character with one. Good, they are willing to open their minds to other ways to see and interpret the world, willing to learn to understand -- at least to a degree -- what it's like to be in someone else's skin. Not that I'm such an angel myself that I didn't frown at times to representations of certain disabilities or problems I'm myself familiar with, but I do respect the effort to include characters that are often marginalized in the literary canon.
     
  13. mg357
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    mg357 Active Member

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    I am a disabled man and I have written several stories featuring characters that have the same disability that I have and I make it a point to mention the disability throughout the story.
     
  14. jazzabel
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    jazzabel Contributing Member Contributor

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    [MENTION=51371]mg357[/MENTION]: That's really good, I feel we are desperately missing characters with disability, both in literature and media.
    What are some of your pet peeves with people who aren't disabled but write a disabled character? I'd like to learn how to avoid them.
     
  15. mg357
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    mg357 Active Member

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    jazzabel: Thank you for your reply, my main pet peeves are when a non disable writer writes a disabled character and they portray that disabled character in a bad light they portray them as lazy or stupid or worthless.

    That is not fair just because a person has a disability does not mean they are worthless or stupid or lazy.

    Lots of disabled people can live and work and function in society just like their non disabled peers they just have to be given a chance to show what they can do.

    When I write a disabled character I do my very best to portray them in a positive manner, I show my potential readers that just because a person has a disability does not mean they can not function or do the same things a non disabled person can do the disabled character just has to do things differently.
     
  16. jazzabel
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    jazzabel Contributing Member Contributor

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    [MENTION=51371]mg357[/MENTION]: Thanks for your reply :) I totally get what you are saying. Sadly, the society is still fighting prejudices, and anyone different is easily rejected. And then, some places are better than others. Many know disabled people are the same as everyone else, with unique set of challenges, but society as a whole still isn't very familiar with the perspective of a disabled person and from that you get people to worry whether they'd offend someone if they say something untactful, because they just don't know what to say, and before long, everyone is back to ignoring disability again. I really hope that changes soon.
     
  17. erebh
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    erebh Contributing Member Contributor

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    I don't know why you'd have to tip toe around the issue and make everyone with a disability perfectly lovely people. Some are assholes, some are lazy, some are ignorant and some are racist - exactly the same as able-bodied people only with a disability.

    Writing a disabled character depends on the POV, is it from the nurse, or partner or carer? Or is the POV of a bully, someone who hates anyone he doesn't consider perfect. Or maybe its the POV of the disabled person who is still hating on the bastard drunk-driver who put him in this God-damn wheelchair...

    It's fiction - it's up to you how you write him. I don't see why you should have to pander to any demographic be they Irish, black or disabled - you'll never please everyone anyway so write what's in your heart.
     

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