1. Lone Vista
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    Lone Vista Member

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    Writing a character without arms.

    Discussion in 'Character Development' started by Lone Vista, Mar 19, 2016.

    I've an idea for a character who does not have arms, and I'd like to learn anything that would help inform them. I don't have any experience writing for people with physical disabilities, and I would like to be able to do it properly.

    The story is one of over-the-top and exaggerated action in a cyberpunk setting. The main character fights proficiently, using jumps and kicks. Their feet are also dexterous enough to handle tasks like typing on a keyboard, opening some kinds of doors, and basic writing; but obviously there are many things they simply cannot do without assistance.

    I'm not sure where to start with regards to research. Does anyone have resources they would recommend? This is something I'd like know I can handle with insight and respect before I start charging too far ahead.
     
  2. Catrin Lewis
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    First decide, why is he armless? Was this his condition from birth, or did he lose them, say, in battle? That is, how long has he had to cope with this condition? What's his socioeconomic situation? That'll affect what sort of training and special equipment he'd have. What's his mental state like? Is he doing all this fighting to defend a cause? Or to get back at the universe for depriving him of arms? Or just because it's something he likes to do?

    These things will guide your research. Nick Vujicic is an example of a real-life guy who's succeeding in life without arms or legs. His way of overcoming his handicap may well not be what you're envisioning for your cyberpunk hero. But his life and career can tell you what's possible.

    But I'm wondering: I don't know much about cyberpunk. But how realistic do you actually have to be?
     
  3. uncephalized
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    uncephalized Active Member

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    Watch this if you want some inspiration:
     
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  4. HistoricalScience
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    HistoricalScience Active Member

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    You should watch the movie My Left Foot
     
  5. LostThePlot
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    I'd seriously ask yourself why you want to give someone such an extreme disability if you want them to still retain so much function just with their other limbs. It just feels really incongruous to have someone quite so disabled and retain so much physical ability. There's reasons to do this; if he spends much of the book appearing 'harmless' and then at the critical moment he jump kicks the bad guy to save the day then that's cool. But if he spends the whole book not really being particularly impaired by missing his arms; why is he missing his arms? You could call it Chekhov's Limb; when things are conspicuously absent we expect their absence to be important. Contrasted to a less extreme disability such as losing one arm or losing fingers which would present challenges but leave the audience expecting that this guy could still write and type and punch; I think that would perhaps lead to a better story that you need to explain less about.

    Secondly; cyberpunk seems a weird setting for this character. In today's world you can get a prosthetic arm. Maybe not an awesome robot arm, but something that will let you pick things up. In almost every cyberpunk world prosthesis is typically so good and so common that people voluntarily get them because they are better than their original ones. Equally, one of the tropes is controlling computers with your mind, which would preclude a lot of your characters problems; he can control a combat drone or remotely hack stuff etc. Again, it just feels kinda incongruous. If he was using technology to totally overcome his disability, or living his whole life in the matrix where he has virtual limbs then yeah I can see that. A hero who is physically very disabled but through technology he can still be the best decker in the world; not just overcoming his disability maybe it actually makes him even better in the web. It makes me think of Automatic Jack (from William Gibson's Burning Chrome which is a superb short) who is missing an arm. Not only does he have a decent prosthetic, he can also hook tools directly up to his arm's jacks and thus control them like part of his body and becoming one of the best hardware guys around.

    I hate to put it in such facile terms (and this is clearly not true in the wider sense but still...) but if he's disabled he should act disabled. You can only pull the 'surprisingly competent' thing once; if he's not acting disabled for much of the book then why does he need to have that disability at all?
     
  6. TheRealStegblob
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    Why does it have to be such a rigid, convoluted reason? So he's a character that lost his arms and now fights/moves proficiently with his legs, I don't see what the big deal is, myself. I kind of get where you're coming from, I suppose, but to me it seems like this is supposed to be just a harmless quirk to the character and not something super major to any plot or theme the story is conveying.
     
    Last edited: Mar 19, 2016
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  7. GingerCoffee
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    GingerCoffee Web Surfer Girl Contributor

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    I heard about this guy just the other day:

    Cricket player with no arms.

    I think watching videos of armless people is the best way to go. And I think the story premise is great.
     
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  8. Boger
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    Every example I know that has characters/people with a disability, have it for either one of two reasons: making it about how life is for a disabled person, or as a trait to portray the character.

    Joe Speedboat, Come As You Are, Intouchables, are works of fiction I recommend when you look for stories that have the characters cope with their disability and give meaning to their lives. South Park's Timmy and Jimmy are examples of having characters that are disabled as a trait to portray them as individuals. They have an episode with them as the main characters which I recommend get to know the characters, which is called Krazy Kripples (s2ep7). Mostly, disabled characters give a refreshing outlook on things, as far as the examples I know of go.

    On a different note, it's all very inspiring and the topic has many interpretations. I don't know what would be beneficial to your creative process. I had one of my own characters loose an arm halfway the story for no reason in particular.
     
    Last edited: Mar 19, 2016
  9. LostThePlot
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    It's just basic story telling stuff that everything you add to a character has to carry it's weight in the story. Now, if this is a story that's focused around this one guy overcoming his disability through whatever means then that's fine by me. But it appears to me that this guy already overcame his disability by the time the story starts. So what is that doing for the story? What are all those words spend talking about his lack of arms leading towards? Anything at all? From what we've been told, well, no. They are being wasted discussing something that doesn't pay off. Just as I said before; this is directly an instance of Chekhov's Gun. If you are going to all the trouble to write a disabled character the fact he's disabled sure as hell better matter to something, ideally more substantial than just needing people to open doors for him.

    Come with me on a mental exercise for a moment. I have created a character who comes from Mars with bright blue skin and breathes fire. He is the MC in my court room drama. Every time he meets someone for the first time I write a paragraph getting them to believe that this guy is not actually a space monster, he's just a lawyer from far away. And at the end of the book he wins the case. His being Martian, blue or firebreathing has been totally irrelevant to everything that's happening. How would you feel about reading all those scenes where he says 'No, seriously, I'm just a lawyer, I promise, I'm not breathing fire' after you've found out there is no pay off to it? No invasion, no other martians, nothing.

    Minimalism has tangible value. It's how you keep a story focused on the things that actually matter to the plot. Everything must serve the plot. Anything that doesn't is wasted words that you could use for something else. Is his disability isn't really effecting the plot at all then that's something you can just straight up cut.

    If it's literally not doing anything for the story then why waste the words? Why write that uncomfortable butt wiping scene when none of this means anything in the grander scheme of things?
     
  10. Catrin Lewis
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    Thanks to @LostThePlot, I know more about cyberpunk. Seems to me, @Lone Vista, it'd be gripping indeed (so to speak) if your armless hero ordinarily used a pair of these zoomy prosthetic arms, but when it comes to the climactic fight of his life, his enemies catch him out without them. All he has to save his life and defend the woman he loves (etc., etc.) is the strength and skill of his own body. And the readers' question will be, "Oh, dear, is it enough?" :supershock:
     
  11. Aaron Smith
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    I mean, you could definitely do it, but you'd have to learn how to type with your feet.
     
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  12. TheRealStegblob
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    And now you're just purely entering into the realm of taking this far, far too seriously. There's been plenty of times in stories where a character had a quirk similar to "having no arms so they use their legs" (in fact, I'm sure this exact thing has been done before) without it ever being a weighty element to the plot.

    Your example was poor at best, completely worthless at worst. We're not talking about an incredible, out of the ordinary creature like an alien on planet earth. We're talking about what is, I'm assuming, an action-oriented adventure story in which one of the characters just happens to be armless. Obviously he's not going to be writing "uncomfortable butt wiping scenes" (lol what the fuck). You could consider it some kind of 'waste' to just have a character be armless but then not explain that any deeper, but as far as I'm concerned that's purely a personal issue and I don't think the character would actually suffer at all from just being disabled.

    I mean, would it be a true statement to say they're losing depth by not exploring the disability on a deeper level? Yes, it would. Is a true statement to say the character wouldn't work and there'd be something glaringly wrong with them? Absolutely not.
     
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  13. Lone Vista
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    Much obliged for all the feedback, and especially for the various resources. I find it easiest (and most enjoyable) to work on a project when I've learned a lot about it, rather than write first and then patch up all the holes afterwards.

    While it's definitely been broadening to hear different opinions on narrative structure, it wasn't exactly the feedback I was hoping for. To clarify: I'm not looking for suggestions as to how the disability should be used in the narrative, but rather for more information about disabilities of this kind.

    I've made attempts to research it myself, but I haven't had much luck. It's tough knowing where to start on a topic like this one when you don't have much previous knowledge.
     
  14. GingerCoffee
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    This is where looking at people who have no arms helps. There are more than a few videos and personal stories at your fingertips.
     
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  15. LostThePlot
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    I'm sorry but we're talking about story telling fundamentals here. Not what has been done before; I'm talking about how you should go about writing a book to make it satisfying and interesting. Having a story strand that goes nowhere and doesn't pay off is quite literally one of the worst things you can do as a writer. This has nothing to do with a disabled character; this is about how you structure and write good fiction. You do not do that by presenting the audience with something that is seemingly important then never actually showing it being important.

    This is (again) exactly what Chekhov's Gun is talking about. If you put a gun on stage then the audience expects it to be fired. If it isn't why did you put it there? It's been deliberately placed there when it didn't need to be so, the audience thinks, it must be important. The only reason for it to be established (and for the story teller to go to the effort) it must surely be something that is supposed to matter. You can subvert that for comedy purposes but in serious literature you just don't deliberately place anything and not pay it off. It's a distraction from the actually important stuff, it sets up false expectations and most damningly it uses up finite space that you could focus on something else that is more relevant to the core message.

    This is the exact reason why there are so very few disabled, black, transsexual or Inuit characters in mainstream fiction. Because unless your book specifically has a reason to call attention to these characteristics then there is no reason to do so. It's not about bias or hatred (as some might have you believe) it's simply that if any of this doesn't effect the plot then it has no reason to be talked about. It's adding baggage that is contributing nothing.

    To put it as simply as possible - Why should I read something that isn't effecting the plot? In this case being disabled doesn't even actually characterize the character because he's much more physically capable than his appearance would lead you to believe. This is not an element that is fleshing out a character or the world as a whole. This isn't something that another character can quietly ask about to show they have a bond. It's just sitting there in the plot being utterly irrelevant to everything going on. It doesn't add to the character, it doesn't build the narrative, it doesn't do a damn thing.

    It doesn't matter what attribute you pin on to your characters; if that attribute isn't going to be part of the plot it shouldn't be there. That doesn't mean other writers haven't done it but it's simply bad writing to add more than you need. It is quite simply a waste of time and effort to add anything that doesn't achieve anything in a book. You seem to be under the misapprehension that disability alone is enough to justify including it when exactly the opposite is true. It is just like anything else. It is just like being a great cook or a college football player or anything else.

    If it doesn't matter to the story it has no place in the story.
     
  16. Link the Writer
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    Link the Writer Flipping Out For A Good Story. Contributor

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    So basically what you're saying is ‘don't put in a disabled character for the sake of having a disabled character’? Make sure it fits in with the plot, theme, or character arc? Make sure it's actually more than just a gimmick, like ‘Wooo! I have a disabled character in my story!!’

    I agree to an extent but, let's take a look at Mass Effect, the whole trilogy. The pilot of the SSV Normandy is Joker, a man with brittle bone disease. At no point in the game do we address his condition in anything other than ‘Yeah, I have this thing...’ or Joker making cracks about his own condition. Granted, there is one level in Mass Effect 2 where you actually control Joker and he has to limp across the ship -- which is the closest thing we get to having his disability affect the storyline/gameplay. Because of his condition, he can't fight off the invasion force currently boarding the ship; all he can do is limp as fast as he can while swearing under his breath. Otherwise, nothing other than brief, brief mentioning of it, and Joker talking briefly about how he hates everyone pitying him for having creaky legs. It's just enough for us to remember he has brittle bone disease, but the entire plot and the theme doesn't revolve around it and Joker's efforts to cope with it. Hell, there's not even a side mission where Joker visits a kid with the same condition and launches into an inspirational speech about how he/she shouldn't let it stop him/her from achieving his/her goals.

    Seriously, Joker's brittle bone condition affects the main plot not one iota; you could take it away, make him a completely healthy human being and the story would more or less progress exactly the same.

    Should the developers, then, have given him this condition? There was no plot-related reason for it; it was like they went, ‘Uh, let's give him brittle bone disease.’ when creating his character. One could interpret this as them making Joker handicapped just for the sake of having a handicapped character in the story.

    Regarding the OP, I honestly don't mind that his/her character has no arms; I find it very interesting. As mentioned before, there are plenty of Youtube videos about people living sans arms. Wasn't there a particularly famous Australian who was born without arms (and legs for that matter)? Just a torso and a head? I recommend reading up on him as well.
     
    Last edited: Mar 20, 2016
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  17. Feo Takahari
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    The implication here is that being straight, white, male, and able-bodied are not distinctive characteristics that affect the plot. This is a massive assumption that multiple writing movements have been trying to dismantle since at least the 1960s, one that would take multiple threads to untangle all the implications of.

    The best I can manage is to say that there are stories that can be told only with white characters, stories that can be told only with black characters, and stories that are told differently with black characters than with white characters. Or in Mother 3, Duster didn't have to have a crippled leg and his story could have been told without it, but his leg makes his story go somewhat differently and intentionally creates a different impression of the society he exists within and how it treats people who are different. I do believe that each element needs to be considered for how it will change the story--and that's exactly what the OP is doing in this thread! It can still run to the same endpoint, just along a different path with a different view.
     
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  18. TheRealStegblob
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    Nah, sorry man. I'm in complete objection with this and I think you're being far too serious. I mean, you have meritable points, I'll agree if you want a strong character it's important to do these things, but it's not 100% necessary and really, you come off as a little bit snobbish in just demanding every character ever follow this if they want to be good.

    Look at Mad Max: Fury Road (really any of the Mad Max films). You have a ton of crazy, strange characters (including main characters) with odd things about them and those are some incredible movies that fulfill you in their own ways. This story could be pretty much exactly like that. Not every trait (even major ones) about a character has to be super deep and explained. I don't care what some theory you draw upon says, lol, not everyone is going to see a character without arms and stand up saying "WHY DIDN'T IT DO ANYTHING MORE WITH THAT", they're just going to enjoy the ride, and it doesn't mean the writing is particularly weaker for it. There's such a thing as flavor for flavor's sake.

    Anyways this ENTIRE argument is completely off point because it's not even what the original poster wanted to ask about, so I'm just going to stop with this. I hope you relax your opinion on characters being strange for the sake of just being strange.
     
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  19. ChickenFreak
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    Curiously enough, the only thing that went through the mind of the bowl of petunias as it fell was Oh no, not again.

    ― Douglas Adams, The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy


    One big reason is that...the world contains people who are NOT white, male, completely free of health problems and handicaps, and between the age of seventeen and forty-two. It does. Really. I promise. Lots of 'em.

    If you want to scrub most of the richness of the world's people out of fiction, if you want to make fictional characters into featureless generic automatons, you go right ahead. The rest of us aren't going to do that.
     
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  20. LostThePlot
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    No, they shouldn't have. It was disingenuous and frankly rather uncalled for to shoehorn in a disabled person just to complete your rainbow coalition. This is tokenism. Tokenism is bad. It doesn't matter how good a writer you are you shouldn't be adding unnecessary anything to your work.

    Again; my point here is nothing to do with this character being disabled; it's that his disability does not really impair him in being an action hero. He can fight for gods sake! Like in a hand to hand fashion, not using an implanted gun or a combat drone or any other option. He's happy to have stand up and fight with a full capable, trained human being. Go watch an MMA fight. Particularly watch ground work; where one guy takes the other to the ground and the wrestle rather than striking. Now imagine that one person cannot cover there heads and his only method of attack takes him substantially off balance. How do you think that ends up?

    If his disability isn't a big enough deal to stop him fighting it's really not being shown to be a disability at all is it? It's not actually showing him encountering the really major challenges that come from having no arms. If you only want someone to be disabled a small amount that effects him only in his day to day life but leaves him able to fight then that's cool. But having this guy who is both more physically capable than the average person (how would you fare with your arms against someone who seriously wanted to kill you?) while still being disabled on paper. That's my objection.

    If you want to treat his disability with respect you need to show just how hard his life is; both physically and mentally. You need to tell a story about him overcoming the odds, being underestimated by his enemies and finally winning by virtue of his mind being the most dangerous weapon. In short, you need to tell a story about disability. And that's a good story man. Seriously; it has prejudice and internal conflict and all kinds of character growth. But if you don't have that stuff, if he's not actually all that disabled by this huge disability then you aren't treating the subject with respect. How do you think physically disabled people would feel about this character not really suffering from challenges unique to disability?

    I'm absolutely not saying that this isn't a potentially interesting character. Whether it's someone who is so poor that they can't afford prosthetics or someone who stoically refuses to get his disability repaired or even if he's someone who uses the internet to have the kind of control he can't have in the real world; there's potential here. Even if he's just a character who lost his arms, now has awesome prosthetics but his injury really drives him or makes him paranoid or does something to him, that's still interesting. But what's not interesting is a character who has quality X and the antidote to X. Having X alone doesn't make him interesting.

    What makes him interesting is actually being interesting. In a poor light making him a disabled, black, transsexual might make him pass for interesting, but this isn't a good story unless it's actually a good story and it won't a good story if it has all of these potential story paths dangling off it's lead character that never pay off.
     
  21. LostThePlot
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    I don't know if you've come in late and missed my point here but I'm not in anyway saying that books should only be about straight white men. Nothing like that whatsoever. We badly need more kinds of people being portrayed in all media. More! Very many more! The point you quotes is very specifically an observation that most stories have nothing to do with race or gender or ability or hetronormativity and as a result the author (shockingly) doesn't discuss those issues. That doesn't make the story hateful or aggressive towards anything else. It's just a story being a story telling it's story that doesn't happen to include those things. Those things (shockingly) are not the be all and end all of life and there's so very many stories that can be told without reference to them whatsoever.

    If those issues aren't relevant to the plot at all why should a writer include them? In my work it doesn't matter what race most of my characters are and I don't say which they are. That's not a deliberate choice, it just doesn't come up what colour skin they have. Are you suggesting that I should go back and make a big deal about them being black simply because it's progressive to do so? Even though it has no effect on anything whatsoever?

    If you are writing a book where you are making a big deal about these issues simply to say you have done rather than to make the book a better book then you are doing something wrong. I'm not telling you who or what to write about; I'm simply saying that any dead weight in a book is a bad thing that detracts from the focus.

    If you want to write a world where race doesn't matter at all you do that by never talking about race.
     
  22. ChickenFreak
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    Who said you had to make a big deal? A character being black doesn't require that you make a big deal about their race, it just means that the author picked a race. An author doesn't need an excuse for making a character black, any more than they need an excuse for making a character white.

    If you mean that you don't state the race at all, that also makes no sense to me. If it's inappropriate to choose a character race without a strong driving plot reason, then why choose a sex, or a name, or any other distinguishing characteristic?

    Edited to add:

    Then that means that you don't write about our world. That's advice that may work for fantasy and science fiction; it doesn't work for most forms of fiction.
     
  23. LostThePlot
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    A character being black doesn't need a strong story reason; but it does change how that character grew up. This character now has two black parents in a country with no native black people. Races are not just interchangeable and acting like they are, especially acting like they don't change really quite important factors about that character, is kinda proving my point. Adding any of these things to a character changes them in slight but tangible ways. Just by being around different parents who listened to different music and made different dinners at home changes who this person is. Picking a race has impact. And while you might think you are making a point by saying 'Look he's black and he's just totally the same as everyone else!' the truth is that you aren't respecting the culture and background that comes from being that race. Unless their background and family has literally no impact on who they are or the story they are involved in then you are essentially saying 'black people are just white people who are black' which is not something most black people would be nuts about.

    Let's take a nice simple example. Do you know a lot of black goths? There are some. I've met a couple, but I go to goth events and festivals and even then I can count them on one hand. If I write a black goth in my book don't you think the very rareness of that demands attention? Do you think a Jamacan mother has never once in her life had a problem with her child turning their back on their cultural heritage? There's baggage there. And it doesn't matter what we're talking about, everything is some version of this same problem. You absolutely can write about a black goth but you need to start out setting the character up in a way that feels natural and realistic and makes sense in a way that you pretty much wouldn't have to do with a white(er) goth because there is such a thing as black culture and at the very least the audience's perception is that black and white people have unique experiences of the world. At the very least my black goth is going to be given a hard time when he tries to go see Cradle Of Filth because no matter how much velvet he wears people are going to say he's not a real goth.

    Also; there is a huge difference between picking a race and adding a massive life changing disability to a character that begs a huge amount of additional questions about how and why and what happened. Every character must be some race even if that race is not stated. We assume they have some skin even if it's colour is ambiguous. A disability is a rather bigger deal since the vast majority of people are not significantly disabled. That's why it stands out. That's why it feels like it needs to be important to be included.

    As for making a big deal about things, do you seriously not feel that every time this guy needs someone to open a door for him wouldn't be a big deal? Constant narrative flags every time he moves around saying 'remember, he's disabled!'. How can this not come up constantly in the narrative? How can the reader not be constantly reminded that this is something about the character? In a good story this would be because you are going to pay it off. That's the only reason a well written piece of fiction would constantly draw your attention to something; because it will matter. And we're right back at Chekhov's Gun.

    That last point was because he is writing a sci-fi story. Which frankly makes most of this moot since it's sci-fi and the guy would get his arms fixed. But whatever, right? Who needs to read the thread?
     
  24. TheRealStegblob
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    No it doesn't. The only thing that changes how a person grew up is literally how they grew up. Black people and white people are literally the same, dude. I don't even know what to say to you, the more you post, the more you come off as some kind of vague, unaware racist or something. I don't know what to make of it. Cultures and environments aren't directly tied to race.
     
  25. ChickenFreak
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    You seem to be saying that you don't choose a race. Then you seem to be saying that a black character would have a different experience. So that says to me that you ARE choosing a race--white.

    If race has an impact in a society, then a character in that society has a race, whether you say it outright or not. So not specifying a race is not a solution. You choose a race, and you write accordingly. But "write accordingly" doesn't need to mean that the race, or other characteristic that we're talking about, needs to be at the core of the plot.

    If you're just saying "write accordingly", fine, but I don't see you communicating that.
     
    Feo Takahari likes this.

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