Thursday, July 25, 2013

Writing disabled characters (pt. 1?)

I've really been enjoying the month of posts over at Disability in Kidlit. They've covered a wide range of topics of physical and mental disabilities and all the bloggers have a disability, so they know of what they speak. Today's post on tropes, I particularly urge every writer to read, because it is *shockingly* hard to find a book with a disabled character that doesn't fall into one of these tropes.

It also got me thinking about how I've written disability over the years. Characters that are physically different from other people are very near and dear to my heart, I doubt I will ever write a book without them. This covers a broad range of characters, of course, not just characters with disabilities but also characters who are a different race or species from the majority, or characters that have to deal with magical curses and what not. In Magic Under Glass/Stone, Nimira is an ethnic minority and Erris is trapped in a clockwork body. In Between the Sea and Sky, Esmerine is a mermaid and Alan is a winged man, but the story mostly takes place in human society, which makes them both a little out of place and disadvantaged in moments, especially Esmerine who can take a human form but only with great pain, but they are perfectly normal within their own species. I don't consider any of these characters to be truly disabled so I don't feel bad for doling out some magical healing at the end (I won't go into details for anyone who hasn't read them yet). But when a character really has a disability, I take it very seriously.

I actually feel pretty disappointed when a character is "cured". I find it much more satisfying to think of a character living with limitations and difficulties but also finding love and happiness. When a character is cured, that isn't an ending that makes me feel warm happy fuzzies, but instead anger, and it isn't just because I'm thinking of kids with disabilities that need role models or something like that. I have to think back to why I was drawn to characters with disabilities to begin with.

From the moment I could pick up a pen, I wrote characters that wore differences on the outside. I myself was and am a reasonably attractive, average weight, able-bodied white girl. But I was homeschooled, in a very unconventional new-age-y way, and I was intelligent, and I also had maaaajor anxiety issues. Whenever I got around "normal" kids, like the one year I went to public school in 2nd grade for example, I got a LOT of, "Jaclyn, you're WEIRD." I wasn't terribly offended by being called weird, because for one thing I was super naive and trusting and I seriously didn't think anyone would say malicious things to someone else's face, but I also thought being weird was a good thing. I did feel perpetually lonely and confused, however. Everything I did and thought seemed to be off-kilter from what everyone else was doing and thinking. After getting out of the hell-hole that was 2nd grade and getting back to what felt to me like REAL life at home with my stacks of library books and complicated fictional life, I experienced this culture shock throughout my life in small doses. When I got my first job at 18 working at Sears, I didn't expect it to feel a little like 2nd grade all over again. But in some ways it did. People were always telling me I used an awful lot of big words, or nosing into my business in the breakroom because I was drawing or studying Japanese, or asking me what the heck I was eating, even telling me to pluck my eyebrows or wear makeup, and questioning my life decisions ("Why aren't you in college?" "Oh, you want to be a writer? Good luck.") I was not invited to any work parties, which was fine, since I don't like to have more than one drink, and once I again I found myself as the lonely weirdo. Only I was older and less naive and it felt more depressing.

I think in some ways it's always been appealing to me, the idea of being different on the outside instead of the inside. In my stories, the characters who were physically different may have been rejected and ostracized at first, but in the end they fell in love and had amazing friends and were successful and rich and basically SHOWED EVERYONE. It was kind of the opposite of my own life where I felt normal on the outside (except maybe for my eyebrows) but constantly left out in the cold because of how I felt on the inside.

That's one reason to write disabled characters, at least for me. The other reason was to cope with fear. When I was a little kid I didn't deal with disabled people very well. There was a girl in elementary school in a wheelchair and she wasn't in my class, but she was in the rehabilitative PE class I was put in for a time (since I was also spectacularly bad at anything athletic) and I always felt SUPER awkward around her. Her name might as well have been "Wheels" like the wheelchair-bound character in the Burger King kids club that was around at the time for all I saw her as a person and not just a wheelchair. Around this time I was also worrying a lot that I could go blind, after having seen the Mary-Goes-Blind episode of Little House on the Prairie while myself running a high fever, the kind that makes your eyes hurt. In my anxiety-visions, the sucky part of being blind wouldn't so much be not being able to see, it would be everyone looking at me the way I looked at the girl in a wheelchair at school, only seeing a blind girl and not just a girl.

A couple years after that, I wrote a blind character into a story for the first time, and I wrote other disabled characters as well, always with the same pattern: in childhood, they were underestimated by everyone around them, and mocked and teased and maybe forced into a special school, all the while protesting that they didn't need all this because they had burgeoning magical powers that not only compensated for their disability but made them better than everybody else. Of COURSE. And when they grew up they were able to show them all and have the super-awesome life mentioned above. I was definitely not guilty of the magical cure trope, at least, because I didn't want any magical cures. I wanted to write stories where people who were clearly different were the BEST. But I was guilty of most other tropes, most especially the Magical Disabled Person and also the super broody angsty disabled person whose life is defined by their disability, because before I would give them their happy ending they had to go through bucketloads of emotional turmoil. It wasn't "inspiration porn", but it was maybe "angst porn".

And did I research any of these disabilities at all before writing them? Ha ha ha!! At that point I wouldn't have been caught dead even checking a non-fiction book about disabilities out from the library because I would think the librarian and my parents and anyone who happened to see the book would think I was weird.

But the good thing about adulthood, at least for me, is that I did start to feel less embarrassed and self-conscious, and the good thing about writing various disabled characters is that even though they were trope-tastic and unresearched, I did really care about my characters. They were like real people to me, like reflections of myself, and so when I encountered customers with disabilities at my retail job I wasn't nervous about helping them, and I no longer viewed them just as their disability like I did as a little kid. I would like to think that's just part of growing up, but hearing how adults sometimes treat or talk about people with disabilities...I'm not so sure. I started thinking about how disabled characters in the fiction that was around when I was young were spectacularly horrible...erm, like Wheels. And that those books about inspirational girls in wheelchairs or a deaf neighbor who moves in next door and turns out not to be as scary as the kid thought...had actually contributed to my childhood discomfort of people with disabilities. This got me thinking that I should probably do some research so I was not guilty of contributing to misconceptions (as much as possible, anyway).

Sheesh, this is long. I might have to make a two-parter out of this one!

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