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!

Saturday, July 13, 2013

Writing Female Characters with "the Secret Ingredient"

I was, perhaps, around 20 when I looked at my girl characters and realized something: They don't have tragic pasts.

At this point in my life my stories were overwhelmingly based around male characters. Females were jammed in out of necessity to be love interests, childhood best friends, and moms, with some warrior women and mystical wise priestesses to fulfill some sense of demographic requirement. But I didn't care about them. What I realized, at this point, was that the guys had all the coolest parts of storytelling. All the conflict, all the angst and pain and complication.

When I thought back on all the stories I had loved as a kid, this was almost always true. In any given story, I was attracted not to the hero or the heroine, but the weirdo. Maybe the funniest character, because I like characters with a good sense of humor. (The funniest character in a story is almost always a guy.) The character with a good heart but a somewhat skewed sense of morality (aka, your thieves, your mob bosses, your pirates...), the tormented character with the complicated backstory, the character with a limp or a stoop or an eyepatch or a missing hand, the character who is the quirky intellectual with a memorably charming but eccentric personality...

One phrase I have never been especially fond of is "kick-butt" or "kick-ass" as applied to female characters. Because...I don't really care for a guy character that kicks peoples butts or asses, and I also am not especially compelled to read a book if a female character is described that way. There are plenty of people, of course, who do want to read about kick-ass girls, and there are different interpretations of the word too, so I don't want to sound like I'm against it or anything, but I also sometimes think that even now, STILL, we don't always think beyond that when we write girls. We ask ourselves, "Are they strong?" But we don't always ask, "Are they COOL? Are they complicated? Do they have the secret ingredient?"

The secret ingredient is a little different for everyone, but you just kind of know it when you hear it, too. It's there in fan favorites like Magnus Bane and Eugenides. I think girls get left out of it a lot. Less than they used to. But still. Too often. Even with writers that write strong female characters.

Including, I realize, myself, more often than I'd like.

This has been a thought I've been particularly keeping in the back of my mind when I write Dark Metropolis and I am very proud of that aspect of the book. When I began the first book I thought, "I'm going to write Nan like I'd write one of my boys." My idea was not to write her like she is "A BOY", as in, the elements that common wisdom suggests are how boys act. No, I just mean like one of MY boys. Because I realize that all my characters are me to some degree and I don't write super manly men (I don't even know super manly men) but there are subtle differences between how I portray girls and boys. I really tried to twist that. I'm not sure I was always successful, but Nan is definitely unlike any other girl *or* boy I've written. And a good character really should be unlike any other character I've ever written, so I'll take it. And in book 2 I'm trying to take it further. I can't really get detailsy about it because a) spoilers and b) stuff's gonna change anyway...but the most exciting part of book 2 for me is how darn cool these girls are. To me, anyway.

This feels like a personal triumph for me, when I think that 10 years ago I barely liked any of the girls in my writing enough to give them their own point of view in a story.