Tuesday, 31 July 2012

A QUESTION OF DISABILITY

Hello, Dear Readers! Happy (Olympic) Tuesday! I hope you all had a better Monday than poor Tom Daly and Pete Waterfield, bless them.

Today I decided to address a question that I got in my comments in late June. I made a note of it, but stupidly forgot to write down the commentor's name, so my apologies to you, unknown commentor, for that. I hope you're still around and that you see this!
I am writing my first book and out of nowhere my character did something very unexpected and now she has a slight disability. It will not affect her general day to day life, but it does affect her. At the moment I am writing it by instinct. I want it to be accurate, but I'm worried that I will overthink it if I find out too much about it. Have you got any advice on writing about somebody with an injury? 
Well, it sounds to me like you're on the right track, in that you have conceived of an interesting, active character, who just happens to end up with a physical disability throughout the course of the story. Since that's what often happens to real people in real life - they're just going about their business, some accident or illness strikes, and suddenly they have to cope with different physical limitations - that's a great, realistic way to include a disabled person. It means she should already be a fully rounded person, and not any kind of an offensive stereotype or cypher. Yay!

On the other hand, if you've made the choice to leave that disability in there rather than having the heroine heal up without consequences, you do need to consider how this will affect her in her day to day life. You're saying here that it doesn't... but how can it not? Her body has changed.

In your (completely understandable) quest to keep your story chugging onward, please don't minimise the reality of living with a disability. That not only makes it rather pointless to have decided to give the heroine one in the first place, but it also runs the risk of being upsetting to people to have a similar difficulty in real life and who have to struggle to cope with it each day.

You say here that you're worried you'll overthink things? Please, don't worry about that. Pretty much one hundred percent of the problems I see with the way that diverse characters are depicted come from people putting in little to no thought about the realities of life for people who are different from them. Thinking about this stuff is *good*. We all know that the more we get into our characters heads the better (the more realistic, complex and fully realised) they will be. That doesn't change if the character is disabled.

I'd urge you to think deeply about the little, ordinary activities that your heroine does, her hobbies and her habits, and how this change to her body might affect them. You don't have to change who she is, but you might need to alter what she does in this story, or how she does it.

I'll give you an example of this from my own life. I suffer with a condition called IBS. This means that certain foods make me violently ill and there's nothing I can do about it - apart from not eating them. Some of my favourite dishes are no longer available to me, and as a foodie who loves to cook, this is hard. It can sometimes be hard even to find an item on a restaurant menu that doesn't contain at least one thing that will make me ill. It also means that I suffer with sudden, crippling cramps in my abdomen which are so bad that sometimes I nearly pass out.

If I was your character, you could show the way that my IBS effects me with a scene where my friends and I order breakfast at a diner together, and I'm sadly forced to pass on the eggs and mushrooms and even baked beans, because those things all make me ill. As the other characters chow down on a huge meal, I'm nibbling sulkily on a piece of toast, and someone gives me a hug to cheer me up. That's just a tiny human moment which sheds light on the disabled character, the disability, and the other characters present too.

Or maybe my character knows that those things will make me ill, but I just can't resist ordering them anyway. I eat the eggs, beans and mushrooms and then end up being stuck in the bathroom for hours, causing my friends to get angry and exasperated, both at being trapped out of the bathroom and the way that I refuse to take my condition into account. Again, a great insight into all the characters and the illness.

How about if you need to get my character out of the way for a certain scene? Instead of having me lose my cellphone so that no one can get in touch with me (or something equally cliched), maybe I get left behind because I'm curled up on the bed with a hot water bottle, suffering from terrible cramps? Or, flipping this on it's head, maybe you need to get my character into a perilous situation alone without friends for back-up. Instead of having me behave like an idiot who runs of off by herself 'just because', you could have all my friends incapacitated by terrible food poisoning from the mushroom ravioli they made the night before, leaving my character (who didn't eat it) as the one person who is able to go to the abandoned warehouse to investigate the strange noises.

The more you know about the character and the disability she has, and the more you think about the ways this would affect her, the more possibilities open up in your story.

No, everything in the plot should not be influenced by the character's disability. And it shouldn't change who she is. But if you put good, careful thought into it, it might be that this unexpected change in the character's life will give you a really great chance to show - though the character's own reactions to her disability and the reactions of the people around her - just what she and the rest of the story's cast are made of.

I hope this is helpful! If anyone has any more questions about this or any other writing, reading or publishing related topic, go ahead and pop them in the comments.

See you on Thursday, when I'll be talking out the upcoming author event at Foyles!

13 comments:

Q said...

It also seems like the person who wrote this question is afraid of making a mistake when drafting. Making mistakes is totally fine--that's why we have revision. If you're afraid of overthinking something, do it anyway, and then if it's actually overwrought, you can go back and change it.

Don't ever forget that no one gets to see what you've written until you share it, and by making mistakes in early drafts you can learn more and more for later ones.

Zoë Marriott said...

Q: That's also a very good point! Although if the commentor hangs around here much she should hopefully have seen our motto: 'Give yourself permission to suck!'

Heather said...

I love this post! I really like the idea of turning your disability into something positive, as with you being the only one who didn't get food poisoning because of your IBS. I have an anxiety disorder, which is crippling at times, but also has a few upsides. Because I compulsively triple-check everything, I never get appointments wrong or misread instructions, and I'm always ridiculously early to everything because I'm terrified of walking in late.

I think it's really important to try to see the bright side, especially if you're putting your work out there for everyone to see, including others with the same disability. If I were to read a book about someone with an anxiety disorder who can't take part in anything and runs away panicking at crucial points, I would start to worry that I'll never be able to beat my demons either. Whereas a book with a main character who manages to succeed and fight evil or whatever in spite of their anxiety would give me hope that I can be brave too.

Zoë Marriott said...

Heather: That's a really good point - the fact is that in real life people fight through all kinds of difficultiies and live full, rich lives, so it's not like in including a character with a disability, you're including a person who can't *do* anything. The opposite, in fact! On the other hand, I do think it's important to show the *struggle*, and the strength it takes to overcome limitations like that. If you have a character who manages to do everything effortlessly despite disability then they're not going to seem realistic, and people with a similar problem in real life will just think you're minimising their condition.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for this post Zoe! I've never written anything about a person with a disability and I was quite worried about making a mistake. But this post has helped me, especially the examples (thank you for sharing that). After reading them, I think it'll be easier for me to imagine how my character will act in certain scenes and how she will develop.

And thank you to everybody that gave advice in the comments, it has really helped :)

Zoë Marriott said...

Anon: you are very, very welcome. Go forth and scribble!

batgirl said...

You have IBS? Me too, so, sympathies!

This is a good post. It's consolidated some of the vague thoughts I've had about my injury and whether the experience was going to be useful to my writing in any way, because I wasn't seeing how it would fit anywhere.

Zoë Marriott said...

B: Weird that hasn't come up before! Yes, I do, and it's the bane of my existence. My sympathies to you as well. Thank you - my thoughts felt a bit disorganised, so I'm glad it made sense.

DC Morin said...

I agree completely, Zoë, and I'd even take it a step further to say if the disability doesn't affect the character, then the character doesn't really have a disability. By definition a person with a disability is differently-abled in some way from everyone else.

I'm a rehabilitation counselor, and there are thousands of online support groups for people with any disability you can imagine--from IBS to schizophrenia and everything in between. It's been useful to me when researching traits for both my counseling practice and my writing.

Molly Lewis said...

I wouldn't worry about overthinking it. People with disabilities are thinking about it ALL THE TIME. Even if they're confidently thinking about overcoming their limitations, they are always aware of them in some way or another. It might be possible to overwrite it, but not overthink it. Besides, that's what second and third and fourth drafts are for.

Zoë Marriott said...

DC: Yeah, if you name a character's disability and then never display its affect in any way, you've just made yourself a liar; disability doesn't *work* that way. It's like saying a character is gay and then having them fall in love with the opposite gender, or saying they're Asian but describing them as having white skin, green eyes and naturally blonde, curly hair. Doesn't work!

Molly: I hear this a lot from people who are dipping their toes into the Diverse Characters Pool. 'Oh, I don't want to overthink it!'. I don't really know where that idea comes from; as you say, over-writing is possible, but over-thinking really isn't. For the writer, THINKING IS ALWAYS GOOD.

mclicious.org said...

Oh, I love this! Such good advice. Also, as a celiac and IBS sufferer, hurrah, and I feel you! My friends are constantly apologizing to me for eating pizza and cupcakes.

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