Diversity in Writing: Researching Characters — Guest: Melinda Primrose

by Jami Gold on November 13, 2014

in Writing Stuff

Multicolored stick figures holding hands with text: Creating Unique Characters through Research

Several months ago, I posted about how we shouldn’t be afraid of writing diverse characters, even if we don’t have first-hand knowledge of their experiences. My belief isn’t about quotas or forcing stories to take on an issue. Rather, my take is that diversity exists in real life, so it’s lazy to not include diversity in our stories.

However, because of the fear of “getting it wrong,” we might hesitate to write characters with diverse orientations, cultures, nationalities, or abilities. Yet as we discussed earlier this week, we often write about settings or jobs or situations we haven’t experienced, and it’s simply part of our job as a writer to do our research to make our story and characters believable. So how can we reach the point where we’re comfortable with our research for diversity aspects?

The first step is to listen to our characters and not make assumptions about them conforming to the “default.” Sticking with a “default” character is a cliché-like writing tic, and clichés and writing tics aren’t good in general. Instead, we want to treat each character as a three-dimensional individual.

The second step is to learn enough about the diverse aspect to determine if and how various experiences might affect our specific character. In other words, the diverse aspect shouldn’t be the only thing defining who our character is. There’s no monolithic xyz experience for any type of character, whether white, black, Asian, gay, or paraplegic. Just because a character is xyz doesn’t mean they have to be a certain way. That’s resorting to a stereotype.

Today’s post is about how we can do that research to learn more about experiences for which we don’t have first-hand knowledge. The other week, I tweeted a link to a fantastic blog with writing resources for racial and ethnic diversity. (Check out their Navigation page for links to posts about each category, trope, stereotype, etc.) And I just discovered Diversity Cross-Check earlier this week (with their tag categories to connect with other first-hand resources).

And today, I’m excited to introduce Melinda Primrose here on my blog to discuss writing characters with a disability. She’s going to give us the inside scoop into how to research for authentic characters. Please welcome Melinda Primrose! *smile*

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How to Write a Character with a Disability

Thanks, Jami, for letting me stop by today. How many of you have read a book with a disabled character and thought the way the writer portrayed the character must be correct? It’s ok to raise your hand. I used to believe the same thing, until I became disabled myself.

I’ve been legally blind for almost 10 years now. I’ve come to realize that most authors just use tropes when it comes to disabled characters. But you don’t have to be one of those authors! Let me show you how to write an authentic disabled character.

Step 1: Why is your character disabled?

I want you to really think about this. Why is this character disabled? Does this character need to be disabled to fulfill his/her usefulness in the plot? Is your character disabled just to fill a trope?

Not sure about tropes? A great list of disability tropes can be found on TV Tropes.

Look around. See how others have used the trope and subverted it. (Be warned! Heading to TV Tropes can lead down a rabbit hole that’s hard to get out of.) And, of course, what you do from here will depend on your own personal tastes and story needs.

Step 2: Research the Basics

This is super important! Do your research! Knowing the effects of any given disability will help clear up character choices.

For example, I would find it very hard to believe a blind character being a world-renowned photographer. I’m not saying this isn’t possible, but the author would have to give a lot of explanation as to how the character is able to accomplish this.

Researching anything can be difficult without the right tools. When thinking about disabilities, WebMD and Google will get you a good start:

  • WebMD: Web MD will provide the basic background for the disability, including symptoms, causes and treatments. This can help show what the character’s daily life may be like. For example, would someone with this disability be on medications or have to go to the doctor/hospital for treatments?
  • Google Search for Organizations: There are also many organizations that are dedicated to disabilities. Googling the disability can point you toward these organizations. For blindness, I know of two major organizations, American Council of the Blind and National Federation of the Blind. Studying these organizations can show you what assistance is available for a disabled character.

Step 3: Get Personal with Research for First-Hand Accounts

The hardest part of research is talking with someone who has the same disability as your character. If you know someone in real life with the disability in real life, approaching them first would be my best advice.

Don’t know anyone with that specific disability? That’s ok. There are several ways to find people with disabilities on the internet. Thanks to the internet, we can get to know people from all over the world!

  • Google Search for Forums: First, let’s go back to our friend Google. Googling any disability plus the word “forum” can point you to a place where people with that disability congregate.
  • Ask Reddit: If you have a very specific question, like “how would having a fake eye affect someone’s ability to go camping,” another great option is Ask Reddit, or, if you’re on a mobile device or use a screen reader, you can find an Ask Reddit for Mobile version here.

I may be late to the Reddit party, but it’s such a wealth of information. Another way to find how someone reacts to life with a disability would be the Reddit AMA’s. An AMA is short for “I am a” and is a place where people share their story and answer questions from the community.

There is a search box on Reddit, so use it to find what you need. There will be a lot of unrelated stuff to sift through, but the good stuff you will find can be extremely valuable.

(Super huge warning!!! If TV Tropes is a rabbit hole to get lost down, Reddit is a journey to the center of the Earth! It is very easy to get lost in reading Reddit that you forget why you’re there in the first place. Make sure you have a plan of action to get yourself out of Reddit’s grasp!)

Advice and Disclaimers for Researching First-Hand Accounts

In addition to the general rules of net etiquette, there are a few things to remember that will help you get the most out of your experience with someone with a disability.

  • A disability affects everyone differently.
    That question about a fake eye and camping is a real one I’ve come across. I have gone camping with my fake eye and had no problems, while others who have answered that question had major problems and wouldn’t advise doing it.
    Neither answer is an absolute. What is right for me isn’t always right for someone else. If you get different answers from different people, that’s just life.
  • Not everyone with a disability is open with strangers about their disability.
    I don’t have any problems answering questions about my disability or what caused it. My view is that I’d rather answer questions and inform people so they don’t live with the stereotypes.
    Not everyone has the same attitude I do. If someone doesn’t answer your questions, just move on and understand it’s not always personal.

If you have any questions about blindness, you can find some information on my blog. I’ll be happy to help if I can.

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Melinda Primrose is a legally blind author, mother and Pittsburgh Steelers fan, though not always in that order. You can find her at her website, where she blogs about life with blindness, among other things. She gets frustrated when she sees a person who is blind portrayed erroneously in literature, so she answers any author’s questions about blindness to help combat this.

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Melinda Primrose's blog banner

Melinda Primrose and her blog are a treasure of information for writers interested in learning more about what it means for a character if they’re blind. Her growing blog already has detailed posts about the basics of blindness for authors, the intricacies of walking while blind, and the reading options available to those who are blind.

In addition, she’s happy to take questions from authors through her blog or Twitter!

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Thank you, Melinda! This is great advice for researching many character-related elements, not just disabilities. I’d never thought about forums or Reddit for information (and like I mentioned above, I just recently discovered the great Writing with Color and Diversity Cross-Check resources), so there are more researching options than ever before. *smile*

As Melinda said, our first step should be figuring out how our character fits into the story. This step helps us avoid clichés and tropes for any diverse aspect.

For example, with few exceptions, a character’s diverse aspect shouldn’t be treated as a character flaw because character flaws are personality aspects that a character can “fix.” A clichéd trope is to have a character “overcome” their disability the same way they’d overcome being, say, selfish, but for most stories, disabilities (or other diverse aspects) would be character traits similar to eye color, not flaws to overcome.

Like Tracy’s advice on Tuesday to complete premise-level research first, Melinda’s tip to research the basics online will help us prevent issues with stereotypes and believability. That step of learning what we can on our own comes with additional bonuses too.

It can be scary enough to approach people in real-life for any kind of research (at least for introverts like me), but it’s especially hard if we’re worried about offending someone with our questions. Learning the basics first through the power of Google will also help us approach potential first-hand account sources with respect. In other words, these steps can help us ask more intelligent and non-offensive questions, no matter the type of diversity we have in our story.

But above all, remember Melinda’s final piece of advice about how a disability (or other diverse aspect) will affect everyone differently. We need to be true to our characters because their experiences will be unique, and hopefully these tips will help us write realistic and three-dimensional characters who will capture our readers’ imaginations. *smile*

Have concerns about “getting things wrong” held you back from writing diverse characters? Did this post help you know how to overcome those worries? If you’ve written characters with diverse aspects, do you have other tips for how to research and/or write characters beyond our experiences? Have you written a character with a disability? If you’ve hit walls in trying to research a disability, leave the details in the comments and Melinda will see what she can do to point you in a helpful direction!

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27 Comments below - Time to Add your own.

Carradee November 13, 2014 at 8:15 am

I’m one of those classic “But you don’t look sick!” cases, whose list of problems actually tends to make people go O.O and wonder how I live. I live fine. I dare not go hiking (yet…I might be able to do that again soon), entering a fragrance store would be downright stupid of me, and eating at a restaurant is unwise (and risky), but those aren’t necessary to live.

I not infrequently experience comments along the lines of “Oh, you’re young and healthy. You can stand for a few hours/walk a few miles/cut through the grass while wearing sandals.”

No, I actually can’t. Not unless I want to be ill for a day or three—and I’m even much improved over how I was! A year ago, I couldn’t even walk a mile without needing a nap immediately and feeling ill for the next few days.

But my own situation means an unusually high % of my characters have allergies, intolerances, dermatitis—conditions I’m familiar with. I make sure that my fantasy and sci-fi setups have downsides, aspects to them that cause problems. And, though I don’t include as many disabilities as I’d like (yet), I do have characters—major ones, even!—with handicaps, some of them severe.

For instance, my epic fantasy world has a short story featuring a mute girl. I didn’t want to reinforce the “all muteness = aphonia” trope, but with my character setup, she had to be completely without voice. No complaints yet.

That same world, one of the significant helps-save-the-day characters is a pretty much blind albino. (He also is intersex, but the narrator of the book he’s appeared in either doesn’t know that or doesn’t think about it.)

There’s a boy with a heart condition that’s going to kill him young. There’s a man with a leg shriveled by polio (and is very grateful that he can walk with only a staff + pain). There’s a girl allergic to peat moss (which is commonly used for medical treatment in her region). One woman has some digestive issues and doesn’t know what causes them (gluten intolerance and bile reflux), and another woman has an extremely limited diet + is a picky eater atop that.

And that’s not including the other story worlds, which have characters with things like degenerative disorders and cluster migraines and celiac disease and rice intolerance… 🙂

I still want to work more asthma and glasses into my work, since those are so common in real life, but I’m not shoehorning them in. If they fit, they fit. If not… *shrug*

I know one thing I’ve had to consider while writing is that disabilities do “affect everyone differently”. It can be tough to get past the fear of offending someone because they think you’re making light of a condition when you’re actually giving the character a legitimate (albeit uncommon) variant. I’ve helped myself get past that by reminding myself that EVERYTHING ticks SOMEONE off.

My characters with less-debilitating-than-most versions of conditions also tend to be aware of that and to be thankful for it (as in the case of the guy with the polio leg who can still walk).

Reply

Melinda Primrose November 13, 2014 at 9:02 am

Hi Carradee,
Thanks for the comment! I know what you mean about not looking sick. I don’t always use my white cane if I’m with my family. They’ve lived with my condition from the beginning and know what I need in a sighted guide. I’m told that we get weird looks sometimes when we park in handicapped spots and I get out without the cane.
So true about offending people. I’m struggling with that right now in my current WIP. I’m afraid the way one of my fantasy races talks will be offensive to some.
I think it’s a good idea not to shoehorn in something like asthma or glasses. If it fits in, that’s good, but making it fit in is where I’ve seen the most tropes and the most harm done.
Thanks for sharing your thoughts!
Melinda

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Jami Gold November 13, 2014 at 10:20 am

Hi Melinda,

Great point! Yes, shoehorning something in is often a good way to cause problems. That can be said for many aspects of writing. 🙂 Thanks so much for the great post!

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Jami Gold November 13, 2014 at 10:17 am

Hi Carradee,

“I’ve helped myself get past that by reminding myself that EVERYTHING ticks SOMEONE off.”

Ha! And true. One of my characters experiences a major, trigger-worthy trauma during the story, and yet that’s not a defining moment for her. I know some readers will think I’m making light of her experience, but I’m not–she is. She makes a choice to see her survival as the point.

So I guess my take is that there’s not a “wrong” way to do it as long as we’re avoiding stereotypes. If something is true for a fully developed character, that’s what we should listen to. 🙂 Thanks for sharing!

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Carradee November 14, 2014 at 5:53 am

I’m unconvinced that we necessarily need to avoid stereotypes altogether. They do exist for a reason. But if we use stereotypes, there should be good reason for them.

Personally, I tend to start from the premise that anybody who’s precisely a stereotype is actually wearing that façade intentionally. There’s one character who died in book 1 that resented the narrator. It’s only now, in book 5 (which is taking place 20 years before book 1), that readers are finding out why…and feeling sorry for her.

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Jami Gold November 14, 2014 at 9:18 am

Hi Carradee,

Very true! I worded that poorly–especially as I’ve said before that if we tried to avoid every stereotype, cliche, etc., we wouldn’t have anything left to write. LOL! The point, as you said, is to do them well. 🙂

On Twitter, I mentioned last week that my NaNo WIP has a dream/flashback and a “waking up” scene near the beginning of the book, even though those are all cliches, because that’s what is right for the story. 😀 And your example is a great one too — Are the characters hiding behind a stereotype on purpose?

We often can add a twist to a stereotype or cliche to make them unique and add to the story rather than just being lazy. And I think that’s the point here, to be purposeful about what we write and why. 🙂 Thanks for sharing that great point!

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Alica Mckenna-Johnson November 13, 2014 at 9:56 am

Thank you for the wonderful advice! I love to write diverse characters, and I do my research- and it is always wonderful to have new resources 🙂

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Jami Gold November 13, 2014 at 10:22 am

Hi Alica,

I know! I love finding new resources. 🙂 Thanks for stopping by!

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Melinda Primrose November 13, 2014 at 12:45 pm

Hi Alica,
I’m a resource horder myself. Thank goodness for bookmarks! Glad you enjoyed the post.
Melinda

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Frances Brown w/a Claire Gem November 13, 2014 at 12:19 pm

Great blog, Jami. I just finished writing a women’s fiction about a character who loses her hearing midway through her life. I had to do tons of research, even for just the simple things. But I did have one advantage – hearing loss runs in my family, and my brother has two children who are profoundly deaf. I’m slowly losing my own hearing, so I understand the frustration of someone who was born without the disability, but is having to adjust to the handicap later in life.
Very informative post. Thanks!

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Melinda Primrose November 13, 2014 at 12:49 pm

Hi Frances,
It’s interesting to me to see how a handicap influences people differently whether they were born with it or it came later in life. I have a few friends who ar blind from birth and their experience is very different from mine.
I’m sorry to hear about your hearing loss. My advice is don’t let it define you. I’ll be cheering for your success!
Melinda

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Jami Gold November 13, 2014 at 1:06 pm

Hi Frances,

Great point! The experiences of a first-hand source (or a character) born with a characteristic might be very different from those of someone who has to adjust later. Yet another reason we have to keep our character’s specific situation in mind. 🙂 Thanks for sharing!

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Widdershins November 13, 2014 at 4:36 pm

To all writers, and everyone else … pleasepleaseplease avoid the cliche/trope of the disabled person as ‘inspirational’.
I call it the ‘What Katy Did’ trap.
Katy Carr is 12 yo and always getting into trouble. She falls and injures her spine and becomes patient and kind and beloved by all.
There are so many things wrong with this trope that it beggars the mind.

(The ‘What Katy Did’ books were written in 1872 by Sarah Chauncey Woolsey under her pen name Susan Coolidge)

Reply

Jami Gold November 13, 2014 at 5:07 pm

Hi Widdershins,

Agreed! We see that same basic trope used with many different diverse aspects. When we break it down to the idea that one character exists just to make everyone else look better or learn something, we see the same stereotype with the “magical negro” trope. Those characters aren’t allowed to have their own goals or needs–they’re just there to make other characters more complete. Gah.

Yeah, don’t get me started. LOL! Thanks for the comment!

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Kitt Crescendo November 13, 2014 at 8:02 pm

It’s strange… There are times that I don’t even realize that I’m reading an interracial storyline until I look at the cover. It’s not because the author does a poor job in describing the characters, but rather I get more caught up in the emotion of the story. Deep down in my subconscious I think I know, but because I grew up as a mixed race child, myself, I don’t always register that it’s supposed to be a big deal. Does that even make sense?

And you’re right…. Leaving diversity out of a storyline, especially considering the melting pot we live in, is not very believable.

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Jami Gold November 13, 2014 at 8:44 pm

Hi Kitt,

I grew up in a school where I was the minority, and I never realized I had an “unusual” experience until others pointed it out later, so I understand. To me, my friends were just my friends.

It shouldn’t be a big deal to have the same kind of diversity in our books that we have in real life, but I know trying to get things “right” can be intimidating. Hopefully, resources for how to be smart about including that aspect of reality will help make it a normal part of our writing. 🙂 Thanks for the comment!

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Julie Glover November 14, 2014 at 12:48 pm

What a great topic! Someone in my family is a Type I diabetic, and I go a little crazy when I see how some fiction poorly portrays diabetes. I’ve sometimes wondered if an author or actor has ever actually known someone with lifelong diabetes or been around someone in insulin shock. Anyway, my two cents on the issue.

I’m glad you covered this topic so well. Thanks!

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Jami Gold November 14, 2014 at 1:02 pm

Hi Julie,

Thanks for sharing your example! It’s good for people to recognize that there are many types of disabilities, as that helps point out why it’s so unrealistic to never portray them in our stories. I’m so glad I could bring Melinda here to help us address this issue. 🙂 Thanks for stopping by!

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