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November 13, 2014

Diversity in Writing: Researching Characters — Guest: Melinda Primrose

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*

*****

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.

*****

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.

*****

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!

*****

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 on "Diversity in Writing: Researching Characters — Guest: Melinda Primrose"

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[…] Today I’m guest posting over at Jami Gold’s blog. You can find the three steps to researching a character with a disability here […]

Carradee
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… Read more »
Melinda Primrose

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

Alica Mckenna-Johnson

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 🙂

Melinda Primrose

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

Frances Brown w/a Claire Gem

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!

Melinda Primrose

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

Widdershins

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)

Kitt Crescendo

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.

Julie Glover

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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[…] Diversity in Writing: Researching Characters – post by Jami Gold and guest Melinda Primrose. Good stuff! […]

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[…] My current historical mystery has a blind character so I found this post about writing disabled characters very interesting. Click here. […]

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[…] write it because I wanted to make sure that what I wanted to discuss would be worthwhile. She had a guest post on her blog that drew my attention to the possibilities of characters with disability. The guest, […]

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[…] authors like myself can research and add diversity to our stories, but in a perfect (or perhaps, fair) world, the voices of diverse authors would be louder when it […]

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[…] write it because I wanted to make sure that what I wanted to discuss would be worthwhile. She had a guest post on her blog that drew my attention to the possibilities of characters with disability. The guest, […]

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[…] Research, Research: To eliminate stereotypes that creep in without us knowing, we should research any history, religious beliefs, cultural or societal issues, current status, notable updates or […]

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[…] discussed before the role research plays in writing about settings we’re not familiar with or characters different from ourselves, so there’s no reason to avoid writing about things we don’t know—yet. […]

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[…] type of stories we write, we often have to do research. Maybe we have to research the setting, the characters, or a situation, such as legal information for a character’s job or a story premise. Or maybe […]

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