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 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.
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!Pin It