Thursday, July 05, 2012

10 Things Fiction Writers Need to Remember About Disability (1-5)

1. Disabled characters can be at the centre of stories which aren't all about disability.

I made a very similar point in my 10 Things...About Sexuality only it is even rarer to read stories with disabled protagonists which aren't all about disability. This despite the fact that there are so few good stories all about disability. In fact, I'm not sure I can think of any good stories where disability is the main event, although there are a fair number of rubbish stories which use disability as a grand metaphor, either for the challenges of life, or else mortality and the fragility of all things. Funnily enough, there's nothing metaphorical about our lives.

Disabled characters can be at the centre of brilliant stories because disabled characters are people. It's a matter of Why not? There are stories where the protagonist couldn't be a wheelchair user, or has to be a fluent reader, or has to great in social situations, or has to be in good physical health. But there aren't many stories which require a protagonist to be non-disabled. I'm not suggesting that writers should ever consider a character and think, "Would this still work if we gave this guy a limp?"  Over the last fifty years we've seen a massive shift in writers of film especially, but also books, no longer assuming a protagonist has to be a straight white man (although in films and many genres of literature, most of them still are). We simply need to add non-disabled to the trashcan of default settings that need not apply. 

Consider the history of detective fiction. If you think about all the fictional detectives from Sherlock Holmes, through Miss Marple, Lord Peter Wimsey, Philip Marlow, Maigret, Falco, Inspector Morse, Columbo, Adam Dalgleish, Cadfael, Rebus, Wallander, back round to Sherlock again, and the hundreds of others - I could probably name a hundred fictional detectives myself and this is by no means a specialist subject of mine. I can think of two disabled detectives; Ironside and Saga Norén from
The Bridge, who has Asperger's (some people argue Holmes has Asperger's, but only the sort of people who think a logical mind minus a complicated love life equals a diagnosis). There are almost certainly more, but why aren't there a dozen? The role of the detective lends itself perfectly well to a person in middle-age, who has lived a little, and maybe got sick or injured or traumatised in the process, or fought their way through in the face of some impairment which caused others to doubt them. A bit of an outsider looking in. Maybe someone with time on their hands. Someone who, like Miss Marple, Lord Peter Wimsey, Cadfael and others, is mistakenly presumed to be harmless and so allowed to observe people with their guard down. That's us

And, after all

2. Disability can be part of the plot of great stories. 

There's no argument that disability can't be part of the plot of really good stories which aren't all about disability. Rear Window is a smashing story about a man stuck in one place (although in the 1954 original, James Stewart's character had only broken his leg, there was a later version starring the quadriplegic Christopher Reeve). One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest is about the mechanics of oppression. Skallagrigg and to a far more tedious extent Avatar are about the transcendence of physical limitations through technology. Covering several decades in the life of his protagonist, Ira Socol's novel The Drool Room marries this and the above point together; the significance, sometimes dominance of disability over the narrator's life and therefore the story ebbs and flows. Which is how it often is. 

In these stories, disability is not a metaphor or a symbol. It is a real thing, which leaves Jeff stuck in one place, watching events that would otherwise be ignored. It places Chief and the others under the total power of Nurse Ratched. It provides young people with the pressing need to find avenues of escape, to carve out their own, unprejudiced world. It makes a grown man want to turn into a big blue giant - and who amongst us can say we haven't felt the same?

In common with most disabled people, disability is at the very most a small feature of some of the dramatic or interesting stories of my life. The story of my impairment isn't very interesting. The story of my coming to terms with it is long and tedious - although a little CGI might raise it a notch above Avatar. But I have lots of other stories to tell. We all have lots of other stories to tell.

3. People with long-term impairments or chronic illness are not fascinated by their own condition or their own symptoms.

I once read a thriller where the hero ex-cop turned vaguely defined bodyguard/ private investigator/ hunk for hire had arthritis. Kudos for having a youngish physically active man with a condition associated with old age. However, during lulls in the plot, the hero would contemplate the morbidity rates for arthritis in the US. Seriously - not just, "Arthritis is a common condition which, contrary to stereotypes, effects both young and old." but "He knew that 1 in [however many] Americans has arthritis, of which 1 in [however many] are under forty. It effects men and women by a ratio of [whatever]." and went on like that.

The only lay people who know these kinds of stats are people who have recently researched a condition, happened to remember a statistic that surprised them or someone actively involved in campaigning or research of some kind. Despite its many faults, Rain Man had a rare character who thought and talked a lot about statistics in a way that made sense, but most people (including most autistic people) are not like that.

For most people with a chronic condition, so much medical information becomes deeply deeply tedious. We hear or read it over and over and, beyond that initial period of relief (oh, thank god, it does have a name!), understanding and adjustment, it becomes just a lot of facts that affect us directly, but which we have no power over.

Similarly, most people who have lived with a condition for more than a few years are decidedly disinterested in their symptoms. Reading the blogs of disabled people provides a good demonstration of this. People who think and talk about their health a lot are people who
  • Haven't had these impairments very long (a few years or less)
  • Haven't had this diagnosis long, or are still looking for a diagnosis
  • Are in some kind of crisis with their health or with other people in relation to their health (discrimination, benefit or insurance problems).
  • Have obstacles to talking openly about their health to most people in their lives, e.g. they have a highly stigmatised condition, they have something difficult to vent about 
  • Want to raise awareness, advocate for research etc. or 
  • Don't have much else going on in their lives (I don't meant that in a derogatory way; some people are so ill, illness is all that's going on). 
I have been ill for sixteen years. If someone asked me to list all my symptoms, I wouldn't have a hope - I don't think about them and if I were to think about them, there are many things I'd forget because this is just normal for me. I have heard and read various stats about my condition in many different and sometimes dramatic contexts, but I can't remember any of them.

However, if my health gets worse, and especially if it deteriorates in a way that frightens me, then I become an expert in my body and illness and notice things which have nothing to do with anything.

If a double amputee wakes up and notices that the duvet is flat at the end of the bed where their feet used to be, there's got to be some reason. If they lost their legs ten years ago, came to terms with it, moved on to a full and happy life, then it's probably the writer, rather than the character, who is noticing.

4. Disabled people are not all young, white, straight, affluent men.

Although the vast majority of disabled people in fiction are. It's as if identity is a cub scout uniform but with very limited room for the badges - one, two, maybe three if you sew them on right close to one another. People joke about "disabled black lesbians" as if they simply don't exist (I know three), and writers write as if it is impossible to be a member of an ethnic minority and disabled, or gay and disabled. It's fairly rare they manage female and disabled, and disabled women make up a little below ten percent of the population. 

We're all used to the identity stuff,  but the affluence one is quite weird. While there's one cultural stereotype that says disabled people are universally poor, unemployed and dependent on the charity of others, this only applies in fiction if the disabled person is a relative of a main character - a burden on the main character, to provide crises and obligations. Such disabled characters are generally not complete characters in their own right, more obstinate scenery or yet another human metaphor. 

When a disabled person is a character in their own right, writers usually sweep away all that disability is expensive and an obstacle to financial success reality and make them rich. Sometimes filthy rich, as if to make some vaguely ironic point, "Well, they're rich and powerful, but what use is that when they can't walk up stairs?"  This is especially the case with disabled villains, everyone from Mr Potts to Blofeld, but it's also the case with many of the minority of disabled good guys, like Professor Xaviar, who happens to have inherited a fortune. 

My current favourite disabled villain is Mr Gold, a.k.a Rumplestiltskin in Once Upon a Time, which I'm loving and Robert Carlyle is rocking. But in that case, it makes sense he has money - he can weave straw into gold, after all! That show is so good, I'm half expecting that they'll explain his use of the cane some super way, as opposed to the obvious and somewhat disappointing, He uses a cane so we all know he's sinister.

On which subject...

5. Disabled people go bad for a reason.

As you may have gathered, I don't have a problem with the fictional archetype of the disabled villain. But only proper honest megalomaniacs or their imposing henchman - disabled creeps are a horrible and fairly hateful stereotype. [major plot spoiler until the end of paragraph] For example, The Da Vinci Code features not one but two murderous disabled creeps; self-mutilating religious zealot Silas, whose Albinism is made much of (though strangely no evidence of visual impairment) and the irreligious zealot Teabing, who has post polio syndrome and uses a cane. It's all about symbols, apparently.

Another horrible example from film in recent years is a character played by Mackenzie Crook in City of Ember, who is introduced by his limping gait and proceeds to be the creepiest creep you ever had the displeasure of being creeped out by - in a children's film. For children. At least few of who will walk just like that.

Ian Fleming had the hang of this. If you're non-verbal, a snappy dresser and have good aim, or if you're extremely tall and ate so many Jelly Babies that your teeth have had to be replaced with stainless steel, then what are you going to do? It's either henching or B&Q, and henchmen get to travel the world.

The need for motivation applies especially to villainous characters with mental ill health. Cases where an illness, in the absence of any other factor, makes a person do very bad things are fantastically rare in reality, but pandemic in fiction. And it's a cop-out - I have read too many detective novels (I could stop that sentence there, but I won't) where I'd been weighing up the motives and opportunities of the suspects for three hundred pages, only to find out it was someone without any motive except that they're a little bit bonkers - indicated by a sudden change in character, or the chance discovery of a shrine to Justin Bieber in their potting shed. 

Given the tremendous and sometimes deadly stigma experienced by people with mental ill health - especially scary diagnoses like schizophrenia - writers have a pressing responsibility to get this stuff straight. Not that people with mental ill health aren't capable of doing very bad things, but it has to make some kind of sense.   A diagnosis is never a motive for murder or megalomania.

See also, s.e.smith's recent post Writing the Other


L capitan said...

AWESOME post! Of some relevance to point #4: July is National Minority Mental Health Month... I wonder if there will be some awesome fiction floating around in July that focuses on non-whites with disabilities...!

Katja said...

Another main character (policeman) with a disability in stories that do not revolve around his disability: Ian Rutledge, in the Charles Todd novels, has PTSD and auditory hallucinations.

I'll probably think of some others later...

Andrea S. said...

Yes! This! And THIS! And THIS!

Lois McMaster Bujold is good at incorporating disabled characters into her stories--including as main characters! -- without making them "all about disability." They're simply people first and foremost. And yes, the disability usually matters and does shape their lives and characters in important ways. But many OTHER things that have nothing to do with disability *also* shape their lives and characters in important ways.

Check out her Miles Vorkosigan series (sci fi) and the Sharing Knife series (fantasy).

Thanks for the links to "Writing the Other" which also looks helpful.

Maija Haavisto said...

I've written a trilogy of cripfic novels (fiction about people with disabilities) and the disability is central in the stories. I felt that was something missing in Finnish literature and literature in general. Of course the novels also tackle other themes and topics besides disability.

Part #1 of the trilogy (published in late 2011) had otherness as the theme, part #2 was about life being on hold and #3 was about shame and secrets - all concepts that are familiar to most people, whether disabled or not, and explored both from the perspective of disability and other perspectives.

My next novel will be about fears, some of which could also be considered disabilities (being severe enough that they restrict everyday life) while others are more universal (like the fear of death). It has become difficult to write stories where no disabilities are involved! Probably because most of my friends are disabled in some way, so it feels like the norm instead of a "niche".

I've written an essay/article about writing disability fiction titled The Cripfic Manifesto, which was recently published in Breath & Shadow.

Matthew Smith said...

About the disabled character going bad meme, there was a disabled man in EastEnders who had a long-term girlfriend in Libby, one of the few genuinely nice characters in the whole soap. His time in the soap ended when he cheated on Libby by demanding sex from another female character in return for helping her with her exams, then when found out, accusing Libby of being his girlfriend only out of pity for his disability. This was completely out of character. I suspect the purpose was to puncture any sympathy for him so they could write him out of the show. Maybe they also wanted to demonstrate that (some) disabled men could have sex, but there were other ways that could be done.

Maija Haavisto said...

I wonder what happened to my long comment?

Anne said...

Lord Peter Wimsey had PTSD after WW1 - it's part of who he is but I think Sayers handles it well, better than many more recent novelists.

Anonymous said...

In addition to Ian Rutledge and Lord Peter Wimsey, there's another detective with PTSD after WWI: John Madden in Rennie Airth's dark, convoluted, brilliant crime trilogy: River of Darkness, The Blood-Dimmed Tide, and The Dead of Winter.

The Goldfish said...

Thanks everyone for the recommendations of disabled detectives! I have read Dorothy L. Sayers (not all, but quite a few) and somehow missed the PTSD. Must have been a while.

@Maijai - sorry, the spam filter ate your first comment, but sent it to my inbox anyway, so I thought it had published! Great to hear about your fiction. :-)

Anonymous said...

There’s private investigator Vicki Nelson in Tanya Huff’s Blood Book series who has retinopathia pigmentosa. Mind you, eventually she gets turned into a vampire, which clears up the eye problem 

John Gale said...

Thanks for this! For anyone who loves the Kai Lung books, I want to mention that Ernest Bramah also wrote stories about blind detective Max Carrados. Although these stories are a textbook example of the "disabled person develops near-magical compensating abilities" genre, they are entertaining, well-written, and based on actual people that Bramah knew. said...

Really enjoyed this, though think you're making some generalizations that could actually harm disAbled peoples' process.

Some of us Do study our *acquired* impairments especially when disAbility itself is characterized as being something only horrible in the communities in which we come from. Know when i got my brain injury, i had to research it to better adapt & coexist to my "non-disAbled" surroundings. Too i had to do a great deal of educating others - so that i became something of a detective otherwise my accommodations wouldn't happen (with both disAbled & non-disAbled peoples)...

Janelle Fila said...

The fact that there are few female disabled main characters stuck with me. It motivates me to write an awesome story about a kickass woman who doesn't focus on her disability but the story she has to tell. Thanks for the direction!