[personal profile] rj_anderson
I was reading a MG fantasy novel last weekend which I quite enjoyed. It had nice solid worldbuilding, a dynamic and resourceful MC, an interesting cast of supporting characters, and the stakes and dangers were high enough to keep the tension going. I was quite impressed with it overall, and became even more so when a new character appeared on the scene who had a disability and used a wheelchair.

Huzzah, I thought to myself. Well done, author! This lady is attractive, likable, vibrant, talented, holds a position of authority and respect, and even turns out to be the love interest of my favorite supporting character in the book! I look forward to getting to know her and seeing more of the two of them together, and watching this romance continue to develop.

Except.

My first impression of this character as healthy and energetic soon turned out to be wrong. She was in fact suffering from a degenerative disease which was slowly and painfully consuming her and would eventually result in her death.

So once again, as so often seems to happen in children's fiction, the character with a disability is portrayed as frail, sickly, and unable to live a full life. An object of pity, rather than a person with whom the non-disabled reader can identify.

That being said, degenerative diseases certainly do happen, and it would be unreasonable to insist that this aspect of life not be represented in fiction. But still, I began to have some misgivings about where the book was headed. I could only hope that, having introduced us to this lovely character, the author was not planning to have her die in the course of the story just for the purpose of adding emotional drama to the plot?

Alas, my hopes were vain. Not only did this character die shortly thereafter, she actually killed herself prematurely so that her lover would no longer be obligated to stay with her, and could then go after and rescue the book's young heroine -- a girl she barely knew, but who was clearly (as far as the plot and other characters were concerned) More Important than herself.

Which was the point where I put down the book and said, loudly and distinctly, "WHAT."

Why, why, WHY do we do this as authors? There are so few characters with a disability in children's literature as it stands, and so few are portrayed with any kind of vibrancy and power, why introduce one just to kill her off (worse, have her kill herself off) just so your central characters can have a bit more angst and interpersonal conflict for a while? I don't even have a disability, and for me the book was spoiled right there -- how much worse would it be for some unsuspecting reader who does have a disability?

Please, let's stop writing characters with disabilities as though they're all doomed to suffer nobly and die tragically, unable to marry or have families. That's what Madeline L'Engle did with the character of Matthew Maddox in A Swiftly Tilting Planet, and though I greatly respect L'Engle as an author, it angered and frustrated me that she would treat my favorite character in the whole book that way.

Let's also stop using disability as a metaphor for ugliness and deformity of spirit -- I could write a whole rant about the handling of Dean Priest in L.M. Montgomery's Emily books, but of course there are even more obvious ones like Captain Hook in Peter Pan.

Let's stop "rewarding" protagonists who have disabilities by having them magically cured once their quest is achieved* -- thus sending the message that those who have not experienced such a magical cure are inferior and unworthy, or have not yet experienced some needed epiphany in life. Kitkryan's post Dear Author, Please Don't Heal Me shows the response of one reader with a disability to a recent and popular YA novel in which a magical healing takes place, and it makes this point far better than I could.

And let's also try to steer our way between the Scylla of the angry, bitter person with a disability who has to be helped out of it by someone who is not disabled** and the Charybdis of the saintly, sunny person with a disability who acts as an Inspiration To Us All.

There are of course some wonderful exceptions out there -- characters with disabilities who learn to work with and around them to accomplish meaningful things; who experience natural disappointment, grief and even depression over their disability at times but manage to get past it without turning into marble saints; who love and are loved (romantically and sexually, even!); who play sports and drive vehicles and fight for accessibility and do all the things that real people with disabilities do every day. But there need to be more such characters.

And there need to be a lot fewer characters like the one I encountered in the book I read this weekend, who seem to exist only as props to be used to arouse the reader's and their fellow characters' pity before being tossed away.

***

I welcome your comments on this subject, especially from readers with experience of disability. I'd be particularly interested to hear what books you've read that contained good, well-rounded, interesting, dynamic portrayals of characters with disabilities. Tell me a little about the characters involved, and let me know why they are great!


--
* I have made this careless mistake myself, in a fanfic where I allowed my heroine to be (magically) cured of her (magically induced) blindness. I regret it, and would write those stories differently now.

** I've done this too to some extent in Faery Rebels: Spell Hunter, though I hope that it does not come across quite as one-sided and obnoxious as that. And I hope that future developments with that character also helped to mitigate it. But I am willing to be called out and corrected on this point by those with personal experience of disability, and to learn to do better in future.
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Date: 2010-05-11 03:41 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile] imaginarycircus.livejournal.com
Because Medusa's blood was both healing and poisonous in Greek myth I'm using that in my novel. But the healing comes at a terrible price and effectively ruins that person's life.

Date: 2010-05-11 02:07 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] rj-anderson.livejournal.com
That sounds interesting. And I'm not saying that magical healings should never take place in fiction, ever. But I think that the author needs to be aware of what they're doing and why, and also be prepared to address the negative implications of that choice as well as the positive ones. Because so often it does seem to be done simply to "reward" the MC and make non-disabled readers feel more happy and comfortable with that character. And neither of those are good enough reasons.

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Date: 2010-05-11 03:45 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile] mary-j-59.livejournal.com
Good post. There are two books I'd like to recommend, one fantasy, and one not. The first is The Treasure of Green Knowe, by one of my all-time favorite writers, L.M. Boston. The second is Allison McGhee's Falling Boy. I asked my friend Dave (who is wheelchair-bound) to read Falling Boy, because I wanted the pov of a disabled youth on the book, and he liked it - I think, nearly as much as I do. His review is on the library blog.

I'll be very interested to read other comments on your post, and I can certainly see why you were disappointed with that book!

Date: 2010-05-11 10:16 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile] dichroic.livejournal.com
Another interesting one is Harding's Luck, by E. Nesbit. It's true that Dickie, who is lame, chooses in the end not to be crippled - but it's a *difficult* choice, and that's not the major factor in the decision at all. It's some consolation to him that the life he chooses is a beautiful one in a sound body, but he's leaving people he loves and giving up a lot out of pure nobility. (Sorry for the spoiler, but the book is a hundred years old, after all.)

Also, I'm not convinced that your Maud is quite hte same thing. As you say, her blindness was deliberately caused by magic, so it's reasonable to cure it the same way. And I don't think she gets much in the end that she wouldn't have gotten anyway.

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Date: 2010-05-11 04:37 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile] shoebox2.livejournal.com
Excellent essay... albeit I'm not quite getting the rage against Dean Priest, who is psychically twisted because he's physically so, not the other way around (as per, say Shakespeare's Richard III).
As you say, if there is going to be realism around this issue it must be admitted that sometimes disability does deform the spirit -- with the inevitable corollary that some are not going to overcome that. It's very plausible that Dean's acute awareness of his limitations should make him bitter with it, especially around a beautiful young girl. :)

I think -- carrying on from the above -- it must be a very difficult thing, to write a disabled character so that their disability is truly a non-issue, especially in the realm of fantasy/adventure. While I do wholeheartedly agree that the melodramatic extremes you quote above are flat-out silly, I'm not so sure that the search for a middle ground is quite that cut-n-dried.

Realistically, if you're introducing a disabled character, you're consciously limiting them in some way. Ergo, you must demonstrate either how they overcome their limitations, or how they... well, don't. And that's inevitably going to be at least a little bit dramatic, and the temptation to use that within the story nigh-on overwhelming.

Instantly, you're looking at a minefield of offensive implications -- but if you're going to insist that your characters are real people, you can't insist that there's a right and a wrong way to write them, because that makes them cliches before you've even started. Let them behave as real people would, by all means; assuming that real people are complicated, and sometimes behave in ways that are not the ways the group would like to be represented.
Edited Date: 2010-05-11 05:11 am (UTC)

Date: 2010-05-11 02:32 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] rj-anderson.livejournal.com
I'm not quite getting the rage against Dean Priest, who is psychically twisted because he's physically so

But how is that any less offensive, to say that someone is psychologically twisted because of their physical disability? And in any case, it seems like a chicken-egg scenario. Which came first in Montgomery's mind, Dean's physical disability or his flawed psyche? We don't know.

In any case, my rage isn't against Dean, it's on his behalf. If Montgomery had written him as a less compelling character, I wouldn't have come to care as much about him as I did. A near-miss can be more infuriating than a complete fail -- and it certainly was in this case, because as soon as he appeared on the scene I thought fatalistically, "Well, I like this guy a lot, but it's no good hoping he and Emily will get together. Not only because he's so much older, but because he has a physical disability and we all know that characters with disabilities never get to be the love interest, especially in older novels." And then his friendship with Emily developed to the place where I started to think, "Seriously, L.M. Montgomery? Are you going to go there? Because if you do you will be my favorite author EVER."

And then it turns out (SPOILERS HO) that his hunched back has twisted his soul and made him grasping and selfish, so that he could not bear to admit that Emily's book was any good because it might mean she loved something more than him. And therefore he does the spectacularly appalling thing of lying to her about whether her book is any good or not, and ultimately manipulating her into becoming engaged to him out of pity and despair, because by that point her dreams are crushed and she believes she has no chance at anything "better".

And therein lies my RAGE. Especially considering that the boy Emily chooses in the end, Teddy, has all the personality and depth of overcooked pasta. I didn't feel that Dean's behavior to Emily really grew organically and naturally out of his character. I felt it was a cheap and rather horrible way to get rid of the Imperfect Guy so Emily could have the (boringly) Perfect Guy.

Yes, it is true that some people never get over the bitterness of having a disability, and that the experience of disability can change some people for the worse, just as it changes some for the better (or just plain changes them, period). But when you have so VERY few representations of people with disabilities in literature, there is a far greater danger that any one representation will be taken as expressive of the whole.

What I want to know is, how many girls over the years have read the EMILY series and come away with the subconscious impression that it's better not to get romantically involved with a man who has a disability, because people with disabilities are prone to become grasping and selfish and needy? How many of these girls ever, in the entire rest of their lives, read a book in which a character with a disability was a fully rounded and sympathetically portrayed individual, who -- despite any number of realistic flaws, such as all good characters should possess -- could earn, and keep, the love of a non-disabled character? Because there are so incredibly few of those books around, and the likelihood of stumbling across one if you don't actively seek it out is almost vanishingly small.

I'm not advocating that authors make all their characters with disabilities into paragons of virtue. Therein lies Tiny Tim and another cliche which is just as obnoxious. What I am advocating is more and wider representations of character with disabilities, and for authors to stop carelessly demonizing such characters by associating physical disability with outright villainy.

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Date: 2010-05-11 05:42 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile] alawston.livejournal.com
Even as a kid, I was struck (and 'struck' is the right word, I really can't remember whether I thought it was a good thing or not, but it stayed with me after the end of the novel) by the end of Roald Dahl's The Witches, where the closing chapters of the book revolve around making the hero's house [wheelchair] mouse-friendly and the hero coming to terms with the fact that he and his grandmother will be dead within the next eight years.

Date: 2010-05-11 02:39 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] rj-anderson.livejournal.com
Wait, am I getting this right -- the mouse is in a wheelchair? And there are mouse-wheelchair accessibility issues to be overcome? Because if so, I am more in awe of Roald Dahl's imagination than ever.

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spoilers for MWT's Thief series

Date: 2010-05-11 05:54 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile] elvenjaneite.livejournal.com
Excellent thoughts. I may come back when I'm less sleepy, but I think that both magically healing characters and treating physical and spiritual disability as the same thing does a huge disservice to author, story, and reader.

I feel like I always use these books as an example, but I know you'll know what I'm talking about, and it fits so fine, here we go. One of the things that I loved about QoA is the fact that Gen doesn't get his hand back. He has to come to terms with the fact that what's done is done, even for the gods. And he does. And he's still an awesome character. And (interestingly, given what you said about Matthew Maddox) I find it hard to envision a scenario in which Attolia and Gen would have married without the chopping.

Re: spoilers for MWT's Thief series

Date: 2010-05-11 02:50 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] rj-anderson.livejournal.com
Gen is a brilliant example, yes. He goes through the very understandable process of mourning (or "whining" as Moira would have it) over the loss of his hand -- made all the more understandable by the fact that he's a Thief and his hands are the vital tools of his life's chosen trade. But while everybody thinks he's just moping and waiting to die, he's actually trying to re-train himself and make himself useful in a new capacity -- and then he comes back more awesome and brilliant than ever. Still having to work around his disability, still limited and frustrated by it in some respects, but at the same time capable of accomplishing more with one hand than most people could manage with two.

Which could have been dodgy if handled differently, because it might seem to imply that people with disabilities have no excuse for not being as awesome as Gen is, and if they aren't, it's because they haven't worked hard enough to overcome their physical limitations. But I don't think that the books really give that message at all. Gen is so much larger than life anyway that his physical disability serves to keep him human, and give the reader a chance to identify with his frustrations and struggles.

Re: spoilers for MWT's Thief series

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Date: 2010-05-11 12:41 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] sarah-prineas.livejournal.com
(updated 'cos I didn't like one of the terms I used)

As you know, I have a character who is in a wheelchair in MT: Lost and MT: Found, and he is strong, smart, and competent and turns out to be one of the most powerful people in the city (AND one of my best friends has been shipping him like crazy with Ro, so...).

Anyway, he's just a person with a history that happens to include a brutal attack that left him unable to walk. It doesn't mean anything beyond that. I think that's where the problem lies for you--the disability becomes symbolic in some way, which I agree can become a big problem. For me as a writer Embre's disability presents a challenge only to the extent that in the fourth book I want him out in the city protagging with Ro and have to figure out a way to do that in a city that's not exactly wheelchair-accessible.

Date: 2010-05-11 02:52 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] rj-anderson.livejournal.com
Embre is a great character, yes, and definitely not one to be pitied or looked down upon -- nor some artificial paragon, either. You know I'm a Conn/Rowan shipper, but admittedly I would not be averse to Embre/Ro either. Maybe I'll request it for Yuletide (http://www.yuletidetreasure.org/). :)

Date: 2010-05-11 12:41 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] stephanieburgis.livejournal.com
The best books I've read for this are Hilary McKay's Casson Family novels, starting with Saffy's Angel. Saffy's best friend Sarah is in a wheelchair and is AWESOME, a strong, smart person who deals with her disability but never lets it define her.

Date: 2010-05-11 02:52 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] rj-anderson.livejournal.com
Sounds delightful! I'll have to keep my eye out for those. Thanks for the recommendation! (And love the icon, BTW.)

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Date: 2010-05-11 12:51 pm (UTC)
ext_26933: (Default)
From: [identity profile] apis-mellifera.livejournal.com
The big example that comes to mind for me is Bujold. All her series feature characters who are disabled in one way or another, but I'm thinking specifically of her Sharing Knife series, where the hero has lost a hand in a battle.

Also, one could argue that Lord Peter's PTSD is a kind of disability, too.

Date: 2010-05-11 02:54 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] rj-anderson.livejournal.com
Yes! Good call on Lord Peter -- and Bujold, too. I remember Miles' and Mark's disabilities, of course, but had forgotten about Dag's hand.

Date: 2010-05-11 01:24 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] po-thang.livejournal.com
I agree that in fiction (and fanfiction) there is a tendency to make disabled persons as something to be fixed...or pitied. And there is really no reason for it. Yes, I do think that if a character is disabled there should be acknowledgment of that fact...if nothing else, in explaining how they deal with a non-disabled world.

But I think that too many people want a happy ending...and to them, healing (magically or otherwise) a disabled person is how you get to a happy ending.

I once wrote a fanfic for BtVS in which Giles ended up in a wheelchair after a gas line explosion (yes, I wanted it to be non-supernatural-related).

You would not believe how many people wanted him magically healed (I had parts of his spine crushed...no chance of walking again). And they were extremely upset when I told them that nope...he was staying that way. I also showed how he ended up dealing with his disability and having a very full and fun life (including an active sex life).

Date: 2010-05-11 02:59 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] rj-anderson.livejournal.com
I, too, have had a few complaints (particularly from younger readers) about not magically healing a character. One reviewer even declared that the book was "not a romance AT ALL" -- she didn't elaborate, but since I can't think of any other possible way in which the book is not a romance, I could only conclude that she believed my hero's spinal cord injury would prevent him from ever enjoying a full life. It saddened me to think so, but the alternative was to believe that she didn't think my heroine and hero should have got together at all because of his disability, and that's even worse.

I'll have to look these reccomends up!

Date: 2010-05-11 01:25 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] msforster.blogspot.com (from livejournal.com)
Off the top of my head I can't think of any that I've read. But I did write YA novel last year where one of my MCs was in a wheelchair. She does have a problem with shyness, but she's also funny, kind, has a photographic memory and some killer basketball skills.

I like her better than my actual, viewpoint MC, but that was semi-intentional.:)

Re: I'll have to look these reccomends up!

Date: 2010-05-11 03:00 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] rj-anderson.livejournal.com
Sounds like a great character! Thanks for commenting.

Date: 2010-05-11 01:26 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] tltrent.livejournal.com
Awesome essay. I really have nothing further to add, just wanted to say kudos for bringing this up.

Date: 2010-05-11 02:36 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] rj-anderson.livejournal.com
Thanks for reading! I'm glad you enjoyed it.

Date: 2010-05-11 03:30 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] wahlee-98.livejournal.com
Interesting discussion. In my grad-school Victorian literature class, we read several books that featured disabled characters in one way or another. One was George Elliot's The Mill on the Floss, which features a character much like Dean Priest-- someone who understands the heroine and is in many ways a good match for her, but ultimately can't have her because he's a hunchback. Another was an obscure 1800-page novel called The Pillars of the House by Charlotte Yonge, about a family of 12 orphaned children, two of whom are disabled. The most disabled (he's mentally retarded due to complications at birth) is portrayed as a bright spot in the family's lives, but is killed in an accident near the end of the novel. The other child, Geraldine, is portrayed as weak and sickly, but she's a talented artist, who achieves some measure of fame despite her disability. Of course, she never marries.

The most intriguing novel we read, though, was an equally obscure novel by Dinah Craik, called Olive: The Story of a Young Girl (http://www.gutenberg.org/etext/22121). Although we would probably define Olive's limitations as a deformity rather than a disability (she has a slight hunchback and a short neck, but her movement is not impeded), in Victorian eyes she might as well have been a Barryaran mutie. Anyway, Olive also turns to art, in some measure as a palliative against what she believes she can never have-- love and marriage. But not only does she eventually fall in love, she also gets married. Shocking! Of course, she's also Mary Sue-ishly good, but it is, after all, a Victorian novel--one must make allowances. Fascinating, though, to find such a novel written in 1850.

I seriously considered concentrating on disability studies after taking that class--in fact, one of my good friends did end up writing about disability in Victorian literature for her thesis. It's an extremely interesting subject.

Date: 2010-05-17 04:11 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] rj-anderson.livejournal.com
Wow, that's really interesting. In some ways we've come so far since the Victorian era in terms of the portrayal of people with disabilities, yet in so many other ways, not nearly far enough.

Mind you, I do think the availability of better medical care and therapy for people with disabilities has broadened the possibilities for living a full life with a disability in a way that was not so easy to do in the Victorian era, so no doubt that accounts for some of the differences as well.

Thanks for sharing your experience of taking this class and telling us about some of the books you read!

Not only medical advances

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Re: Not only medical advances

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Thanks!

Date: 2010-05-11 04:04 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] lunalila.livejournal.com
Thank you for this post and for the urge to create believable disabled characters!

I've been working with disabled kids for 10 years now and I find it really hard to find books, stories they can feel absolutely related to. In fact I started writing seriously after talking to a school teacher who said they had no material about disabled kids in their classroom. My first stories were lame, kind of poetic even, lacked conflict. Were more an account of their lives and whereabouts.

But since then, and as I do see disabled kids almost everyday in my life, I've been including them in my stories. Sometimes as main characters, sometimes as secondaries. None of them is magically healed either but he or she comes into terms with his or her abilities and limits.

In the romantic paranormal YA I'm working in right now, heroine is on a wheelchair and there she'll remain. Don't know if I'd ever get published but it won't be because I redeem my disabled characters by healing them magically :).

------------Slight Graceling spoiler----------

Thinking of the books I've read these last months, Po character from Graceling by Kristin Cashore comes to my mind. He is blinded but he gets something even cooler, the awareness of his surroundings all at once. He has to get a grasp of it, but when he does, he doesn't even seem blind. Don't know if you can count that on a disability. Haven't read Fire yet but will, soon I hope! Not sure if they do appear in the sequel though.

Also, I have to agree with Embre's character from Sarah Prineas!

Re: Thanks!

Date: 2010-05-17 04:13 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] rj-anderson.livejournal.com
Thank you for commenting! I really appreciate you weighing in on this from the perspective of someone who works with kids who have disabilities and knows the difficulty of finding good books for them. I hope to be posting a list soon of books that I have read that contain strong, nuanced, non-cliched portrayals of characters with disabilities, and I hope some day to be able to add your own WiP to that list!

Date: 2010-05-17 04:13 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] rj-anderson.livejournal.com
Thank you, Dawn!

Date: 2010-05-11 04:58 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] fabulousfrock.livejournal.com
Love this post!

I think I've talked to you about this before, but one of my own favorite characters is Alfred, who is blind. Alfred has his roots in a couple of previous characters, however. I first created a blind character when I was in my early teens (I was always thinking of ways characters could be different, being terribly in love with the outsider trope). I wasn't really that comfortable with a character actually behaving like a blind person, though. I loaded him up with magic so he could get around just fine, read print, and of course, he was even more awesome than the characters who could see. (Or he would've been if every character in the story wasn't so incredibly overpowered.) He was still a musician, though, like I couldn't think of any other job a blind person would do. I should point out that I was terrified of going blind as a little kid (thanks to a convergence of a terrible fever and an episode of Little House on the Prairie) so I think this was my way of working through that.

Not long after that, I guess awareness came with age and I started growing very concerned about how I represented my characters. I started actually doing research on things and decided this character just wasn't where I wanted to go with this. What was even the point of this guy being blind if he had so many powers? I switched over to another character, who had lost his sight in his teens and...well, I think he was a pretty good character. He was angry that he'd lost his sight, but he didn't stay stuck there, nor did he come to some amazing revelation due to a sighted person (or any person, for that matter, he had to work through it himself). He also had some compensating magic, but in some ways, it frustrated him more because people around him would say, "But you have that magic, could've been a lot worse." I wrote stories about him spanning thirty years and he eventually came to terms with his disability (mostly, but then, he was depressed even before he lost his sight), got married and had children. I loved that character, but he was not a very good YA character at all. Most of his arc happened in adulthood. (Plus he cursed like crazy...) And his life was way too boring for a fantasy book character.

Alfred happened kind of accidentally from a little side story, but I was glad he did. For one thing, all that research didn't have to go to waste... For another thing, as the blind heir to an organized crime family, he came preloaded with lots of...well, STORY. He's a dynamic character but not terribly gifted, magic-wise. But man, has it been hard to write him. It's taken a lot of tweaking of passages for me to stop getting comments from critiquers like "Why doesn't he want his sight back?" and "How does he know X happened if he's blind?" It was very frustrating because after all my research and years of writing three different blind characters, I could barely even remember what I had originally thought about blind people.

But, looking back, it was sort of like I went through these different stages of coping with a disability via my characters and my feelings about disability really changed over the years, so I hope that translates into writing better characters.

On another note, my significant other has pretty severe arthritis that goes back to his teens, and when I got together with him, and shared my writing with him, he really liked that I had blind characters in my stories who do things because he didn't see a lot of good disabled characters in stories either. Which has made me more aware of how less obvious disabilities like juvenile arthritis are almost NEVER represented. It's always the obvious sort of blind/deaf/wheelchair/missing limb. So, someday I want to write a character drawing from his experiences and broaden the field a bit too.

It's pretty hard to think of good disabled characters in stories... Ergh.

(wow, this got so long I actually exceeded the maximum character length. what the heck I DIDN"T KNOW THERE WAS A MAX CHARACTER LENGTH IN LJ! I need to go eat lunch!!)

Date: 2010-05-17 04:21 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] rj-anderson.livejournal.com
Excellent comment and a fascinating story of how your thinking on this matter progressed. And yes, it would be great to see a wider range of disabilities and illnesses portrayed in fiction.

It seems that blindness is popular because it's one of the most cosmetically attractive of the visible disabilities; you can give it to a character and still have most readers find that character attractive, as well as believing that this person could live more or less independently with the help of a cane and/or a guide animal. There's even a weird sort of romanticism that's grown up around the portrayal of blindness in literature and on television -- usually it's a beautiful young woman who is blind, and there will inevitably be a moving scene in which she feels the hero's face just before they kiss, etc.

But once a character's disability causes their body to be contorted in a way that does not conform to conventional beliefs about beauty or virility, or if their mobility and speech are limited by the disability in a way that might cause others to perceive them as physically or mentally weak... you find a lot fewer characters in literature that could be described in those terms. And they're definitely not allowed to be romantic, any more than middle-aged or elderly people are supposed to be romantic. It's so crazy on the surface, and yet so deeply ingrained in people's expectations...

Anyway, I digress! But thanks for maxing out my comments, I enjoyed it. :)

Date: 2010-05-11 05:17 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] jryson.livejournal.com
I'm struggling with a similar problem in my own work. Mundane teens are helping off-world magical people with their research here. The space people have advanced technology and can heal a lot of diseases we suffer. The teens know premature contact would devastate the Earth, and it must be kept secret. So the kids see all the miracle technology that they know they must not share. They deal with it.

Date: 2010-05-11 05:17 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] branquignole.livejournal.com
Great post! Thanks for sharing your thoughts on this.

I have a friend with a degenerative disease whom I got to know through the internet (it's actually the one I convinced to read KNIFE, which she loved), and she has to use a wheelchair. She actually can't go without one and I think she never could. She can do only some things on her own, and sometimes even eating with her own hands is something unfeasible when the cutlery is too heavy for her. But although she requires permanent assistance, she is living on her own, very independently, enjoying her life, working towards her professional goals, doing many awesome things, and being generally awesome.

Lately, when we saw a girl in an electrical wheelchair, another friend of mine said that she would never want a child thus disabled because she was of the opinion that with such a constraining disability, they would never be able to be happy. This point of view made me kind of sad, since I know that it is perfectly possible for someone with a disability to be happy. I haven't come across many disabled characters, but they are mostly portrayed as doomed or unable to live their lives (and disability should never be confused with the unability to be an independent person), which really annoys me. I actually was very satisfied with the way things turned out in KNIFE in the end; and I don't think it's too bad that the character had to be helped out of his bitterness a bit, because I think it's different with people who have to learn to cope with their disability, especially if they were very active before, in sports or otherwise. But it is just the wrong way for people who have been living with their disability since birth or childhood. They've never known another life, and that means that, although they are different from other people in some (frankly minor) aspects, they are mostly just as other people in terms of living their life. They acknowledge their difference, of course, but they don't sit back and decide that they can't be part of our society because of them. They bring variety, just as everyone does, and they are just as wonderful and annoying as other people.

People, and authors, who cannot see through disabilities and see the person beyond, are just narrow-minded in my eyes. And I think that, as an author, you have a responsibility towards the readers, as well as towards people you portray through your characters. The thought that disabled people live unhappy lives didn't come out of the blue; it's caused and enforced by the unrealistic portrayals in literature.

ETA: Dear me, this comment is a lot longer than I intended it to be. :D
Edited Date: 2010-05-11 05:18 pm (UTC)

Oh - just thought of something-

Date: 2010-05-11 05:47 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] mary-j-59.livejournal.com
Elvenjaneite's comments about Gen reminded me of another series Deirdrej and I both love: the Farsalatrilogy by Hilari Bell. There's a character in these books who has been injured, and thus deprived of his life's work. He's a wonderful character with a very satisfying arc; his name's Kavi.

Also, my wheelchair-bound friend is a beginning writer and is working on a fantasy novel with a wheelchair-bound protagonist - and also on a SF universe in which, after the apocalypse, the normal people are at war with the mutant cyborgs. He's totally on the side of the mutants, who are oppressed as freaks by the normal people. Some interesting ideas there, and I'm looking forward to seeing more from him as he polishes his craft.

Which brings me to another question, RJ. Are there any good fantasies BY disabled people? My friend is still in college and has a way to go before he comes up with anything publishable, but there would seem to be a crying need for this. As it is, all I could think of are the novel and (especially) the autobiography of Christopher Nolan - cold, hard fact, that one, but there are sequences in it that read like fantasy.

Hope you don't mind my rambling on like this!

(no subject)

From: [identity profile] rj-anderson.livejournal.com - Date: 2010-05-17 04:23 pm (UTC) - Expand

Date: 2010-05-11 07:17 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] rat-icefen.livejournal.com
The main problem with this consept is really that many people expect a character to have a disability of a kind, especially made up ones. It has become kind of compulsary for writers to include such a character. They even do it on television sometimes. IT may cause a level of issue with people who have disabilitys, especially when characters are cured by medical means. (Which usually is quite impossible.)
There is a level I believe you can stop at as it gives the character death and that all important 'want' as I call it, the thing they desire most. But unless you get it from the point of view of an actual person who has experienced this don't bother, or if your going to have them 'magically' cured like R.J said before. Characters need a problem but it can't disappear just like that or get worse, like in real life because many people hate both. You need it to happen with some depth. But not in extremes like it's the only way to save the universe or something because it's normally the other way round. Actually I can't think of a good reason myself to get rid of a disability, the character shouldn't lose it in my opinion but get used to it, or recover to a point, something like that as it keeps the character that everyone growed use to.

Date: 2010-05-17 04:34 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] rj-anderson.livejournal.com
Thanks for your observations! You're right, there are a number of seemingly "token" characters with disabilities on television and in movies, but all too often those disabilities are conveniently (or magically) "cured" the moment they get in the way of some non-disabled scriptwriter's idea of what the audience wants to see. What they're basically saying is that showing a person living and coping and enjoying life with a disability is too much hard work! Let's just wave a magic wand over them instead and make them Just Like Everybody Else.

(no subject)

From: [identity profile] rat-icefen.livejournal.com - Date: 2010-05-17 07:25 pm (UTC) - Expand

Date: 2010-05-11 07:51 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] lchardesty.livejournal.com
Great post, R.J.

I can't think of any books off the top of my head, but part of what I ADORED about the recent movie How To Train Your Dragon was the end. (I really can't say more without major spoilers, but if you've seen the movie, you know what I'm talking about.)

Date: 2010-05-12 12:40 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile] hb-write.livejournal.com
Oh, I was beaten to the punch. I was sniffling at the end of How to Train Your Dragon.

(no subject)

From: [identity profile] rj-anderson.livejournal.com - Date: 2010-05-17 04:41 pm (UTC) - Expand

Date: 2010-05-11 09:08 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] silver-gypsie.livejournal.com
I actually have an interesting thing that is going to happen in my novel, but I'm not sure that it catagorizes well under "magical healing"; it's just, the laws in this world are different.

You see, there are two paralell worlds in my book: the celestials and then the land. One of my characters is from the celestials and was sent to the land and he dies. But then, when my MC makes it to the celestials, that charcter is alive again. For my world it means that the character that died hadn't really died because he wasn't originally from the land. Make sense? (and no, this isn't a "second life" or "I'm going to go to heaven/hell" type thing.)

Percy Jackson?

Date: 2010-05-11 10:32 pm (UTC)
From: (Anonymous)
What about the cool teacher in the Percy Jackson series? Would you consider him a good example of an empowered/disabled person?

Re: Percy Jackson?

From: [identity profile] branquignole.livejournal.com - Date: 2010-05-13 06:43 am (UTC) - Expand

Re: Percy Jackson?

From: [identity profile] rj-anderson.livejournal.com - Date: 2010-05-17 04:45 pm (UTC) - Expand

Date: 2010-05-11 10:54 pm (UTC)
innerslytherin: (Default)
From: [personal profile] innerslytherin
I once wrote a fanfic where a character was magically injured in a war and left with difficulties walking and with chronic pain, and it was interesting the dichotomy of comments I got to it. Since I don't have mobility issues, I ran everything past a good friend who does, and my (our) plan for the fic was to have the character NOT be healed in the end... I never finished the fic, but it always seemed to me that despite (I confess) a gut-level desire to see him healed, I wouldn't have been able to do it.

Of course we WANT the character to be healed. If I had the power, I would offer healing to those of my friends who struggle with disabilities. But it's hard to say how many of them would take it.

I very much enjoyed where the show Dark Angel went in its explorations of a romantic hero being in a wheelchair. Of course it's been a long time since I've seen it, and they presented other difficulties, but even that was nice -- the fact that he was in a wheelchair wasn't the only obstacle in his life. How realistic!

Date: 2010-05-17 04:46 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] rj-anderson.livejournal.com
Thanks for sharing your experiences as a writer, and your take on this issue. I was thinking about Dark Angel too -- but didn't he get healed or otherwise "fixed up" later in the series?

(no subject)

From: [personal profile] innerslytherin - Date: 2010-05-18 02:21 am (UTC) - Expand

(no subject)

From: [identity profile] mizkit.livejournal.com - Date: 2010-07-20 10:36 am (UTC) - Expand

Date: 2010-05-11 11:24 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] writerjenn.livejournal.com
This isn't fantasy, but there are some physically challenged characters in N. Shusterman's The Schwa Was Here and Antsy Does Time--and I remember them mostly for their 3-D personalities.

Date: 2010-05-17 04:46 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] rj-anderson.livejournal.com
Ooh, interesting! Thanks for pointing those out.

Date: 2010-05-12 12:18 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile] timeheldinsepia.livejournal.com
I once wrote a fanfic involving Mary Ingalls and Cap Garland-- about him dealing with her blindness. I've gotten a bit of flak for it partly because Manly and Laura are not cast in the most flattering light-- but their story is really a side plot to the fanfic.

If I had it to do over again-- which I could, come to think of it!-- I might do it from Mary's POV.
The problem with the "Little House" books is that, after her blindness, she really only becomes a 3-D character in a scene where she confesses to Laura how sanctimonious she was before she became blind.

Hmmmm...

Date: 2010-05-17 04:50 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] rj-anderson.livejournal.com
Interesting! Thanks for weighing in on this. I know the TV series did quite a bit more with Mary's blindness, but it's been so long since I saw those episodes that I can't recall if they did a good job with it or not. I do remember as a child being impressed with the blind school at which she worked and how well all the characters -- children and adults -- seemed to function and work around their disability, and how happy the children in particular seemed. And I also remember an episode where Mary's formerly blind husband recovered his sight after an operation, and Mary had to struggle with her own feelings of jealousy and resentment and her fears that he would abandon her -- but again, I don't recall how well that was resolved.

Date: 2010-05-12 02:22 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile] kitty-ryan.livejournal.com
Out of some sort of perverse masochism, I want to read that book so I, too, can hurl it across the room. (Also, sadly, beyond the disability fail, it looks rather engrossing...)

Thank you for writing this. I'm an avid reader and reasonable scholar, but reading a published author's take on disabled kidlit was fascinating. I haven't read Faery Rebels yet (is it Knife in Australia?) but, after reading this, your comments on my post, and recalling your fanfic from years back (I think you managed to write the only Snape/OC fic I could stand, even with Maude's magical restoration. *grin*)

Forgive this aside, but I've realised something over the course of this whole BADD venture. I have, actually, found myself avoiding disabled characters in my own writing, fanfic or original, for fear of committing any of the fail I have so often seen. I have disabilities. I react to them, work with them (pre-empt them, sometimes) in a very personal way, and I'm always worried that if I listened to any of the disabled characters in my head I would, a. Be Writing What I Know far too literally, and, b. I would be too close, and anything I produced would be obscure and self-indulgent. I think, however, that not writing for fear of being too close is just as bad as not writing for fear of being too distant. There is a dearth of disability representation (and other areas of representation!) in kidlit, and posts such as this truly point that out.

I've never been of the opinion that non-disabled writers should not write about disability (or that male writers cannot write fully fledged female characters, or any of those corollaries) and this is my incredibly rambling way of saying that I'm glad Paul, or even Eon/Eona exist, because that indicates an awareness of other people that is essential in all fiction, and life. And if the characters are flawed in unintentional/institutionalised ways, then I am g;ad there are authors like you who can be aware of that, too, so that eventually the...er...shape of disabled characters in fiction can also change. Not into something 'normal', but something real.

*rueful* now that I've finished ranting (you called me eloquent before--there are less kind words), I can tell you one book that has a pretty fabulous representation of apparent quadriplegia. (Also, synaesthesia, which while not a disability as such, is certainly disabling to the protagonist for a time, until she learns to work with it.) The book is by Isobelle Carmody and is a standalone (very rare for her!) called Alyzon Whitestarr. The good and evil is rather stark, but the writing is often quite beautiful, particularly with the synaesthsic element (I'll never be able to forget one character's money worries smelling of ammonia, or his excitement and pride taking on the scent of pine needles and new rope), and the quadriplegic man, Raoul, is a love interest, fully equipped with tertiary degrees, and, in our protagonist's much younger and utterly unapologetic eyes, absolutely dashing.

Thank you for reading my post in the first place. It was my first sustained piece of writing after a very long, spoonless period, and it was rewarding both in and of itself, and also for the comments it has provoked.

Cheers,
Kit.
(missingovid)

Date: 2010-05-17 05:00 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] rj-anderson.livejournal.com
Thank you so much for reading, and weighing in despite your limited number of spoons (such a useful analogy!). I'm honored that you still remember my HP fics, so thanks for the kind words there -- and yes, Faery Rebels is Knife in Australia. If you ever do get around to reading it I would be very interested to hear your thoughts on Paul.

On a positive note about the book that spawned this post -- I posted a link to this essay on another forum, where the author of said book is a frequent participant, and her response was so gracious that I have now gone out and ordered the sequel (which apparently contains a character with a disability who does not die, and for which readers with disabilities have thanked her. Huzzah!). My respect for her has gone up several notches as a result.

Re your reluctance to write about disability issues in your fiction for fear of becoming tedious -- I find it hard to believe that, being as aware as you are, of the potential for fail, you would be at all likely to commit that kind of fail yourself. I think authors who are worried about being preachy are far less likely to actually be preachy than the ones who think they have Something Meaningful To Say and it is their duty to share it with the world. Which is not to say that some people won't still find it preachy, but I think it's apt to be much less worse than the author fears. But in any case a good honest critique group, or a good editor, will spot anything that's over the top and help the author to tone it down or cut it out as needed.

And I am completely nutty about synesthesia, as everybody who hangs out on this journal knows by now, so you have really made me want to read that Isobelle Carmody book! Thanks so much for your comment.

Date: 2010-05-12 03:18 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile] areth-lovejoy.livejournal.com
The one book that springs to mind is "The Demon's Lexicon" by Sarah Rees Brennan, definitely for the older end of YA readers given some of the content, but one of the main characters, Alan, has a lame leg. Not the most severe disability, but it is certainly one and while it is part of who he is and how others see him, it is far from the central issue in his life. Alan is portrayed as a character, whole and entire. Dealing with a lame leg (which can be a real drag when living on the run from murderous magicians)just happens to be another problem.

Date: 2010-05-17 04:51 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] rj-anderson.livejournal.com
Oh yes! I adore Alan, who is possibly scarier than Nick without appearing to be -- or even because he doesn't appear to be. I think DL is an excellent example of the kind of books I'd like to see more of. Thanks for mentioning it.
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