Elizabeth: Disability Depictions

Looking for your weekly dose of Writing Sprints?  Head on over to our Wednesday post for this week’s words and resulting stories.  There’s still plenty of time to play along.

As Michille mentioned in her post yesterday, the annual RWA conference is fast approaching.   In going through the proposed schedule of workshops this afternoon I was amused to see that the session about “Optimizing Writers Conferences” is being offered on Friday afternoon – more than half-way through the conference.  Somehow that seems less than optimal.

Every year the conference seems to have several sessions focused on a particular theme or topic.  At the first conference I went to it was “self-publishing” (that was quite a while ago).  Other years have addressed forensics, the military, and crime-scene processing.    The last conference I was at had a number of sessions talking about how to increase diversity in writing – both from the stand point of diverse characterizations and attracting diverse writers – a topic that is still being talked about and worked on in the writing community.

There appear to be several new topics on the schedule this year and one workshop that caught my eye was “Creating Authentic Characters with Disabilities.”

“A panel of published authors (a mix of disabled and non-disabled) who have created authentic, well-loved characters with disabilities discuss their characters, why and how they developed them. Other topics include: the key elements of the character’s disability, how that changed the authors’ approach to telling the story, a brief description of their research methods, reader response to their characters, any feedback they received from the disabled community (both good and bad), and any impacts writing that character had on them personally.”

It caught my attention for a couple of reasons.  First I just finished several books that featured disabled protagonists.  One was a contest entry with a hero missing an arm; the others were stories with heroes that had experienced a variety of injuries that required the use of canes, including one who had also been injured (scarred) in an acid attack.    Second, I have the outline for a story in my “get to it eventually file” that features a wheel-chair bound hero.  The workshop session could be a great way for me to pick up some tips and knowledge about how to handle that character.

Like incorporating diverse characters, including characters with disabilities can be challenging to do well.  One of the recent stories that I finished did, what I felt, was a very good job.  The hero had a cane, and it was clearly shown that he was dependent on it to remain mobile.  When he was attacked by a villain, his unstable footing and vulnerability were capitalized on, but the author also had him use his cane in creative ways in order to regain he advantage.  His mobility issues were subtly addressed – like when he didn’t vault out of the carriage like one of the younger characters did – but it was not belabored.    As a reader, I found the portrayal very realistic and the character engaging.

In contrast, the very next book I read had a character that required a cane, but it was rarely (if ever?) mentioned and it felt more like the cane was a fashion accessory rather than that the character had any real need for it.  A few chapters in I just started thinking of it as a walking stick, rather than something he needed for physical reasons.  The hero was also scarred, which did not bother the heroine at all (as of course it wouldn’t), but no one else seemed to react to the scars either.  One would expect if someone was visibly scarred that you would see people reacting to it (ill-bred though those reactions might be).    If the heroine doesn’t care about the scars and no one gives them a second thought, then why include the scars at all?

My one wheel-chair bound hero, whenever I get to his story, has already gotten me thinking.  For one, logistically I need to be very specific about the layout of his house and about the places he would go to.  Stairs and clutter are larger issues than they would be in another story.  In one of the draft scenes where he and the heroine are getting up close and personal and she is tossing off her clothes, she makes a point to throw them on a chair rather than on the floor so he won’t get tangled up in them later – not something that a heroine typically has to think of, but relevant in this case, as are a number of other questions about what the two of them will and won’t be able to do in that situation.

Hopefully the upcoming workshop will give me a better understanding about how to effectively incorporate a disabled character and maybe even the best ways to research disabilities.  After all, I still need to decide how my hero was injured, whether it is permanent or not, and just how “up close and personal” they can realistically get.

In the meantime, can you recommend any books that you felt did a good job incorporating disabled characters?

17 thoughts on “Elizabeth: Disability Depictions

  1. Tessa Dare, Romancing the Duke. Hero is legally blind (modern day terminology) and the author gives a sense of how he manages his environment. Lisa Kleypas has a hero missing a hand in Midnight Angel, but doesn’t give any details on how he manages/compensates.

    • Michille, coincidentally, Tessa Dare is one of the presenters of the workshop. I will have to add Romancing the Duke to my reading list before then. I know I’ve read one or two Regencies with blind heroes but I, of course, cannot remember any of them at the moment.

  2. I don’t have any recommendations,but I’ll keep an eye on the comments and hope someone else does.

    The second book in my Touched by a Demon trilogy, The Demon’s in the Details, features a severely dyslexic artist as its protagonist. Her demonic step-mother has convinced her the worst thing that could happen to her would be for people to discover that she can’t read very well, so she puts huge amounts of efforts into hiding it. Someone at my RWA chapter recommended watching the movie Stanley and Iris to see how Robert DeNiro’s character disguises his functional illiteracy, so that’s top of my list as I head back into revisions.

  3. Bujold does a lot with disabled heroes. Miles Vorkosigan was damaged in utero, and he uses his brain power to slip the surly bonds of earth.He gets progressively more damaged as the series continues . . . .

    Also, Dag (her Sharing Knife hero) is missing a hand. He’s a very talented guy, and competent, but he doesn’t quite have the golden tongue that Miles does, so it’s interesting to see his struggles with both his battle scars, and his issues with his family (that are sometimes bound up with his disability).

    To tell the truth, I haven’t really ever thought of either character as a disabled character before. Just like real people, those disabilities don’t define them, they are just adjunct to their story.

    I have read a couple of books about people of small stature, and I can’t really recommend them. Their disabilities were front and center, and seemed to be more about the author’s issues. They didn’t have the kind of agency that a Miles Vorkosigan has. One of the characters I’m wrestling with right now is a leprechaun who passes in the mere mortal world as a person of small stature. He’s got problems with his height, but he’s got more problems with the fact that he’s got problems with truth and greed — brought to a head with a diagnosis of a dread disease that will change his life. Can he mend his ways? I hope so.

        • My leprechaun is the Thom/Thomas you see floating around in some of my sprints. My best bit so far was the one where he and a soon-to-be-ex were trapped in the closet with a cat. He’s a great deal of fun! And very talented — makes shoes, dances, drums, and does a little bit of goldsmithery on the side. (-: I really have to get this story I’m working on together and out to you guys!

  4. Amanda Quick has a number of heroes in her stories with a variety of physical challenges. There are any number of leg injuries as well as at least one missing eye (if I recall correctly) – some of them handled quite well; others not so much.

    Jo Beverley’s Company of Rogues series had Hal Beaumont, who was missing an arm from the wars. I can’t remember if he had his own book or just appeared throughout the other books in the series. I do remember thinking that his portrayal was well done and believable.

    One of the best character depictions of a character with some physical and mental challenges was Robert (Bit) Carroway from Suzanne Enoch’s England’s Perfect Hero. Among other things, the “handsome, brooding war hero” suffers from extreme anxiety. The scene where he is out in public and having to fight his own anxiety was really well done.

  5. l just did not finish a book (sorry, can’t remember either the title or the author—that’s how memorable it was) in which the heroine had a significant limp, and sometimes she used a cane. I didn’t like the book in general, but I got as far as a dancing scene where she managed a careful waltz, stumbling a couple of times, but the hero, big, strong fella that he was, just lifted her over the tricky bits.

    You might want to check out the TV show “Mom,” if you haven’t already. Alison Janney’s character has a boyfriend who’s in a wheelchair, and they handle that really well, I think. They have sex, for one thing. And their difficulties are more about their personalities than the fact that he’s disabled. And they also can use the fact of the chair sometimes for comedy.

    • Thanks for the recommendations about Mom Kay – that sounds very promising. Especially since Alison Janney is in it. I’ll have to add that to my viewing queue.

    • I read that. I think it’s Fool for Love by Eloisa James. And I found this blog post about romance novels with characters with a disability. http://romancenovelsforfeminists.blogspot.com/2013/02/critiquing-portrayal-of-disability-in.html

      My problem with characters with disabilities in stories is that they just have them. There is no indication of how they cope/compensate. Isn’t it nice for authors to put them in their stories, but what are the burdens on them that the ambulatory/hearing/seeing/etc population do not have to deal with and what do the people in their lives do to accommodate their disability? I want a sense of what the character has overcome/conquered.

      Maybe it’s that I work for a school system and part of my job is in special education. We work daily to accommodate the needs of students with disabilities, language barriers, hunger barriers, etc., that functioning adults with no disabilities or disadvantages just don’t understand. Literature can help me understand.

      • Michille – that’s exactly the same problem I have. If a book includes a disabled character, I want to see how they cope/compensate and how others react. Otherwise, why bother in the first place. I feel the same way about stories that include characters of different ethnicities, who mention the ethnicity, like they would hair or eye color, and then never address it again.

Let Us Know What You Think

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s