Michille: Characters with Disabilities

Silent MelodyI am reading Mary Balogh’s Silent Melody in which the heroine is a deaf-mute (that’s how she is characterized in the story). It’s fascinating to read the way Balogh describes how Emily views/lives in her silent world, how she communicates with others, and how they communicate with her. And how sensitively/insensitively the other characters treat her. Some of the language used in reference to the character makes me uncomfortable because part of my day job is public school system special education administration. I keep telling myself that it’s like reading a romance novel from 1972 – yes the rape scene is understandable given the genre and societal norms at the time, just as in 1780, there was no such thing as political correctness when referring to someone with a disability.

Mary Balogh has a blind hero in The Arrangement – also a good read IMO. I read one by Tessa Dare, Must Love Dukes, recently with a blind (in modern terminology would be considered legally blind) hero. He counted steps. I read it just prior to attending the RWA session on characters with disabilities in which one of the presenters said to never have a blind character count steps. Tessa Dare was on the panel and fessed up to doing just that, which opened a dialogue about resources for author research that could lead to more authenticity and autonomy of characters with disabilities. I had wanted to go to the follow-up session, but had a conflict. I haven’t listened to the recorded session of the follow-up yet, but plan to.

Lisa Kleypas has a character with a hook for a hand. One of her contemporaries has a girl who doesn’t speak. If I recall correctly, that was due to trauma. I read one a long time ago with a deaf heroine that was really good (Mouth to Mouth, Erin McCarthy). I couldn’t remember the name of that one so I googled “romance novels with deaf heroines” and this page popped up. Some of these stories look pretty good – adding to my extensive TBR list.

I have a secondary character who is deaf, but he doesn’t have a whole lot of print. Do you have any characters with disabilities? Have you read any that you feel are realistic or not so much? Other thoughts on characters with disabilities and how to or not to portray them?

4 thoughts on “Michille: Characters with Disabilities

  1. I haven’t written any characters with disabilities yet (well, my garden gargoyle couldn’t fly, but that shouldn’t count), and I applaud all the authors who do. I have a lot to learn in that regard. Just hearing the story of Tessa Dare making what turns out to be a rookie mistake to others who understand the issues makes me worry that I’d screw up beyond redemption. Although I should try. I have first-hand knowledge of bad knees—maybe I could work in someone with an artificial leg, or something like that.

    • Since, as I said, part of my day job is special education, I have a wealth of information available to me. I know the dad of a blind child (blind since birth), who is also in my school system and graduating this year. He is then going to a gap year school that will teach him how to function completely independently as a blind person. The final exam is being taken by bus to an undisclosed location and finding his way home by himself. Both my kids have all their senses. This terrifies me. But he’s lived with and helped his kid with his independence since birth. His son is also an amazing singer/musician and has sung the National Anthem for the Orioles. I guess my job has informed my creative voice in adding characters with disabilities to my stories. I just hope I do it with authenticity and not with cliches.

  2. The stories of Helen Keller and Mary Ingalls were huge impressions on my young mind — the way they used their minds to get around their obstacles was really amazing.

    I don’t know if I’m including any people with disabilities in my book — I’ve got a leprechaun who looks like a person of small stature to “mere mortals” — but that’s not really a disability, just different. (-: I suppose one could argue that the “mere mortals” are disabled because they have short lifespans, and many of them don’t know a thing about magic. The leprechaun may or may not have Parkinson’s Disease, but I don’t know if I’ve got the chops to portray that or not. I’m afraid it’s another one of the elements of the story that will simply have to be pared down and discarded (unless I want to abandon the story and take it up when I’m a better writer — somehow that doesn’t seem like a good plan. I’ll have new stuff to tackle in the future.)

    It seems like a writer might fall into the same traps they fall into when they write about anyone who is different from themselves. It probably helps to look at online magazines targeted towards a certain audience, and also to look at literature, forums, articles and other things written by members of that audience.

    Other fiction? Not so sure. I read two fiction books about dwarves about a year ago, and both made me squirm. One guy was doomed to a life of no love because he couldn’t get over himself (common theme iin male literature, no matter what-abled they are). In the other, the guy was a bestie, and I can’t remember if he got the girl or not. There was definitely a weird detour, and I seem to remember her getting pregnant by an old boyfriend while she was kinda/sorta dating the hero.

    It’s really a tough subject to tackle. As writers, we all twist personality and to some extent, physical attributes to fit the needs of our stories. It’s really a miracle that anyone can portray anyone else, and get a third party to thrill to the story . . . .

    • I thought Balogh’s handling of both of these disabilities was great. It didn’t weaken either of them or make them a victim, but portrayed how they used their other senses to a higher degree than the other characters who had the sense(s) they were missing.

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