NOTE: This installment of Special Needs In Strange Worlds features a guest post from the incredible Elizabeth Bear! – Sarah Chorn
Elizabeth Bear was born on the same day as Frodo and Bilbo Baggins, but in a different year. This, coupled with a childhood tendency to read the dictionary for fun, led her inevitably to penury, intransigence, the mispronunciation of common English words, and the writing of speculative fiction. She lives in Massachusetts with a Giant Ridiculous Dog. Her partner, acclaimed fantasy author Scott Lynch, lives in Wisconsin. You can learn more about her books by visiting her website. On April 8, 2014 Elizabeth Bear released the third and final book in the Eternal Sky trilogy, Steles of the Sky.
It’s kind of funny to realize as I write this that I originally wasn’t going to submit a piece to Sarah’s blog series, because I didn’t feel like I had much to say about writing disabled people in science fiction. But after the second colleague suggested that I would be a good fit for the series, I had to stop and consider why they would think so.
And I realized that it’s probably because I write a lot of disabled protagonists. From Jenny Casey and Genevieve Castaign in Hammered and the sequel books–an amputee with neurological damage and a girl with cystic fibrosis–to the aneurotypical Michelangelo in Carnival from Matthew Szczgielniak with his maimed hand and congenital adrenal hyperplasia sufferer Lily Wakeman in Whiskey and Water to Tristen and Perceval Conn in the Jacob’s Ladder books, one of whom has albinism and the other of whom has lost the power of flight–now that I actually stop and think about it, it seems like most of my protagonists are “imperfect” in some way.
I have written characters with forms of epilepsy and characters with bipolar disorder. I have written anxiety sufferers and paraplegics and I have helped invent entirely new, science fictional syndromes. I have written more than my share of characters with post-traumatic stress disorder. That last, frankly, is because I don’t know how to write people who don’t have PTSD.
I’ve been trying to learn, though. You all are so unpredictable.
And the thing is, I have never once, until now, thought of any of those fictional people as belonging to the category, “person with a disability.” But they are; I am in that category too, though it’s not an identity I claim for myself. What I have thought about, with each of those characters, is how their particular limitations influence their choices as a person. How they influence what they can and can’t do. How they will make some things harder for them–and possibly, some things easier.
So what I want to talk about is representation, nuance, respect, politics, and awareness. And what these things mean to me.
First: writers are going to get it wrong, and that’s okay.
They (we) can in fact get it perfectly right for one person, and completely wrong for another. With the same character in the same piece of work. This is because people with disabilities are not all the same. They (we) have different lived experiences–even with the same disability. They have different coping strategies. And different character strengths and flaws.
A problem arises because if you are not used to seeing yourself portrayed in fiction, you will tend to want to identify with that character when they do arise, and you may feel very disappointed if that identification is thwarted. Or if you feel as if the fictional person in whom you have invested is mishandled in a bunch of typical ways.
The solution as I see it is not less representation but more. Saturation. More. If I see people like me everywhere, if I’m not treated as exceptional, then I’m more likely to be getting that need (and it is a need; story is a hunger) met somewhere and I’m less likely to be come angry when a particular story fails me.
We all need narratives. As a species, stories are how we parse the world.
More: a character with a disability is not a problem to be solved. This should seem obvious, and yet too often we forget it. They are not in the story to serve as an example of nobility or endurance, or to overcome their disability and somehow live a full life anyway. A character with a disability who is only there to serve as a heroic inspirational cripple or as the lynchpin for a message story is an abomination.
They are a character with challenges to be navigated. They are a person, with all the complexities that implies. Good character writing is a form of method-acting, for me at least. I need to try to understand what that person’s world view is–and so far, I’ve only ever written two characters who had worldviews much at all like mine.
People with disabilities are people with agency and their own lives. They are the heroes of their own stories; not anybody else’s. Some disabilities are visible; some are invisible. Some are permanent and some are transient. Some are acute and some are chronic. And some are accrued over the course of the story.
I’m not going to say that a character with a disability is just a person like any other, because lived experience affects our worldview. My disability informs mine, for sure. It affects how I interact with people and how I think.
But a disability is not a characterization. A disability is not a character. “Being blind” is not a character description any more than “being female” is. Unless you think all women actually are Smufette. In which case I cannot help you.
The opposite of the heroic cripple is the disabled character who is sort of a character by courtesy, but really exists in the story only as a sort of object-to-be-saved. Where the entire narrative revolves around somehow “fixing” the disabled person. This is complicated by the fact that some disabled persons do not care to be “fixed.” They consider their disability–whether it’s a sensory deficit, neural atypicality such as ASD, or a physiological impairment– to be part of their identity.
Others would be totally on board with getting “fixed.” (If I could wake up tomorrow with healthy brain chemistry? Show me where to sign.)
This is specifically challenging in science fiction and fantasy, where there are often so many ways to heal someone–from super-science to ancient sorcery. And yet there are issues with miracle cures in fiction. For one thing, they rob disability of its narrative power. For another, they play into the problematic narrative that people with a disability somehow “deserve” it.
This idea–that people “deserve” what they get–is a form of magical thinking for which I have absolutely no time whatsoever. Staying positive does not cure cancer, and eating your vegetables will not prevent a heart attack. (It can lower risk, sure, but that’s a different story. Statistics are not individuals.)
Our brains will grasp at anything in order to feel like we can control scary uncontrollable things, and the more random and chancy they are the more we need to control them. Staying positive won’t prevent cancer, and our lucky shoes are not going to win us the bowling tournament.
We need to respect the personhood of our characters with disabilities, and not blame them. Likewise, we need to be aware that people with disabilities exist, and reflect that existence in the worlds we create as part of fair representation of the world we live in.