Friday, November 14, 2014

Writing Characters with Disabilities : Sophia Beaumont Guest Hosts

Today on the blog we have the privilege of hosting Ms. Sophia Beaumont who has come to talk to you all about writing characters with disabilities. 

On the Subject: 

Invisible disabilities can be a challenge to write. I bet that there are at least three people that you know right now who have an invisible disability: Fibromyalgia. Epilepsy. PTSD. There are literally dozens of diseases and conditions that can limit a person physically. Up until the 1950s, Asthma was routinely treated as a mental illness, not a physical one.

The character that I am working with right now was born prematurely in 1903, and barely managed to survive. Now at 22, she leads a mostly normal life—except for her asthma and a visual impairment that is based on my own mother's eye condition: bilateral nystagmus. This is a very rare birth defect that was caused by under development in parts of her brain and inner ear, which leads to constant rapid and uncontrollable eye movement. Today, this is most commonly a side effect of brain injuries or drug overdoses.

Now, when was the last time you read a book where the main character had a physical disability? Differently abled people are all around us, but they are seldom heroes in books or movies, but why not?

Carl Jung described the mythological archetype of the hero with the following:
  • Unusual circumstances surrounding their birth
  • Leaves their family or homeland to live with others
  • An event, sometimes traumatic, leads to an adventure or quest
  • The Hero has a special weapon that only they can wield
  • The Hero must prove themselves many times while on an adventure
  • They must suffer through the Journey and the Unhealable Wound

Jung picked out other traits as well, but those are the big ones. Now, look at that visually impaired character that we were talking about earlier: unusual circumstances at birth, check. Leaving family to live with others: it was not uncommon, especially in Victorian times, for a disabled person to be sent away, either to an asylum or to a family member better able to care for them.

Now, let's see...a traumatic event that leads to an adventure or quest. There's no reason that their physical defect has to be from birth. Perhaps they were wounded during wartime, and are now hunting down the person responsible. Or they could be searching for a cure or treatment.

The special weapon is a little trickier. Perhaps their weapon is supernatural and unrelated. Maybe your wheel-chair bound scientist has created a jetpack and ray gun that only he knows how to use. In my case, my heroine's visual disability is directly related to her ability to see ghosts, something that she can use to her advantage.

As for the last two points on the list, show me someone who is a minority or disabled who doesn't have to prove themselves in a dozen ways every single day just because they are female, or Hispanic or Muslim or mentally ill (or all of the above)?

The scientific research of the Victorian Era paved the way for thousands of cures and treatments in the first half of the 20th century, but were not enough to combat them at the time. Prenatal care was almost non existent. Anti psychotics didn't exist yet. The most common treatment for non-violent mental illness was to keep the patient locked away and calm, and perhaps to give them a simple occupation, like sewing, to pass the time. Club foot and cleft pallet were largely untreatable. Scarlet fever and other illnesses often rendered the sufferer blind or deaf. Prior to the advent of antibiotics, an injured limb was often cut off. Autism, schizophrenia, dissociative personality disorder, postpartum depression, and menopause were treated alongside female hysteria and wandering womb.

To say that you have a completely healthy, white middle class character during this period is, quite frankly, a gross mistake:

  • In 1901, only 1/8 of the British Empire was Caucasian, with the rest being made up of the conquered races of Africa, the Pacific, Asia, and North America.
  • 33% of London residents were born elsewhere, and about half of those coming from outside the British Isles entirely.
  • 40% of the workforce was employed in manual labor/heavy industry, with an additional 40% made up of women, mostly in domestic service.

Look around you at the people in your life. While the numbers and names have changed, minorities in one form or another have existed for as long as human kind. Increasing the diversity of the cast of characters enriches the story and the writing (both in steampunk and other genres), and creates opportunities to connect with readers that may not otherwise exist. Besides, what is the point of creating a fictional world, if you can't correct some of the problems we face in the real one?

More from Sophia can be found at her blog!

1 comment:

  1. Holy smokes, I never fail to be amazed by how much smarter other writers are than I am! This is brilliant, Sophia, a well-considered study of an aspect we almost never see. The danger with posting an article like this is that it raises the bar considerably on what we expect when your next book comes out. Best of luck with that; anyone who can write like this deserves it!