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Transcript for Episode 17.49

Writing Excuses 17.49: Bodies Are Magical


Key points: There’s a common trope where a disability becomes a superpower. This also often makes the character super useful. And depersonalizes them, too. Be careful of plot relevant abilities. Write your people as people. Do your world building so that your characters can have agency without their abilities becoming a plot point.

MICE: In a milieu story, often people will have someone live in somebody else’s body or have a temporary disability, which makes the disability exotic and the person non-human. Idea stories often focus on “What’s wrong with this person?” This often reveals an invisible disability, and shows that we are better people for knowing about it. It also makes the person non-human, again. Character stories often mean the person is trying to solve themselves, and focus on dissatisfaction with self. Very inhuman! Event stories often start with a diagnosis that disrupts the status quo, and looks for a cure that either restores the status quo or sets a new status quo. Q.E.D., try to avoid making the disability a plot point, a driver for the story.

Superhero comics often focus on what happens when A and B fight. This is not a good model for exploring abilities or other characteristics.

Final summations:
Chelsea: As speculative writers, try to imagine environments that remove barriers for people with disabilities.
Fran: If you have a disability, or acquire one, write your experience, write your story.

[Season 17, Episode 49]

[Mary Robinette] This is Writing Excuses, Bodies Are Magical.
[Chelsea] 15 minutes long.
[Fran] Because you’re in a hurry.
[Howard] And we’re not that smart.
[Mary Robinette] I’m Mary Robinette.
[Chelsea] I’m Chelsea.
[Fran] I’m Fran.
[Howard] And I’m Howard.

[Mary Robinette] Today, we’re going to be talking about bodies are magical. This is the thing where someone with a disability, suddenly, that disability becomes a superpower. Which is not necessarily the way things work.
[Nope, nope, nope]
[Mary Robinette] As we’ve discussed, there are times when the modifications that you have in the ways you’ve adapted, that those can be useful, but the disability itself… The classic one that people point at is, of course, Daredevil. Where losing his eyesight gives him magical powers on multiple axes, because all of his other senses have become heightened.
[Fran] Elsa Sjunneson, who we’ve talked about before, with her book Being Seen, but also online in different essays, has some great breakdowns of the Daredevil problem, by the way. You can Google those, they’re amazing, we should probably have a link to that. [Garbled]
[Mary Robinette] But it is a very, very common trope that you’ll see. Sometimes it’s also a thing that people will do as a form of overkill. That they’re like, “Oh, I don’t want the person with the disability to be weak, so I’m going to give them these extra things.”
[Chelsea] What I find is that when you have that character with the disability who has the disability, but then they have something that makes them super extra ultra powerful, it also conveniently makes them super extra useful to the narrator and other characters. It de-persons them in a lot of cases.
[Mary Robinette] Yes.
[Fran] Plot relevant disability and plot relevant superpowers both have that same icky feel to them. One of the things that I tend to do is I have a lot of disabled characters in my fiction, but people don’t notice them, because they’re doing things on the page like protagonizing and antagonizing and making things and breaking things. Their disability doesn’t necessarily have to jive with that or be part of the plot, it’s just part of who they are. Having that sort of superpower that’s utterly convenient to the plot or, unfortunately, sometimes the disability that is plot relevant, really does… It de-personalizes, like Chelsea was saying. What we have been talking about this entire series is seeing people as people and writing people as people and finding places for empathy rather than any other approach towards writing people.

[Mary Robinette] So, these things, let’s unpack what we mean about it not being a plot point. What we’re talking about is, like, it will absolutely affect the way the character moves through the world. Just the same way that the fact that I am 5’7″ affects the way I move through the world. Fran is…
[Fran] 4’10”.
[Mary Robinette] 4’10” and one of the things…
[Mary Robinette] That she said to me when we saw each other in person for the first time is that one of the nice things about masks for her was that she could no longer see people’s nose hair.
[Fran] Please, please trim. Anyway…
[Mary Robinette] But that is… Like, that’s not a plot point. As Howard…
[Howard] Strokes his mustache. That is a mustache. But the point is, like, that affects the way we move through the world. We see different things, we experience different things, but it is, someone’s nose hair or lack thereof is not, like, a plot point. I hope. I mean, maybe. Go for it. If you feel the urge.
[Howard] To use an example that is perhaps less abled in nature, someone with very long hair on a windy day without a hairband, the hair gets in their face. That doesn’t mean they’re Rapunzel.
[Mary Robinette] Yep.
[Fran] On the other hand, just to use the height thing for a different reason, one thing that impacts me directly is when I’m at a stand up cocktail party. Most of the conversation happens directly over my head. I will miss things because people are talking above me. If I have everyone sit down, which I tend to do, then everybody’s talking out my level, which is, like, the same thing with Zoom. It was great. Except that people now insist on coming up to me and saying, “I had no idea you were so little. You seemed so…” They want to use the word normal. I’m glad that they stop themselves. I’m really proud of people who stop themselves from using that word. But the aspect of… Like, Zoom is a great leveler for lots of people, but not for others. None of these things are necessarily a plot point, but you can use them as a way to express how you move through the world.

[Mary Robinette] Right. So, an example of this… Turning this height thing into a superpower…
[Mary Robinette] Would be… A superpower plot point, would be that if Fran is at a cocktail party and discovers a special clue that only she could discover because she happens to be the right height to look under the table without anyone…
[Fran] Exactly the right height.
[Mary Robinette] Exactly the right height. That’s the kind of thing where… I can hear people going, “But sometimes you do need a character who’s smaller.” It’s like, yes. But that can’t be their only purpose in the plot. That can’t be… Like, every time there’s a problem, it’s like, “Let’s get the small person in.”
[Howard] A bomb could also be discovered by the horrible creeper who has a mirror taped to his shoe.
[Fran] Eew! Okay. Eew.
[Mary Robinette] Thanks for that, Howard. Thank you.
[Fran] I’m uncomfortable now.
[Howard] I’m sorry. Hey. You know what. I’m 5’6″. I traveled a lot on business. It really did feel like a superpower that I could be comfortable flying coach.
[Mary Robinette] I mean… Those chairs. But at the same time, those… The headrests on those chairs are not built for someone with a short torso.

[Fran] To go back to the phrasing that you used, Mary Robinette, where you said, “But you sometimes need someone who is smaller as a character.” That idea of, “Oh, I need a person who is like this so that the plot can do X,” has… There are points at which that thought process is useful, but when you are constructing fully rounded characters without bias, taking a look at why you feel like you need them for this is an interesting exercise in self examination.
[Mary Robinette] Yeah. Exactly.

[Mary Robinette] Let’s take a moment and pause for the book of the week, and then I… When we come back, we have more to say about this. Our book of the week is…
[Fran] Is not a book!
[Howard] Not a book.
[Mary Robinette] It is not a book, it is something that Fran has been wanting to talk about the entire time we’ve been recording.
[Fran] Yep. This is the TV series Killjoys. It came on the air in 2015, 2016, and ran for three or four seasons. A couple of those seasons get a little nebulous and a little weird, but then it brought itself back. What I want to talk about with Killjoys is that the premise in definitely season two, especially with an episode called Dutch and the Real Girl, is sort of what we’ve been talking about. This is an episode with a character who has been hack modded into something where her arm is a gun. But, also, she’s got lots of other mods and things, and there is a whole discussion in there about being human, but also having a different role to play in both the series and in society. One of the things that I love about Killjoys, and there’s a lot to love about Killjoys… It’s got some cyberpunk elements. Victoria Modesta, the model that I mentioned with the prism for one of her legs, is in the show as a special guest for season two. The hack mods are part of a marginalized community group that is a long running theme through this show, Killjoys. One of the things that Killjoys did with this is they hired actual disabled people to play the hack mods. So you’ve got this amazing… I think Killjoys hired more disabled people to play roles on the show then all of Hollywood at that point. It was amazing to see. It’s fantastic to see these actors operating with just the plot points that they have, playing lots of different characters. It’s a great show. Especially Dutch and the Real Girl, that’s one of my favorite episodes of all time.
[Mary Robinette] So. This is Killjoys, which apparently everyone needs to go watch. As you were talking
[Fran] It was actually produced in Canada, as many good things are. It did run for five seasons, started 2015. Hannah John-Kamen plays the lead in that. She’s also in the second Antman as Ghost. So she’s all over the place.
[Howard] Cool.
[Mary Robinette] As you were talking about that, I’m going to take us a little bit off topic and then bring us back. The… You made me think about discovery. I’m doing a rewatch of parts of it, but in season two, there’s some good disability wrapped in that. There’s just [background characters]… Just, like, you’re watching and somebody just rolls through in a chair, there’s… It’s really great. None of these are main characters. None of these are main characters, and also, when you look at the bridge, it has steps just built into it.
[Fran] Yep.
[Mary Robinette] So this is a world in which…
[Fran] Also, all of the chairs are fixed. So that character that rolls by can never actually sit at the bridge.
[Mary Robinette] Yep. Yep. That’s a great point which I had not thought about.

[Mary Robinette] So part of what we’re talking about here when were thinking about bodies are magical and not being plot points, is also, like, the world building that you’re doing so that your character can move through this world. So that whatever it is that you have, however you have designed this character, that they can have agency in this story without becoming a plot point. So. I do want to dive in a little bit into what I talk about, about what I mean personally when I’m talking about having it become a plot point. People who are longtime listeners know me and my fondness for talking about the MICE quotient. So, here, the MICE quotient is this organizational structure, right. So, in a milieu story, it begins when you enter a place, and ends when you leave it. Often what you’ll see is that you’ll see someone have a character… They want to explore disability by having someone live in somebody else’s body or they’ll have a disability that is a temporary disability. That, basically has the problem of making that disability exotic and it’s very, very othering. The idea structure which begins when you ask a question and ends when you answer it is like, “What is wrong with that person?” That’s another plot point that you can see… Sometimes see where people will have someone who has like an invisible disability and it’s all about, “Oh, now we discover it. Oh, we’re better people because we know the answer to this question now.”
[Mary Robinette] Again, it’s othering because it becomes… That person’s the character. Character stories begin when the character is unhappy with their role, some aspect of themselves, and it ends when the character becomes happy with the role, which then means that they are having to… The problem that they are trying to solve is themselves. Which is, again, it is setting a very specific form of normal and having somebody be dissatisfied with who they are. As a plot point, that can be, again, very othering. Then, events begins with a disruption of the status quo, which is often diagnosis. It ends with restoration of the status quo, or the establishment of a new status quo, which means that you’re always looking at a cure.
[Howard] Can I just say that I love that in a minute and a half, you’ve taken the MICE quotient and used it to explain how to do everything wrong.
[Mary Robinette] Yep. Yep.
[Howard] This is beautiful.
[Mary Robinette] Thank you. Thank you. So this is why when you’ve got a character with a disability, you actually don’t want it to be a plot point. You don’t want it to be a driver, because if you do… Or, if you do, you have to know that that is the story that you’re telling. You’re telling one of those versions of stories. You don’t want to do it. If you’re going to do it, you don’t want to do it unintentionally, for certain. But if you want a character and you don’t want them to be like, “Hello. I have this magical superpower. I am here because I am useful.” Then, it needs to be decoupled from the plot and just affect the way they move through the world. Which is different than these are the story questions that we’re trying to solve and answer.

[Howard] It’s… While we are chewing on that amazing deconstruction, which I’m again going to say that I love, it’s worth pointing out that a lot of where we see disability as superpower done wrong is in comics. One of the tropes of comics, and you see this in especially the ensemble MCU movies, is that at some point there is an idea milieu element which is what happens when Hulk and Thor fight? What happens when Thor and Iron Man fight? What happens when Iron Man and Capt. America fight? Comic book writers… This trope, everybody at some point has to fight everybody else, that is not a great model in which to explore ability, disability, age, old age, youth, whatever, because it is going to be inherently othering for a large portion of the audience.
[Fran] This is where I get to shout out to Marieke Nijkamp who wrote the Oracle Code, which is the story of Barbara Gordon. It’s a graphic novel. It was published in 2020, before the rest of things happened. It’s fantastic. Marieke is an amazing advocate for disability and disabled writers. Just wonderful to talk about. But if you get a chance to check out The Oracle Code, it is worth your time and does exactly the opposite of what Howard is talking about.
[Howard] To be sure, or to be clear, I say comics. What I mean is the superhero genre. Obviously, comics are a medium which can be used to tell all kinds of stories.

[Mary Robinette] Well, we are approaching the end of our time together. So, before we go into our homework, I just want to check to see if Chelsea or Fran, as our guests for this series, if either of you have any big takeaways that you want our listeners to carry with them before we give them their homework.
[Chelsea] I mean, I think the thing that I’ve been talking about mostly in all of these episodes is how very much I want us as speculative writers to take the opportunity to imagine environments that are… That basically take away barriers to people with disabilities. Because they’re… Well, I’m just going to be opinionated about this… Designed properly.
[Fran] I’m going to direct my comments to those listeners who have a disability, as well as those who may, in the future, have a disability, and just say, “Write your experience. Write your story. In whatever way you want to tell it. If you have the opportunity to reach for empathy, go for it.” This is a really important thing, but find… Finding ways to put your story down is actually a wonderful way to just feel present in a way that doesn’t mean you’re educating people, it’s just you’re telling a story, you’re doing a thing. It’s… Please, please write. I would love to see everything you write.

[Mary Robinette] Well, with that, we come to our homework. For your homework assignment, we’ve had this conversation that at some point, everyone is going to be disabled. So, look at your cast of characters for your work in progress and decide what disabilities your characters have. Some of them will be visible. Some of them will be in visible. Some of them will be things that the characters themselves don’t recognize as a disability. Decide what those are, and then make sure that none of them are a plot point. That these are characters who just get to exist and have adventures the same way all of the other characters do. This has been Writing Excuses. You’re out of excuses. Now go write.