Writing Excuses 9.46: Disability in Narrative
Key Points: Write the nuances. Include the humor! Include variety, all the senses. Be aware of cliches, tropes, and media representations. And beware of toys on the sidewalk! Be careful about “resolving” disability, ala the MICE quotient. Handicaps are something you live with, flaws are something that must be overcome. To write about handicaps, talk to someone who is handicapped! Don’t let the handicap define the character, make it a dimension of the character.
[Mary] Season nine, episode 46.
[Brandon] This is Writing Excuses, Disability in Narrative.
[Howard] 15 minutes long.
[Mary] Because you’re in a hurry.
[Dan] And we’re not that smart.
[Brandon] I’m Brandon.
[Dan] I’m Dan.
[Mary] I’m Mary.
[Howard] I’m Howard.
[Brandon] And we have special guest star, Charlie Harmon.
[Brandon] Charlie is a luminary in the fandom field here in the Salt Lake area. One of the very first super fans, as in fan, as in organizing fandom and things that I have interacted with. A legend at BYU where I came from. Charlie is going to help us talk about this topic. Mary, you pitched this, so why don’t you tell me why you pitched this idea?
[Mary] Well, I pitched it because Charlie and I were talking on the phone and she asked if my books were in audio because she said she was blind. I thought we’ve been talking for a while, and she’s extremely articulate, and I had just been at a conference where we talked about disability in narrative, but we did not have a disabled person there. So I thought that one of the things that would be very exciting for our listeners would be to talk about this topic which is frequently handled so poorly.
[Charlie] Yes, because most of the time, if they talk about someone who’s blind, which is what I am, they are either totally blind or they see really well. They don’t realize the nuances. I think a lot of the [garbled] in writing someone who is blind is to write the nuances. It’s… When I’m talking to someone, since… I have been going blind for… Since I was a child. More than 40 years. So I still look at someone when I’m talking to them, but I never make eye contact. Because I cannot see faces. I’ll… Sometimes it’s just contrast. I’ll see a blur. I’ll see a light blur or a dark blur. I don’t know who they are unless they speak to me. But it’s only when someone says, “Oh, yeah, you’re talking to me,” but I’m not making eye contact because I don’t see their eyes. Some friends end up looking behind themselves and wonder if I’m looking at something else… I just don’t see them. I’m like… My kids like to make fun of me. They will tease me. They will tell me many times that if they don’t want me to know where they are, all they have to do is hold still and be quiet.
[Charlie] I will never see them.
[Mary] They should not have told you that.
[Howard] Charlie, in fairness… I hope this makes you feel better. If you were perfectly sighted, your children would still make fun of you because…
[Charlie] Of course they do.
[Charlie] Of course they do. I’m the old blind lady. My son was leading me around because I do help run conventions and now I need to be led around unless I know my way. “Come on lady.” He calls me the old blind lady or the old lady.
[Dan] Bringing up the idea of humor I think is really important in disability. I… My mother has MS. She was bedridden most of my life, is in a wheelchair. The humor that the family uses to deal with that is a huge part of our lives. It often shocks people. We’ll go out in public and she’ll have some kind of small seizure. We will all laugh and make a joke about it. The people at the other table in the restaurant are shocked and mortified that we would treat it that way. But when you live with it, in many cases, that’s how you deal with it.
[Charlie] I don’t look a day over 30. I will never look a day over 30. My husband looks like he did 20 years ago because that’s the last time I saw him.
[Howard] Would you like me to take a moment to describe him to you, or should we just…?
[Charlie] I do see with my fingers what is… I love it. People will let me go up and touch things. They’ll say, “Can you see this?” And I have to feel it to know what it looks like. I love that. If someone can get that down and describe it. It’s so great to have someone feeling around. What’s really nice, I can’t just feel with both hands up. I have to have one hand feeling and one hand up here in front of my face because otherwise I run into something. I do that all the time.
[Howard] So now I’ve got a… You talked about… Earlier you mentioned audiobooks. When you read, or when you have an audiobook read to you, do you respond to the visual descriptions from the point of view character? Do you like it when tactile stuff is included? Which of those really speaks to you?
[Charlie] I personally like variety. I like all the senses. Because I pick people by sound. I recognize someone by their voice. I like to feel things. I love texture. I love texture and materials. I love the way things smell. Have you ever… I don’t know if you’ve ever noticed, walking out into the hall and smelling popcorn and how that smells? Or if you smell cinnamon. Or a flower… A lilac. You don’t… People forget that you don’t just see things, you hear things, you smell things, you touch things, they have texture. I remember reading a book, Barbara Hambly, one of her vampire books, where she mentioned that she went to the catacombs in France. She walked into the catacombs and she felt the wall. How the wall felt made such an impact on her that that’s what she put in the book. That makes it so much more real as a writer if you put this detail in. So it’s not just how something looks, because you’re not just seeing it, you’re feeling it, your spelling it, your sensing it, you’re hearing it. You feel the rumble of the truck go by on your feet. When I walked past a building, as a blind person, I feel it. I don’t have to be near it. It’s a few feet away, and I will feel it, I will hear it, because there’s an echolocation sometimes or there’s a sound pressure. There are blind people who use echolocate… Actually, they use echolocation. They’ll walk down making a clicking noise and they hear the echo and that tells them where things are. It’s very… I’ve heard the person walk past me. It was very odd, because I can’t quite do that because I’m not totally blind. I don’t think I could do it anyway. I love going to malls. People trip over me and get mad at me because they’re tripping over my cane. I kill people. I have to kill three people a day, that’s my goal.
[Brandon] So what do people get wrong? In fiction. Have you read any fiction about blind people and just been like, “Oh, no.”
[Charlie] Yeah, because they don’t get the nuances. All they know is the basic stuff like, okay, use a white cane. Like how to use a white cane. I don’t use a white cane like everybody else uses a white cane. If most people… I’ve seen on TV, they have a white cane where they’re tapping. I know my instructor told me you tap over here, you tap over here. You have to have the opposite foot, so when the cane’s over on the left, my foot’s stepping right. Otherwise you may kick the cane. My son plays that game. We walk down the street and he’ll play kick the cane.
[Charlie] So I have added to it so he kicks the cane and I hit him in the back with the cane. We have… Our neighbors, I’m sure are wondering what we are doing as we walk. I walked down the middle of the road, too. Sidewalks terrify me. [Garbled] gates are open, cars are jutting out, kids have toys. I walk down the street because at least I know a street’s going to be flat. I can usually sense a car before I run into it. I cannot sense a toy. I’ve had some spectacular falls and near falls.
[Mary] One thing that…
[Howard] Oh, sorry, go ahead.
[Mary] One thing that I want to point out with this is that when you are going into write a character with some form of disability, be aware that you have been influenced by the media representations. So the things that you think you know are probably the ones that are most likely to be wrong.
[Charlie] The thing I started to say and finish is that I slide my cane, which is wrong. Because if I tap, I will miss a stair. I will miss a pole. So, I slide it. All the movies, you hear the tap, tap, tap, tap, tap. No. Because I… That for me is very dangerous.
[Howard] Well, the thing you just said about I’m scared of toys, but I can hear cars coming… Before you got to that point, I was like, “You’re walking down the middle of the street. You know, there are these huge pieces of machinery that hurdle down the street that could kill you?” Yet from your point of view, the car is not terrifying, you can hear that coming and get out of the way. It’s the toy, it’s the kid who’s left a pile of jacks in the middle of the sidewalk…
[Charlie] It’s the fence, it’s the gate that’s left open that I’ll run into. Or the thorn bush that they forgot to trim back.
[Brandon] Let’s stop for our book of the week. You’re going to promo The Sisters Grimm?
[Charlie] Yes. It’s a series of books, Michael Buckley, all on Audible. The best are… It’s wonderful. They’re fairytales, but they’re kids of Jacob Grimm. Descendents. Their job is the fairytale detective.
[Charlie] Just read them. I have listened to every one of them. Not only do I read them, I bought all the books. So I have all the books and all the audiobooks.
[Howard] That’s cool. You can go out to Audible and pick up the pieces I’m sorry, what was the title again?
[Charlie] Get the first one. The first one… I think it’s Sisters Grimm, Fairytale Detectives, I think is the first book.
[Howard] The Sisters Grimm, Fairytale Detectives?
[Brandon] 30 day free trial?
[Howard] Oh, yeah. Start a 30-day free trial. But you should just go get these books because…
[Charlie] You should. They’re delightful.
[Howard] Charlie loves them.
[Charlie] I love them. You have fairytale characters you’ve never seen in this way before. They’re wonderful.
[Brandon] Mary, you are going to say something.
[Mary] One thing that I became aware of… We often talk about the MICE quotient. One of the things that I think a lot of people do incorrectly when they are using disability in narrative is misapplying the MICE quotient to it. That it actually… This is one of those things that you should not apply. So the MICE quotient, for those who are new listeners, is the idea that there’s a character arc… An idea that however you start your story is how you end it. That if you start with an event, something has gone terribly wrong, by the end of the event you have to resolve that and restore status quo. So if your event is your character has become disabled, that means that you have to solve the disability by the end. A character story, your character is dissatisfied with their role in life. If you have applied that to disability, that means that your character is dissatisfied with their disability and you have to resolve that by the end. So the problem is this winds up putting you in a position of making moral judgments about other people’s lives.
[Brandon] Right. I often talk about this when I’m talking about creating characters, where I talk about the idea of a flawed character. The difference between a flawed character and a character who has a handicap. A handicap is something that the character needs to work with in life, and it can be a physical disability, it can be any sort of other thing. I often bring up Aunt May as a handicap to Peter Parker.
[Charlie] Oh, absolutely.
[Brandon] Aunt May is awesome. You don’t want a book without Aunt May. It’s not something to get rid of, but it is a handicap because it can be used against Peter Parker. But Superman’s code of honor is also a handicap. These are things that people work with and you should not get the two mixed up. By making your handicap and treating it like a flaw, you are going to create a character that’s not going to work. Because they’re going to be overcoming something that either number one they can’t or that they shouldn’t overcome.
[Charlie] Yeah, if you’re going to write a handicapped person, talk to someone who is handicapped. Find out. I have my… I have a path in my house. If I’m going to get around, I have a pathway. Everything has to go out of my pathway. You find out these little things and you put them into your character. So your character has these little things they do, these habits. They have to do something a certain way. If someone puts something in my walkway and I get diverted, I get lost in my own house, and I’ve lived there for 20 years. It’s… I think it’s funny, but it’s frustrating. We laugh at ourselves. We are not… We don’t care… We’re not… I’m not visually impaired. I am blind. People are deaf. We’re not politically correct. But we don’t mind people making fun of us because we make fun of ourselves all the time. If you put these things, and you find out the reality of it, your character’s going to be more real, it’s going to have more depth. People are going to go, “Wow, that character’s kind of quirky.” But the people who are disabled, the handicapped people, are going to go, “Wow, they got it right.” So for people who don’t have handicaps, you are adding this dimension to your characters that other people are going to go, “Wow, where’d they learn this?” This little quirk, this little trick, this little thing is going to stand out and make your character different. Make your character believable.
[Mary] It is a dimension of the character. It is not the entire character.
[Brandon] Oh, yeah, that’s another good point.
[Charlie] I’m boring as a blind person. I’m sorry.
[Mary] Yeah, but that’s… The way we introduced Charlie is that she is a brilliant fan and con runner and she’s got a lot of other things going. The fact that she is blind influences the way that she handles these things. But that does not define her.
[Howard] Yeah. When I’m… When somebody asks me… I need to find Charlie Harmon and I don’t know what she looks like. There’s a war in my head because the Charlie that I know is the con runner who first invited me to Life, the Universe, and Everything, who ran the program for me, there’s all of these things, and the very last thing that Charlie is, is the blind lady. But in helping somebody find her, the first words out of my mouth are look for the lady with the white stick and the mean children.
[Charlie] That’s how I introduce myself. I used to always wear a red shirt. Find the lady in the red shirt. Now it’s find the lady with the white cane.
[Brandon] Now I had this idea… I guess this is the approach to the other topic that we get into all the time. But I do have writers come and say I’m nervous starting… Using a character like this, because I don’t want to be offensive, I don’t want to do it wrong. Can you give any last advice? This is the last thing we can say to someone who is thinking about putting a blind person in their books. Any just little points or encouragement or… Would you want to see more blind people in the fiction?
[Charlie] I want to see more variety, yes. Get blind people, get handicapped people. Get Hispanic people, get Polynesian people, get people who are not just the standard stereotypical people. Don’t be afraid to try. Don’t be afraid to go and ask somebody questions. We all ask questions. We don’t know everything, that’s why we ask. Go sit down and say, “Hey, I want to write a book, will you tell me something? Tell me about yourself, tell me about this disability.” Then you try. You’ll never succeed if you don’t try. You may fail, but you will learn something and then you won’t do it again next time and you will succeed.
[Brandon] Mary, you had a writing prompt?
[Mary] Yes. This is tied into how to know, how to kind of navigate this. What I want you to do is I want you to go to TVtropes…
[Brandon] Oh. Mary.
[Mary] I want…
[Brandon] There goes a week.
[Mary] You to look up blind people. Read the tropes that are there. Then come up with a plot that doesn’t hit any of them.
[Brandon] All right.
[Charlie] Find the blind actor. There was a blind actor for a while.
[Mary] Oh, yeah.
[Brandon] Charlie, thank you so much.
[Charlie] Thank you.
[Brandon] Thank you, Fantasy Con, for having us. This has been… Been Writing Excuses, you’re out of excuses, now go write.