I recently published a Discussion Essay onto this blog about more unique POVs in books. You can consider this essay a sort of sequel to that other one, since I’m once again talking about POV characters in books. Perspective characters are a pretty big factor in determining how much I enjoy a book, so that’s why we’re revisiting the subject so soon. That said, the subject matter is a little different this week, as I’m going to be talking about a different kind of variety in a book’s POV characters. This essay has been inspired by Abbie Emmons’s novel ‘100 Days of Sunlight’ – but I won’t be talking about it in this essay. If you want to check out a more standard review of that book, there’s a link to my Goodreads review of ‘100 Days of Sunlight’ at the bottom of this post. Now, on with the Discussion!
You might have noticed in recent times, that discussions of more diversity in fiction are becoming increasingly common – with people talking about the lack of representation (or simply how it could be better) in our favourite book genres, for myriad different demographics, whether it’s ethnic minorities or the LGBT+ community. What you probably haven’t seen is anyone talking about representation for people with disabilities.
This void in the discussion bothers me, because I’d argue our fiction is even more lacking in this area than any other area of representation. And so, I figured I would talk about why we need more disability representation in books, and more importantly, how it could be handled.
As always (or, well, almost always) I’ll be keeping this discussion focused solely on fantasy, sci fi and horror, for the reason that these are the genres I’m mostly familiar with, and the genres that I personally write, which means I have more experience and knowledge with these three genres than any other. However, much of what I mention today will be relevant to other genres too.
First and foremost, let’s get the most obvious argument out of the way, since it’s probably the one you most expected when opening this post. We need more representation of disability in books because people with disabilities are a group of people who exist, and they deserve to appear in fiction just as much as anyone else does for the same reason that anyone else would appear.
But, look, I’ve been watching these discussions unfold for years now and so I’m well aware that that simply isn’t enough of an argument for lots of people. And that’s fine. In fact, I’m inclined to agree with you. I don’t think characters should be written with a disability just so you can write a mark on your checklist. That isn’t going to make the author or the reader happy, won’t lead to a particularly compelling character or story and, probably, won’t even function as a worthwhile piece of representation anyway.
Here’s a couple of guidelines:
As with all things writing, if you don’t understand something, you probably shouldn’t write it. This is as much true for representing a minority group as it is for writing about a certain field of science. If you don’t know a lot about it, then you likely can’t write it in particularly convincing ways. Now this doesn’t have to be a warning sign for anyone outside of the loop when it comes to understanding disability. I disagree with the advice that you should ‘write what you know’ in favour of a more encouraging ‘know what you write.’ Therefore, I find a preferable recommendation to be that you should research the chosen disability (and talk to the people experiencing it) before you stick it in the pages of your next novel.
As for the second guideline, put some consideration into how a person with a disability fits into your story. From conversations I’ve had on this subject before, people are going to be against so-called ‘forced’ diversity. But honestly, people are going to be against that even if they are a member of the demographic in question.
Disability is a tough thing to write about because, ultimately, a disability is something that makes certain aspects of the person’s life harder, and so you don’t want to represent it in an overly, unrealistically optimistic light. But equally, you don’t want to represent it as a burden, or something to be feared.
It’s probably a resistance to solving this dilemma that makes disability representation in books so much rarer than any other kind of representation.
It also means that ‘forcing’ a disability into your story is going to come across as fake and unrealistic, no matter which extreme you fall down.
So what’s the solution?
Essentially, treat the character as a character first and foremost, with the disability acting as a single character trait (whether the character sees it as a strength or a flaw is up to you) rather than their defining characteristic.
Okay. The obvious stuff is out of the way. Now back to the question – why do we need disability representation in books?
There are a whole host of arguments I could make here, but I think ultimately it comes down to one main point – creativity.
What do I mean by this?
Well, it stands to reason that when a medium of storytelling draws from a greater variety of possible characteristics, that medium will subsequently start telling a greater variety of stories, using a greater variety of characters, who progress through said story in a greater variety of possible arcs and narratives.
Or in short, it makes books more varied.
And also, I strongly believe that giving a character a disability is actually a more effective way of injecting your story with something unique, and genuinely creative. And if you know me, then you know that a story being unique is more important to me than anything else. Bigger than this though, it allows you to be more creative while simultaneously giving a voice to an under-represented demographic of people.
But, okay, I’ve made a point, I haven’t argued in its favour. How, exactly, does giving a story a disabled protagonist on its own make that story more creative?
Well, consider this:
Which sense do you read more in books?
99% of you probably answered ‘sight,’ MAYBE ‘hearing.’
Okay, then, now imagine your POV character is blind. Or deaf. Maybe even both. How does the author write that? They’d have to get creative. They’d have to utilise the other senses, in a way that many authors leave to the wayside, if they don’t abandon them outright.
Can you write a story without ever describing a sight or a sound?
Yes. The answer is yes. But it would be difficult. It would require talent.
It would require creativity.
And that’s just in stories generally. Imagine sci fi/fantasy in particular.
How would a blind character pilot a spacecraft? How would they feel on entering an elven civilisation for the first time – bearing in mind they can’t see it, so no falling back on old cliches like architecture and a surrounding wood. How would an alien invasion feel if you couldn’t see it? What would it be like trying to win a battle of riddles with a sphynx… when you can only communicate using sign language? How does a character escape from being captured by a dragon, when they can’t hear it coming?
And speaking of sounds and hearing, consider horror. How often does the horror genre rely on the sound of creaking doors and floorboards. The footsteps of the approaching serial killer. The scream of your murdered friend. Now imagine the POV character doesn’t hear that. Maybe the serial killer knows they don’t hear that. So they stop relying on stealth because they don’t see it as necessary anymore.
You could even go down the horror comedy route – wouldn’t it be frustrating for a ghost if the person they’re trying to haunt couldn’t hear the wails of the dead and the rattling of the chains? Maybe a vampire is really happy to meet someone who can’t see that they have no reflection.
I came up with all these ideas on the spot, I’m sure a good session of creative brainstorming could generate even better ideas. Also consider that so far I’ve only spoken about blindness and deafness – there are many more disabilities out there in need of representation, all of which could spark equally unique story ideas.
Because ‘reliable’ writing moments don’t just come down to senses, either. Consider common traversal in fiction. Walking. Perhaps horseback, hoverboards, spaceships. But how would someone with a wheelchair or crutches manage traversal in your fictional world? Don’t let the fact it’s difficult for them to get around an evil hivemind’s fortress in a wheelchair stop you from giving them one. Don’t let the fact that space travel has accessibility issues stop you from confronting them.
Stories are better when the conflict is greater.
And what about communication? I’ve already brought up the issue of arguing against a sphynx with sign language. What about other communicative disabilities, like dyslexia, or non-verbal autism?
Not only are people with disabilities in dire need of representation, giving it to them provides ample opportunity for any author to do three things (you know I like my threes):
Write something outside of their comfort zone, by researching something they might not have a lot of knowledge on.
Get a really creative story idea onto the page, and create characters and worlds that can be explored in ways no one else has yet done.
Provide the readers with something that feels genuinely fresh, and genuinely open minds with the story.
Another thing I haven’t mentioned yet is that, considering how often all three of the genres I’m talking about on this blog are known for using their fictional world to make observations about the real one, like how sci fi can provoke real scientific and technological advancements, or how fantasy can satirise or act as allegories for real world peoples and events, or how horror can act as a ‘safe’ way to engage with real world fears… Is representing disability in speculative fiction not obviously going to allow for some great storytelling?
So I hope this essay has at the very least given you something to think about. This is a very different kind of essay to the ones I’ve been writing so far, but I’m glad to get it out there and, hopefully, spark something in any writers who are reading. Like all representation, this is important socially and culturally. But I hope I’ve proven today that more representation for people with disabilities… can also be good for the story in and of itself.
Especially if, like me, you’re constantly itching for unique stories with original ideas.
Link to my Goodreads review of '100 Days of Sunlight' for those who want it: