Does your character make readers uncomfortable?

WHAT CHARACTERS MAKE READERS SQUIRM?

When I set out to tell the story of Pride’s Children, I was originally driven by a sense of the unfairness of society toward those who have most need of its kindness.

Specifically, your DISABLED character?

There are two USUAL ways to deal with disability in a character: as a decoration or as a problem.

The first – a ‘feature’ of a character – gets mentioned every once in a while, but doesn’t seem to stop the character from doing most of the things ‘normal’ able people do. And it mostly leads that character to be a secondary character, a sidekick, the ‘friend in the wheelchair.’

The second leads to ‘inspiration p0rn’ (avoiding search engine problems here), and the solving of the ‘problem’ consumes the space dedicated to the story, with inspirational results – problem solved – or, sometimes, the character’s death (in a disturbing trend, by suicide while making life easier for those left behind).

Ignore the fact that suicide has a horrible effect on the people left behind. Most of us know of someone close to whom that has happened, and know they would do almost anything if they could go back in time and help.

Disabilities in real life

Disabilities are far more abundant than people think. If you count all disabilities – and I do, of course – estimates run over 20%. Don’t forget the invisible ones: FM, mental health issues, pain, CFS, non-visible genetic ‘abnormalities,’ a thousand things that make life difficult for the disabled person, but generate wrath in observers who watch them use the handicap parking space. Don’t forget old age and its common memory and mobility problems.

The counting is made difficult because of a human tendency to hide problems if it is at all possible, so you will not be ‘different’ or ‘other,’ and attract unwanted attention. Presumably there was some evolutionary benefit to getting rid of tribe members who would slow you down when your tribe was in the hunter/gatherer phase (a rather long time ago).

We ‘pass’ for normal/able as long as we possibly can, which also makes us suddenly appear very disabled when we can’t pretend any more.

Animals do it, too – everyone knows of a pet who didn’t let its owner know something was wrong until it was far too late to help. Wild animals do it so as not to appear vulnerable, as the weak and the sick are noted as easy prey.

But there is a different way for a writer: reality

I have taken the step of writing a disabled MAIN character, with a significant disability, which she ignores as much as possible, and bows to when inevitable.

For this disabled character, writing is a job – and she’s been successful at it, very slowly – and by staying hidden from the world.

An Amazon reviewer:

…while much of the plot centers on the cautious romance, Pride’s Children is also about a writer’s way of interacting with the world, living with a chronic condition (CFS – … I realized that I couldn’t think of any book I’d read, recently, involving a character with a disability or chronic illness – a significant hole in terms of diversity), and the struggle to remain balanced and kind when new people and routines enter one’s carefully-ordered sanctuary…

Disability is a learning experience

Those who are or become disabled have a steep learning curve: everything is harder. Moving, learning, thinking, being independent, even making new friends – all these are more difficult the farther a character is from the norm.

And the effects are interwoven: difficulty reading means trouble holding a job, getting to that job on public transportation or by learning to drive. No disability is purely one thing you cannot do.

There are few disabled characters in fiction (which is why they stand out) because writing them is extra effort. It’s easier to write about kickass heroes and heroines who tough it out through thick and thin and keep on ticking.

Just tonight we watched, in the same show, a character get stabbed in the back by an enormous kitchen knife embedded at least four inches by the blood shown carefully on the blade when it was pulled out by the stabbed character, who then went on to limp a bit while he walked around, interacted, and finally was not shot by the police detective – and who survived with no visible effects by a short time afterward; and a character poked at in the stomach by a little knife who died instantly. Neither of these seemed at all realistic – but the plot required one survive to talk and talk, and the other to be removed quickly from the scene.

In the same way, disability in fiction is mentioned when necessary to make a quick plot point – but not there pervasively.

FICTION = EMPATHY

I have written about how properly-constructed fiction is uniquely helpful in creating empathy in humans because it allows them to live alongside a character the life affected by the choices the author has made (type ’empathy’ into my search box).

They do, however, have to read said fiction, which means it has to be surrounded by the best entertainment the writer can provide.

I’m not surprised there aren’t more disabled characters, but I’m disappointed that indie isn’t more of a place where, since the big publishers are not supervising the product, there are more disabled, diverse, and simply ‘different’ characters and stories.

But there is that pesky thing about having to write well to sneak the empathy bits in under the radar. It takes more space, more words, more time.

It is MUCH harder to market.

I still think it’s worth it.

Do disabled characters make you squirm?

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25 thoughts on “Does your character make readers uncomfortable?

    1. Alicia Butcher Ehrhardt Post author

      May I suggest mine? ME/CFS runs from mild (people can still work) to very severe (people lying in their bed in a darkened room, unable to do anything); I’ve picked about the place I know in the middle of that spectrum – very limited but can fake it for a while under the right conditioins – to put one of my main characters. It’s not the point of the story – it’s just the way she is. It’s not me – but I can remember how I felt and what I could do at her age.

      If you can read – many of my CFS friends cannot – and like the sample, let me know if you need an electronic ARC (review optional, but appreciated from those who have been able to write one).

      Not pushing, but I hope I have accurately depicted it.

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        1. Alicia Butcher Ehrhardt Post author

          I only suggested the techniques because you wrote about crashing after having a good day. Many of us have learned the hard way that what healthy people can do, we can’t. I can’t say if they would work for you. Best of luck, and, if you try them, be prepared to take a while to learn. I take 3-5 naps a day, and I’m better after each – many other CFS people either can’t or won’t stick with it long enough to learn. They will have to find what works for them.

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  1. Jeanne

    I like books with disabled characters who see the world differently from the other characters and who use their perception in some interesting way.
    There are no sympathetic characters in Arrested Development, which is part of what makes it funny–talk about a show that plays with perception!

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    1. Alicia Butcher Ehrhardt Post author

      I’m sure there are real people like that – which is the sad part. But I don’t need to get involved with them or their messes! Dysfunctional humans abound, as well as disabled ones.

      Disabled people are forced to see the world through a double lens – what the normals see, plus what their own disabilities present them with. We don’t always need to be catered to, but we do need the world to be less deliberately ableist.

      It’s a fine line sometimes, but if it’s your brother who can’t get into a building, suddenly you might be more sympathetic. Mothers of young children go through that part of life where a hand would be nice – and instead get stares of people who wish they’d keep their brood under control and quiet. Unfortunately, their lives go back to too busy to care once the kids are better able to manage themselves, and they forget. Ditto the guy who falls off his bike and breaks his leg and needs mobility assitance devices – for a while.

      And the disabled person/character has to figure out how to live every day.

      Anyway, don’t get me started! I know you are more understanding than most.

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  2. joey

    I think this is so well-thought-out and written. The only ones I can think of are the twists when the disability becomes what saves the person, and they’re almost all physical ailments in those cases. That bit about being marginalized, I think applies to anyone who feels marginalized. But then, we do prefer our own.

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    1. Alicia Butcher Ehrhardt Post author

      Thing is, we can switch from one state to another in an instant sometimes, having a whole new world to have to deal with.

      ‘The disability saves the person’ could mean different things depending on ‘saves.’

      What I find reprehensible is the attitude that death is better than disability, and that someone needs to choose that for the good of the community. Maybe in Alaska in winter, but we’re more civilized than that when it is our child or our dad. Or spouse.

      It is depressing to become disabled – remember how depressed Christopher Reeves was when he first became a paraplegic. But that is situational, and shouldn’t be permanent – death and the loss of someone you love IS very permanent.

      Heck, being gay is permanent. Being dumped by your fundamentalist parents because God made you gay must be the pits.

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  3. Holly Jahangiri

    You bring up some really GOOD food for thought (as usual, Alicia – being the excellent writer that you are).

    Have you watched The Good Doctor on TV? I think they use the central character’s autism well – he is that “brilliant autistic person” that must make others on the spectrum want to hurl. And yet, he is simultaneously flawed in sometimes unique, and sometimes very ordinary, ways that make him relatable AND cause viewer discomfort, I think. But is it HIM? Or is it what we know that discomfort is telling us…about US?

    I remember how my own grandmother – generally someone I thought of as being empathetic – would almost pointedly avert her eyes from anyone she encountered who had a visible disability (even if, for them, it was no real disability at all, as they’d learned to get along in the world just fine without help). I asked her about it, once. To me, it seemed uncharacteristically rude. But to her way of thinking, she was saving them the embarrassment of being “stared at” as if they were freaks. Still rude, I thought, but maybe her heart was in the right place. Surely it was. I chose to smile, chat, and make new friends, instead.

    I particularly enjoyed conversations I had with neighbors and friends who had cerebral palsy; people much of the world had written off as “brain damaged,” but who, I discovered, usually had normal intellect and a gift for gab – if ONLY someone would take time and effort to LISTEN. Understanding was difficult, but usually worth it. Imagine. My daughter told me, once, that she had a substitute teacher that might be “mentally handicapped.” We ran into him at a local store, where he was working as a cashier. First thing I noticed was how quick he was. How friendly. How well he worked the register and greeted people. His speech was difficult. So what. Over time, I got to know him better. He had degrees in History and Architecture and was working on an advanced degree as well as teaching. I supposed the job he held when we first met helped him pay tuition and allowed him a flexible schedule so he could attend classes.

    I’ve run across so many people online, over the years, who claim to be disabled or chronically ill. Many also CLAIM to be writers, though many are not good at it. And I will tell you flat out that most of THEM – not their characters – make me uncomfortable. I imagine you know the sort I mean – the ones who took to writing because they thought maybe it was a job they could do without having ever to leave the house, NOT because they had a burning need to write or anything to say. The ones who throw self-pity parties incessantly, and double-down – renting out a stadium for them – when no one shows up. They never do anything to better their lot in life; after a while, it’s clear they’re kind of enjoying it, if only for the attention. Look, writers can be a whiny lot, when they are new to it and getting rejected or ignored; add this interminable self-pity to the mix, and it’s not a pretty picture. It’s not the disability that makes me uncomfortable, not for a minute. It’s the fact that I can’t make it better, whatever it is they’re suffering from (be it the chronic illness, disability, or rejection-depression), and after a time, I get the feeling they are positively reveling in it, making it the central trait of their own character.

    The fact is, MOST disabled people I know are NOT whiners. They complain, like anyone else (oh, the ones who never do are almost worse than the whiners – talk about making the REST of us feel inadequate!!) They are strong – I imagine them stronger than I am, though they say “It’s not like you have a choice.” The disability is a challenge – but even if it’s a central focus of daily life, its not the thing that DEFINES them; it’s not who they are or what they are. Most seem to want to wring the most life they can out of every day, whatever it takes. I’d like to see a character like this who just goes around smacking able-bodied or long-suffering litanies of hangnails-past in the head with their cane. Those who have the most reason to complain often don’t, or it’s horribly understated compared to the cause for their complaint. That should put the rest of us to shame. And maybe it does – maybe, deep down, that’s the thing that really makes us squirm.

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    1. Alicia Butcher Ehrhardt Post author

      Why, thanks for the kind words, Holly.

      I haven’t seen The Good Doctor – where is it shown? I don’t think we’ve watched broadcast TV in a year! We have Amazon and Netflix, and try not to watch more than a couple of hours in the evening, so we’re entertained enough.

      You make a lot of good points about the internet and disability and chronic illness, and it is very hard to tell if someone is being whiny or really has an impossible life in many of the cases.

      It is a gift to be able to ignore all that part of the time. Does everyone have that luxury? Don’t know. I know someone in real life with horrible things going on – and she’s always driven me crazy BEFORE all the horrible things. I’m trying, but it’s hard to try to cheer her up! Takes a lot of energy, especially since I know how bad it actually is. NOT all her fault, either.

      What I try is not to judge – because I can’t possibly KNOW. Maybe someone only has enough energy to blog when she will otherwise go insane. Then all her posts would be pretty dreary.

      In that stage, I go silent. If you look at my recent past history, I was silent a lot. Then things have gotten a bit more figured out, and I’ve posted a bit more.

      The other part is: whatever able bodied people do or are accused of, double or triple or quadruple it – and then multiply by the huge number of them. It really IS that bad, but if disabled people complain, they lose even more social credibility. Believe me, we minimize everything.

      Also, I believe that I can only hold one thought in my head at a time, so I try really hard to pick something positive. It helps. But it removes NOTHING.

      My intention is never to shame, but to raise awareness gently. I partiallly achieve that. I can afford that – I’m not anywhere near well, but the pit goes very deep indeed.

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      1. Holly Jahangiri

        The Good Doctor is on ABC, on Mondays – so it should be on tonight! I usually watch Prime Time at my convenience – we have The Dish with DVR.
        I know many people going through horrible things, and that may be part of the problem with the Internet. You want to be a good friend to many, but if you’re at all empathetic, you (perhaps ironically) have to build up walls to some degree, to keep from wallowing in the collective misery. (Don’t even get me started on the fakers and attention-wh***s. I’ve known several people who’ve faked terminal illness and their own suicides to make themselves the center of attention online. They do usually regret it, later, when people send someone – police officers, if no one else can be reached – to do a welfare check, and realize there really ARE people out there who care enough to follow up. I try not to be cynical, because I know MORE people who are truly strong and sometimes need to vent, rant, or cry on someone’s shoulder – and I want to be there for friends in need, but NOT for the liars and emotionally manipulative martyrs.) I try not to judge, too – but I’m also less likely to judge someone as being 100% credible, these days, unless I know them well.
        Also, it’s probably worth noting that if I’m miserable with something minor, like a cold, I tend to be a LOT more whiny than if something’s seriously wrong. It’s weird, but there’s no cure for the misery of a cold, and you’re not likely to die, and no one truly gives a rat’s whiskers – tends to make me whiny. 😉 More serious things? I feel like such an inconvenience – it’s kind of embarrassing. I kind of want to crawl off and die quietly. Not really, but I think you get what I mean. So while I think it’s nice if someone brings me chicken soup when I have a cold, they should probably also say, “Suck it up, Buttercup, you’ll be fine in a week or so.” Just so I don’t wallow. 😉 If I have something terminal, maybe you should lock the doors so I don’t wander off to the woods like an animal and try to die in private.
        It’s good to raise awareness of the “invisible disabilities.” I had no clue, when I was younger. I thought people who scampered into the store after whipping their car into the handicapped spot were all a bunch of scammers. Till my son took to bouncing on my sciatic nerve, in utero. That was fun. I didn’t need the handicapped permit long, and didn’t use it most of the time when I had it, but it was nice when I needed it! I don’t know that awareness, alone, grows empathy. I think analogies and metaphors are useful tools, if you can find them.

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        1. Alicia Butcher Ehrhardt Post author

          Every once in a while I wonder about people I meet on the internet in my support groups. One, who only posts when something hits her, I think is autistic – she may just not notice that other people are much more supportive when possible. From her words and choices – and try to be kind. I always assume either severe illness and lack of energy, too, for that particular group. The drama queens don’t come around and stay in the groups. Again, trying to give the benefit of the doubt. One of our members was very shaken recently about people and FB picking up words about people possibly being at the end of their rope – and getting 3 day psych holds and police officers in their homes as a result. Not cool.

          I don’t trust AI any further than I can throw an electric car unaided. Certainly not yet.

          On blogs, after a few posts, you have a feel for attention-seekers and braggarts – and don’t go back. I have limited time for it – I like to participate in actual conversations because otherwise I wouldn’t meet and talk to some of the fascinating people online.

          I’ve spent almost 30 years trying not to let a major chronic disease inconvenience anyone – I know what you mean about embarrassment. Considering everything, I’m being truly ridiculous, but compassion fatigue sets in VERY quickly, and I can’t afford to be what I need to be as it is.

          One of the additional burdens. I’m sick 100% of the time, and they whine about helping very occasionally, and I have to suck it up. Life’s fun. Thanks for listening. I normally keep the dogs in the kennel.

          That’s why I write the intensely interior way I write in Pride’s Children: you can put the book down, and the episodes are as short as I can make them, but it’s as close to experiencing it as I can make for you. It’s not just the illness, but the personal and professional facets of three lives. It’s immense fun to be able to write like that.

          I’ll keep The Good Doctor in mind, and check ABC tonight. We watch Mom on CBS via their limited free version, and tolerate ads just because it’s easier for one show.

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        2. Holly Jahangiri

          Yes, you have credibility with me. I know that there’s a tremendous energy cost when you read my posts/comments and I selfishly enjoy every minute of it, but also hope that you take that energy and use it selfishly for your own books, too! 🙂 I hope that you enjoy our conversations, too. You’re definitely NOT one of the whiners (and please don’t misunderstand me – everyone’s entitled to a good whine now and then! Just maybe not 24/7 for years on end… I have friends who suffer from almost constant migraines. I’ve had four in my entire life, and just the MEMORY of them is excruciatingly painful. I find myself literally typing softer, thinking quieter, when IM’ing with someone who says they have a migraine. I can’t FUNCTION with one, yet these people get up and work and go about their daily lives and barely a peep. I’m not talking about them, either. No one can be that strong all the time! Compassion fatigue IS real, though – so I like to reserve it for those who are trying, at least a little, if that makes sense. And no, you can’t always tell (well, eventually you usually can, but I try to give everyone benefit of the doubt until a pattern emerges).

          Yes, AI has some scary potentials. No, I don’t think they’ll get it right in our lifetime. Won’t stop them from trying, but I think group members will still be in greater danger from well-meaning (or overly dramatic) fellow members who don’t feel safe ignoring the sort of comment one makes in darker moments. I know from past experience that they usually confer with others, though, before making the call. If several people feel it’s warranted, then it may be. Safer not to express such dark thoughts in public, then, eh?

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        3. Alicia Butcher Ehrhardt Post author

          Don’t worry – I can do comments. Which is whyI’m so grateful the system exists. Imagine, just for me, WordPress maintains this whole system so I can meet fascinating people for a chat, and I can do it on my own timing. If I don’t feel well, I can take a nap – and answer later. I can read later, but I have human contact with other writers, with book readers, and with people who like to chat a bit. Pretty neat.

          And they’re self-selected to at least have a minor interest in the topics I’M interested in. Fancy that. And they are reasonably polite or my spam filters (thank you, Akismet) don’t let them through.

          I say my blog is my own online magazine that publishes anything I care to submit to it. You people out there keep me sane, and keep me writing. Good quid pro quo. Please don’t stop.

          As for AI, it reminds me that there is a famous dictum that when a scientist says something is possible, it is. But when the scientist says it isn’t, it still is. History is full of naysayers, but that doesn’t stop progress.

          The problem I see is that discoveries and inventions replace the lowest human laborers, who then have no jobs. You can bet there’s someone out there finding a way to pick strawberries cheaply and fast – to replace migrant workers. And we’re not educating people fast enough and well enough (the same as when millworkers in England were replaced by automated looms).

          There is progress, but The Economist reported that 87% of the world’s wealth last year went to the top 1% of rich people. We’re accelerating something that has always been with us: greed.

          As for the other topic, there are ‘systems in place’ and they are sometimes implacable. I read recently of a mother who asked for help with postpartum depression and, you guessed it, was detained by the authorities, treated like a criminal, and got no help from either the doctor who should have been caring for her or the hospital – and was sent home with nothing! SHE made the appointment for help, her husband called in to explain everything, and she still got none. Extreme cases are happening everywhere – and human sense isn’t being applied.

          Well, on that cheery note, I’m off to see if I can get this brain to finish an important task. Should take a normal person a few hours; I’ve already spent months at it. Long live the Infernal RS!

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  4. Catana

    Yes, it’s worth it, even if there isn’t a huge market. The story I’ve been mentioning on my blog — Penitents — is one of those stories. The central character is autistic — on the aspergers end of the spectrum. I don’t plan to label him, or even mention or hint at autism, just let his reality speak for itself. Whether he comes across as disabled will depend on how he copes with an entirely new kind of life, and how the other characters view him

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    1. Alicia Butcher Ehrhardt Post author

      As long as it is well-written, and he’s a decent fellow, trying, it will be a good story.

      I just can’t read books any more with unlikeable characters – or watch them on TV. I need one to latch onto, and a reasonable situation,

      I can’t watch Arrested Development because the supposedly good character is an idiot to put up with that family!

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      1. Holly Jahangiri

        I like Sherlock. He’s not particularly “likeable,” but he’s worth getting to know, maybe. And interesting.

        And I haven’t seen Arrested Development, but we don’t always get to pick our families. And only family can understand, sometimes, what other family members find lovable or worth putting up with about them. I think that’s real and relatable, in itself.

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        1. Alicia Butcher Ehrhardt Post author

          I’m a purist – and that Sherlock is a modern thing, and I won’t watch it. I wish they’d just invent their own characters and go with what works instead of stealing. You may disagree, but I prefer only the author’s versions – even if they’re now out of copyright. Pet peeve.

          The problem with AD is that I can’t believe a family that bad. Ok, maybe now after this year.

          Liked by 1 person

        2. Holly Jahangiri

          They’ve modernized it, yes, but I think the British version is quite good – they’ve been true to Sherlock’s character, and the whole thing just works (I wasn’t going to watch, for the same reasons as you, but I got caught up and ended up hooked on it). I never got as hooked on the American version. We try, but I’m not sure WHY. British shows are good to begin with; WE should make our own originals. If you haven’t watched the BBC Sherlock, though, I’d suggest giving it a go – watch one episode. If you hate it, you hate it – that’s fair. But I’m betting you’ll enjoy it in spite of your objections. It’s quite original in its own way, and a fair homage I can’t imagine Sir Arthur Conan Doyle would’ve objected to.

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        3. Alicia Butcher Ehrhardt Post author

          No, thank you. It could be the Queen’s pajama’s, and I still won’t watch it. I have my standards. Watching ONE episode would contaminate my brain – and could never be unwatched.

          Don’t worry; I’m only that fanatical about a few things. But they’re using the name to get advance publicity and people to watch something who have never read the books. I’m not in that cohort.

          They need to make their own characters, and develop them, and take the same risks Conan Doyle did. Then THEIR character would have the name recognition, if it deserves it.

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