Writing Right: Physical differences in fiction

physical differences in fiction

“Diversity is the one true thing we all have in common.”
– Anonymous

People in the world come in all different shapes and sizes. In popular fiction, this variety is somewhat restricted. Short-sightedness and lack of height prevail as common examples of descriptive anomalies for characters, but chances are that someone you read about will still possess two arms, two legs, both eyes, ears, and the amount of thumbs, fingers and toes necessary to count to 20.

This, of course, is not a particularly accurate cross-section of society.

For anyone who watched the 2012 Paralympics (or, indeed, pays any attention to life whatsoever) the world is full of incredibly successful people who have been born without – or, due to an accident, are missing – legs, arms, hands or feet. Some are blind or deaf. These successful (whether it be wealth, fame or intelligence) people are seen for their achievements and strengths but, for the everyman and everywoman in society who have similar physical differences, the perception gap tends to be wildly different.

If anyone follows DiversifYA or Disability In KidLit, you will be well aware of the blog posts from contributors who speak of their individual conditions and how society treats and perceives them as people. You may also be aware of the recommended reading, book lists and top authors that are mentioned intermittently on their Twitter feeds, which include characters that don’t tend to make it to popularised mainstream fiction.

Representation in fiction has become more of a talking point in recent years. The (extremely) out-dated practices of white-washing and disability apologists are facing a backlash from readers and writers who want to change the face of fiction to be more inclusive and, more importantly, more accurate to life. It is well past the time when such practices should be put out to pasture, or simply shot and sent to the glue factory.

The main character of my current work, The Elder Throne, is named Anna Squires. She’s 11 years old, headstrong but sensible, excellent at football and has metaphorical green thumbs. Well, thumb. Because Anna also happens to have been born with Amniotic Band Syndrome (ABS) and does not have a left hand. This is simply a fact. Anna walked into my head one morning, and ABS was always a part of her life.

Notice, I said ‘life’. Not ‘character’. Physical forms shouldn’t have any bearing on a character’s personality, any more than a girl of 6ft 2″ would necessarily have a different character to a girl of 3ft 4″. A character’s physical form shouldn’t be the only thing of note – and if it is, then that is an impressively bland, 2D character you have there.

3Nor should physical anomalies be a problem to be ‘solved’. At the risk of me rehashing details of this trope for those already aware, viewing physical anomalies or disabilities as things to be fixed is to miss the entire point of diversity (see also: Disability Superpower).

Harry Potter didn’t cast a spell to fix his eyesight: he wore his glasses whilst defeating Lord Voldemort. Mad-Eye Moody was a powerful auror and a steadfast, cranky old man. He was missing an eye and a leg, had a personality in bundles, and no one would dream of thinking him weak or needing to be fixed. Why should it be any different for someone with one hand, or a character who needs a wheelchair to get around?

The point of it all…

Genetic conditions and physical anomalies have been on my mind lately, hence this blog post. I’ve recently been in touch with some wonderfully supportive people who are helping me with my ABS research. A visit to the doctor last week has highlighted some new problems I may be facing within the next few years because of my condition, Incontentia Pigmenti (no, it does not mean I wet myself…).

Most importantly, I had a conversation yesterday in which I explained a creative choice in The Elder Throne to my long-suffering editor: Anna is left out of P.E. games.

Editor Dearest questioned why some children in Anna’s P.E. class made a habit of not passing to her in a game of netball. I explained it mirrored my own experience of P.E. lessons. Due to my distinct lack of height at 11 years old, I was never involved in class games, despite that when I tried out for the school netball team later that year, I made the cut. In my time at school, I’ve seen children bullied or shunned because of race, ability/disability and even religion. It was not a leap of the imagination to Anna experiencing discrimination in her primary school.

polls_7643stewie_evil_3911_405790_answer_8_xlarge (1)The upshot of the conversation was this: children can be cruel. They are oblivious and occasionally callous, whether intentionally or not. They learn this attitude from their surroundings; everything they absorb, from real life examples to the books they read, informs and colours how they treat others who may lead different lives or look unfamiliar to them.

Callousness is somewhat excusable in young children. One could argue that they don’t know any better. However, children grow into adults and, from my own experiences, adult ignorance is not quite as excusable.

Bad experience

Those who know me personally may be aware of my myriad genetic conditions. For those who don’t, one of these conditions is called Syndactyly, which is to do with the fusing of bones and skin on the extremities of the body (i.e. hands and feet). I have this particular condition in a mild form. The skin on my toes is fused on both feet, so instead of the usual ten, it looks like I have six, despite the bones being separate. My fingers were once very similar, with my middle finger and my ring finger fused on each hand. When I was 1 year old, I underwent an operation to separate them, which left me with usable but extremely scarred and slightly bent middle fingers. The tip of my ring finger on my right hand actually protrudes at a right angle to the rest of it due to an ill-set splint. It looks a bit like a hockey stick.

This never bothered me. My scars are something I genuinely like, and my ‘funny’ finger is incredibly useful for shaping and smoothing marzipan fruits come Christmas time. All in all, I love my hands. They work fine, so that’s great.

One day, an adult man, circa 26 years old or so, told me to hide my hands out of his sightline because, and I quote, “Deformities disgust me.” Not having come across this type of absurdity before, I was shocked into silence.

Having grown up with two headstrong siblings, I’m no shrinking violet. Yet, the ignorance this man displayed had the power to silence me and make me feel ashamed, for the first time in my life, about my own body. I should have called him out on his attitude and I regret that I didn’t, but the experience was relatively new in adulthood. Considering this particular physical anomaly of mine is quite mild and ‘subtle’, I didn’t understand why it deserved such a vehement reaction. It didn’t take me long to realise that there is no physical anomaly or condition that ever warrants that reaction. And so, I loop back to representation in fiction.

Getting it right:
The importance of research

People, especially children, learn from books. For those without life experience, reading the experiences of others on the page is invaluable. If exposed to different types of people – people of all different shapes and sizes, as they are in real life – readers learn what they may not see every day, and see others as people, instead of 2D stereotypes to be ridiculed, pitied and even feared. Children grow into adults, and if the basis of their life knowledge is diverse equality, chances are they’d grow into a pretty decent bunch.

Yet the foundations have to be built correctly. There’s no point building a beautiful mansion on quicksand, so this is where research comes into it. I’m a big believer in Internet and book research for most things, but there are some topics where only human experience will do. Disabilities and physical anomalies are such topics: if you don’t know from personal experience, it might benefit you to contact someone who does know.

The great thing about the Internet is that it connects people. There are people from all over the world, with completely different backgrounds, living completely different lives, who surf the web at some point. Relying on books and website facts can only take you so far. If you speak to someone with the experience you need, your character’s development – and your readership – will be the better for it.

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