Wiscon Report - notes on Including Disabled Characters in Your Work(s)
Including Disabled Characters in Your Work(s), moderated by Juliana, with panelists Julie Andrews, Jesse the K, Vylar Kaftan, and Jennifer Pelland
I'm finally at the end of my panel write-ups! Next will be posts on some of the more social aspects of the con, parties, etc.
I should note first off that I came in a lil late to this one, so missed the beginning part, maybe first ten-fifteen minutes or so??
(also, once again, three panelists with the same first starting initials - so hopefully all of my jthek, ja, and jen attributions get in there correctly!)
The first thing I got down in my notes was Jesse the K recommending the movie Sneakers as a good example of ways to use the good parts of disability without taking advantage of them.
Jennifer talked about giving her disabled characters a sex life as one way of rounding them out.
A member of the audience mentioned how few stories about people with disabilities (PWD) show what it's like to cope with their disability.
Jesse the K says there is difference between info dump and explaining the realities of someone's life that people sometimes struggle with.
Vylar says even as a writer with disabilities, it can be hard writing characters with different kinds of disabilities due to the fear of getting it wrong.
Julie and Vylar agree that it's good to use the daily frustrations PWD have to build tension in the story, and in character development.
Jennifer advises mining from people you know from your past, that we all know PWD and can think of examples and that can help in character development. She also talks about how anyone can figure out how to write a disabled character, which is a great point, but she used some problematic language in how she expressed that. Just going to note here that I contacted her privately after and she was really receptive to my comments, which was great to see.
Jesse the K says that some of the things about living with disabilities aren't about the actual disability itself but about how living with that disability affects other aspects of your life. She gives an example of someone with epilepsy whose biggest issue might be that the medication to help control the seizures makes them unable to drive or do other things, not the seizures themselves.
Vylar points out the importance of getting at least two views on something because not everyone with the same disabilities has the same experiences.
Julie brings up the issue of shyness and how it's still important to talk to other people about their experiences - find ways you are more comfortable with to reach out and ask your questions.
Jennifer stresses the importance of accepting that if someone you are wanting to talk to about their experiences says "I just don't want to talk about it" that is their final answer.
Vylar mentions that it's a position of privilege to assume that someone will want to talk to you about their experiences.
Jesse the K asks if there is a point at which there is too much research.
Julie says no, but that you can learn faster by writing what you have and getting feedback than just doing tons of research and never getting down to writing.
Vylar says it's important to have enough research to get the basics down and then do the writing and get/incorporate the feedback.
Jesse the K talks about the internet as a helpful tool for finding people to talk to, and says that the internet is often a "social prosthetic" for people with disabilities (love it!).
There is a general discussion about the balance between describing the reality of a situation and the "squick factor". Jesse the K acknowledges that many people don't like hearing about liquids and tubes. Vylar says for the character it's just part of life, but for the reader, they may not want to read it.
Some discussion of the Cure Narrative, how in sci-fi/fantasy there is more opportunity for this. Jesse the K says the cure narrative is a standard cliche and when reading one, will ask herself why did the author choose to do this? How is it moving the plot along? The message to a PWD is that they are better off dead because the hero's journey ends in death and that's a profound journey.
Julie says that if in your world building, it makes sense to give someone a new arm (for example), and then you don't, you need to explain why.
Jennifer stresses that a cure is not a cure-all, that giving a character a cure will not solve all of their problems.
Vylar revisits the squick factor and says that even if you don't include it in the story, the author should still be aware of all of these details of the character's life.
Vylar also mentions that many people have multiple disabilities, and can even have contradictory disabilities.
An audience member says she has been reading YA about autistic characters a lot lately. Notes that the more stories there are, the more diverse experiences we're exposed to. Asks how do stereotypes affect how writers depict people when there is a lot of current literature about a specific disability?
Jesse the K says that some writers pay more attention to what other authors have said on the subject than what actual people with disabilities have to say. Stresses the importance of having characters with agency.
Jennifer says that even if some people with a disability think you've gotten it right, some will think you've gotten it wrong because everyone has their own unique perspective/experience.
Elizabeth Moon's Speed of Dark is recommended. (Second panel I was in that weekend and she's one of next year's GoH)
One audience member says, if some parts of a spectrum of a disability have been covered a lot previously, writers should challenge themselves to go for the under-represented group.
Jennifer adds that writers should learn about the caretaker's experience, as well.
Vylar says it's important to distinguish whether a character thinks of themselves as disabled or not.
Julie says sometimes you have to be mean to your character, and that's okay to do even if the character is disabled.
An audience member, naiadea, says "don't be afraid to make them unpleasant at times." [I also have written down in my notes that she started by saying "I was reading the internet..." which was cute and I get to poke fun at because she's my friend. :P]
I added to her comment and said something along the lines of "let them have good moods and bad moods, and also you know, some PWD are really nice people and some are just dicks - like everyone else!" heh
Jennifer advised not to be afraid to have a character be frustrated about their disability - as long as that's not all they do! But then, also, if they are newly disabled, it might be all they do for awhile. [Truer words...]
Also talked about the pitfalls of the Victorian Noble Character trope in regards to disability.
Jesse the K gave a wonderful benediction, which I was too busy listening to to jot down - so if anyone has it, even in bits, LMK!
[Edited to add: (as reported by 1crowdedhour: "Our lives are interesting, we're everywhere, write about us because we are interesting -- most of us will experience increasing impairment -- don't be afraid to try -- have fun."]
Julie added - don't just make your character disabled and nothing else. They'll have an age, race, gender, etc. Intersectionality!
Overall, very good. Not being much of a writer myself (at least of fiction), I was mostly there out of curiosity and to see if I could add in some tips myself from the perspective of a disabled reader. Interested to hear if writers in the audience felt it was helpful to them. Glad I made it to this panel, even if I did show up a bit late.