For those who aren’t up to date on their classic picture books, “Little Miss Helpful” is about a person who’s always trying to help people and ultimately makes their lives much, much worse. One of her friends is sick and trying to rest, so she shows up to help. She wakes him up over and over again in the process of attempting to clean for him (destroying his kitchen in the process), and ultimately both are injured and I presume the friend gets pneumonia and dies. (I’m extrapolating from the fact that he ends up in a pond.)
(Pictured: An unrelated children’s picture book.)
So this week I’m struggling to accept the fact that an introverted kid who is not mine doesn’t get to sit next to her best friend (aka my kid) six hours a day (but is still able to play with her multiple times a day). Her mum is long since over it but I’m still in overprotective mode.
Today I have a brand new drama that also fits the “Felicity Banks clumsily attempts to help a person/people who would be much better off if she didn’t bother” narrative.
The oversimplified version—also the version that I’m emotionally responding to—is that I wanted to write a story with a protagonist who was disabled, in part because that’s one of the many groups suffering from Trump’s power… but it has become clear that I’m not smart enough to cause more good than harm.
Like most oversimplifications the above is not entirely true, but has an element of truth in it. It was mostly a structural issue that caused me to need to drop that particular aspect of my protagonist. Still. . .
It’s hard for privileged people to learn how privileged we are. It doesn’t matter how many advantages you’re born with, life is hard. Stuff happens. And when someone points out that an aspect of their life is harder than yours, it hurts. It feels like your own struggles are less legitimate. When you’re trying to remember whether “gay” is still a insult or not, and then you find out that intersex is a thing that you also need to understand and learn about, it feels like people are just taking offence no matter what you do.
Those feelings are knee-jerk reactions, and they’re not actually true. There’s a really thoughtful article about emotional exhaustion here.
So yes, privileged people also have struggles. But part of being a decent human being is to get past that knee-jerk “Arg too hard!!” reflex and realise that it’s vitally important to acknowledge other people’s struggles, and to use what power we have to help others.
I’ve been passionate about discrimination against people who are LGBTIQ since before I knew that one of those letters applied to me. I’m a Christian and have felt since my teens that Christians treat gay people and Muslims poorly—which is exactly the opposite of what Christian behaviour should be. But even thought I’m disabled myself, I’ve never fought for the rights of people who are disabled. (Partly, if I’m honest, because I’m still coming to terms with it in my own body and mind… after fifteen years.)
The term “Social Justice Warrior” is an insult, but since Trump was voted in as US president the world is badly in need of exactly that kind of warrior to mitigate the damage he is doing to pretty much every vulnerable minority group anyone can think of.
When my daughter found out about Trump, she gave up her allowance for months so she could donate it to kids and communities in the third world. I thought about what I could do and realised that financial help and/or things that involve me leaving the house (like protest marches) are rarely an option. But I still have a working brain (sometimes) and I have two powerful resources at my disposal: my imagination, and my readers. If I write interesting and diverse characters, it will help all of my readers to understand and empathise with people who are different to them. And it won’t feel like work.
I can’t earn a living wage; I can’t walk or stand or march without pain; I can’t vote in US elections; I can’t run to Nauru and singlehandedly gather up all the innocent children and bring them safely home with me; I can’t roam the streets making sure non-cisgender people aren’t getting beaten up; I can’t teach manners to Islamophobic trolls; I can’t stop Australian politicians from stoking racist fears in my own country—but I can write.
Here is a music clip (technically an ad for last year’s Paralympics):
I watch this all the time. It’s one of the greatest music video clips ever made. I actually have a real-life problem with Louisette being jealous of people with physical disabilities because of this clip (specifically, she wants to have either one leg—so she can do a kick-ass hopping high jump—or no arms so she can be an awesome drummer). I have to keep explaining to her that if she wants to have the amazing abilities of these musicians and sportspeople, then she has to train like they do.
Unlike most inspirational stuff (which is nauseating at best, and insultingly incorrect at worst) this actually works for me. I know that every single person in this clip has thought, “My life sucks! I can’t do anything! My body is holding me back from the life I want to have! This is so unfair!” at least once. I’m technically disabled physically, but my depression usually bothers me even more than the physical side, so getting told to look on the bright side or cheer up (by healthy, not-depressed people) often actually means, “Stop bothering me with your pain.” The clip above makes me feel good with the music, and means more to me than any other song because every person in it still has big parts of their life that suck. It hits the exact right place between pity and awe (both of which are foolish reactions able-bodied people often have to people who are disabled, ie “Oh, poor you!” or “Wow, you’re SO brave!”). Actually, people who are disabled do have unique challenges, but they’re also just… people. (There’s an interesting article about the social pressure to be the “perfect” disabled person here.)
The clip cleverly erodes the patronising pity I might feel towards people who are physically disabled in various ways. There really are certain elements of physical disability that are wicked cool. These are my two favourites:
- Prosthetics. The whole field of prosthetics is evolving so quickly that it’s incredibly exciting. Those curved “running legs” sportspeople use are actually faster than normal legs. There are other prosthetics that also do certain things better than nature. I’m with Adam Hills (who, incidentally, has one leg): Instead of calling people “disabled”, he says we should call them something that reflects how freaking cool their bodies are. Hills suggests “mutants”. Like, X-men style. Obviously that’s not going to happen, but there’s truth in the comedy. Now that I think about it, I actually had a one-legged romantic interest in “Scarlet Sails“, just because piracy does rather lend itself to non-standard body shapes. She even has a slightly-awkward sex scene due to my remembering Adam Hills talking about how he always needs to remove his prosthetic leg before sex. And in “After the Flag Fell” the main character almost certainly loses an arm—not just because steampunk lends itself to cool prosthetics, but because he’s an actual historical figure who lost an arm due to a battle wound.
- As a failed linguist (literally; I failed my second semester at uni) and a retired cross-cultural missionary (also literally; for ten years I worked towards a career in Indonesia teaching English etc to kids in the slums), I’m fascinated by the deaf community. Sign language is such an interesting set of languages, and the community itself is just that: a community. A lot of deaf people who could have their hearing restored through technology choose not to, because their deafness is as much a part of their culture as breasts are to a woman (As a breast owner, let me explain: So what if I’m not breastfeeding and never will? So what if my breasts require expensive specialised clothing and constantly get in the way? They’re mine and I’d be VERY upset if they were removed).
(Picture: Would YOU waste time looking at her wooden leg?)
So as I was working on the outline of an interactive story, I had an idea. I could have the reader choose a disability for the protagonist from three options:
- Someone with a double above-the-knee amputation. This is a significant disability in the real world, but in my world the character lives in an enormous floating city (influenced by, among other things, the Bajau people, a refugee people group who live almost entirely on water and have extraordinary abilities as a result) so I wanted to write that they had the usual prosthetics (cosmetic, running, practical, “shorties”, etc) as well as a prosthetic tail that makes them look like a real-life mermaid—including a superior swimming ability. I’m already jealous of this character’s ability in my mind, despite the fact that they’d also have significant disadvantages.
- Someone who is mute. Originally I wanted to write a character who was both deaf and mute, but a writerly friend pointed out that not being able to describe sounds would cut back on sensory immersion (a vitally important aspect of writing; my writing isn’t good enough to make up for it) so I toned it back. The protagonist’s city is made of transparent spheres, and getting from one to another is slightly awkward. I’d already designed it as a place where everyone uses sign language every day to chat through the glass during that awkward transition from one sphere to another. As I was thinking about the real-world deaf community, I developed my setting into a place with a large minority of deaf-mute individuals (not such a surprising thing, given a recessive gene for a condition causing people to be deaf-mute, combined with a relatively small population). That way I could develop a whole bunch of different and complementary sign languages (slang, trading, one-handed, something specifically for talking underwater, something specifically for the protagonist to talk privately with their best friend, etc). It would be such an interesting and fun world! Languages are fun! I’m also borderline bilingual (Indonesian) and have lived in Indonesia with Indonesians for six months, and observed firsthand the way language changes the way I thought about things.
- A phobia of deep water. This is actually one of my own (extremely numerous) phobias (making research a breeze), and of course would be very difficult when the protagonist lives in a floating city. Unlike depression, it’s specific enough (and has so little effect on my actual life) that I could write about it without getting depressed myself (I’ve written a story about the real-life experience of depression, but it’s…well, depressing). Although I wouldn’t recommend an anxiety disorder to anyone (duh), it DOES have the positive side effect that I deal with fear every day, so when something really scary happens (like having a baby, or having Chris in hospital with a rare disease that is both incurable and potentially paralysing or deadly… yes, that happened; he got better) I actually handle it quite well. It also means that the character would adjust more easily to the time they spend on land (the Bajau people get badly landsick, and so will my non-player characters—but less so if they choose option #3).
So now that everyone is dying to read my nonexistent book, here’s why it probably isn’t happening:
Good intentions are not the same thing as good results. Obviously, my aim is to write a positive, enjoyable, interesting story that also gives people with certain disabilities a chance to play a character who actually shares that aspect of their life. And a story that helps people who don’t have any of those conditions to feel that classic “oh they’re just like us” moment that we all need to have about… well, everyone who is not our physical & psychological clone.
One of the places I started my research was in the “Choice of Games” forums. “Choice of Games” is a hugely influential American interactive fiction company. (I am not associated or affiliated with them in any way; but I’m a huge fan and a Hosted Games author several times over.) They work hard to be inclusive, and it shows. The forums are a friendly, welcoming, helpful, and diverse place. I have accidentally stepped on people’s feelings there in the past (again, helping where help was not wanted) and people took me aside privately, and politely taught me how to be a better person. I was also forgiven by the people that I hurt.
I have genuine friends there that have made my life better, plus a really cool arch-enemy (you can read about him in the special features of Starship Adventures), and even someone I’ve since met in real life. Some of them are very different to me in various ways, and some are very similar (poor things). But I knew that I needed to research deafness, muteness, and the lives and feelings of amputees in order to write about them in a way that did more good than harm. I also knew that my research needed an extra layer: I needed to find at least one beta reader from the groups I was trying to represent. They would pick up on dumb mistakes I made. The forum was the perfect place to start looking for those beta readers.
(Pictured: Not a suitable beta reader.)
So I started a new topic, called something like, “Looking for beta readers who are deaf-mute or double-amputees”. I winced as I wrote “deaf-mute” and “double-amputee” but even someone with one leg has a very different life to a person with both legs amputated, so I needed to be specific.
Within 24 hours people had already replied telling me they’d thought (based on the title) that I was deliberately trolling the forums, and an admin had changed the title (with my belated blessing) to be less offensive.
So as quickly as that, I screwed up. Alarm bells began ringing, and they continued ringing as various people talked to me via the thread, communicating (gently) how very uncomfortable they were that someone so ham-fisted would be writing such a story.
I immediately googled the terms I’d used, looking for less offensive words to mean “deaf” “mute” and “amputee”, while also asking the people in the thread. I found that the correct words are (wait for it) “deaf”, “mute”, and “amputee”. I also found that it’s preferred that people put the “person” first, ie I should say “A person who is deaf” rather than “a deaf person”. But clearly the title I used for the forum topic was still deeply offensive.
So I’m already at a loss. How can I write about this set of disabilities when it’s apparently not okay to say the words aloud? Someone (rather brilliantly) suggested that hey, it’s a fictional world, why not make up words? The only problem is that I then have to explain that “sffhuiwe” (or whatever…) means “deaf”. So we’re back to square one.
I have since worked out that (a) The thing that’s offensive is that my attempt at brevity made it seem like the disability was the most interesting part of the character, which it definitely isn’t, and (b) It’s easy enough to describe the actions of the characters without using any of the words that may be offensive to some people.
Now is a good time to mention that Australians have much more casual manners than Americans. It’s actually something I love about Australia. I find it more honest and open and straightforward… but I’ve run into trouble at least once before because people thought I was being rude when I thought I was being friendly. So that complicates matters, especially since the vast majority of my readers are from the US.
In the meantime, someone I deeply respect (especially in the field of interactive fiction) pointed out that if I had the reader choose one of those three options, it was structurally saying that all three options (I called them “quirks”) were comparable. Which is just not true (even though it’s true within the story).
So that’s almost certainly the nail in the coffin for my “pick a quirk” idea. Which is sad, but a far better fate than having me write 200,000 words that made the world worse.
So that’s what I’m crying about today. I really wanted to represent disabled people in fiction, but my own limitations (and privileges) make it a terrible idea.
Having written all the above, I’m no longer sure that giving up is the right option (even though it almost certainly is) so I’ll think some more, and talk to some more people, and make my final decision after that. But before I make too much of a nuisance of myself.
As always, the questions that matters most to me is, “Will this cause harm?” but the second most important question is, “Will it make the story better?” It’s clear to me that these aspects of a fully realised and interesting character absolutely DO make the story better. That’s not an easy thing to give up.