Sunday, April 10, 2016

A Long Tl;dr Post About Inconveniencing Your Characters

A couple weeks ago, I came across a great post about incorporating magic and technology into disability narratives. This is a really insightful post which you should all go read if you haven't yet. In fact, I'll pause for a few minutes so that you can have a chance to do so.

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Okay, are you back? Cool.

What I'm posting now is a bit of a tangent to that post. (Note: Although it touches on the subject of disability, this is mostly a post about character building. This post is not meant to butt into or derail conversations on disability representation. Those conversations are very important, and while I make an effort to listen to them and boost others' voices, I do not personally feel qualified to join that conversation. If this post does come across as hurtful, appropriative, or offensive in any way, please let me know.)

Remember this line?

"Glasses enable perfect vision for many people, but they require upkeep and are often impractical. Contact lenses seem like a good alternative, but not everyone can tolerate them, they’re much more expensive than glasses, are more work to use, and can easily get lost."

It was interesting to see glasses and contacts brought up because I'm not used to thinking of my near-sightedness as a disability. Near-sightedness is extremely common in our society, and as a result, we do a great job of accommodating it with glasses, contacts, and occasionally surgery. But this post brings up a great point about how vision problems can be a huge inconvenience at times. Contact lenses give me a headache if I wear them for too long and they get really uncomfortable if I fall asleep in them. They also require travel planning--if you're flying one of those budget airlines that charges you to check a bag, you better make sure you have a small bottle of solution that you can take in your carry-on. Glasses can also be annoying. My glasses get smudged a lot, they hurt the back of my ears if I smile too much, and I hate wearing them in the rain. They're also obnoxious in the operating room, since they sometimes fog up while I'm wearing a surgical mask or slip down my nose and I can't push them up because I need to keep my hands sterile. And although my vision is fine with correction, there are times I can't wear glasses, such as swimming or showering. I've had several occasions where I put my glasses down to brush my hair and then had to ask my roommate to help me find them again.

As common as glasses and contacts are in our society, though, you don't see them that often in fiction. I can only think of a handful of protagonists with glasses or contacts in YA (Harry Potter, Gansey from The Raven Boys, Melinda Sordino from Speak.) It's almost as if correctable vision problems aren't "important" enough to shape a story, so authors ignore them altogether. (Also, I'm throwing the middle finger to every novel where a character only wears glasses to look smart--looking at you, Divergent.)

Your mileage may vary on what you consider a disability and what you consider an inconvenience. It would probably depend on both severity and context, such as how well a society can accommodate that problem. (Being near-sighted in a society where glasses and contacts don't exist or are not easily available would absolutely be a disability.) One great example that blurs the line is the fictional disease called retinal Kellis-Amberlee in Myra Grant's novel, Feed. While it doesn't significantly affect the plot of the novel or prohibit the protagonist from engaging in most activities, it does affect her day-to-day life and it serves as a great world-building detail.

I'm also not saying that "inconveniences" should replace disabilities, or worse, be used as a metaphor for disabilities. We definitely need more novels with accurate and respectful disability representation. But there's no reason we can't have inconveniences in addition to disabilities. (After all, people in wheelchairs sometimes wear glasses, too.)

It's also worth noting that not all of these inconveniences are health conditions. One of my protagonist's inconveniences is that she has to (well, okay, chooses to) wear gloves. She changes them several times a day, avoids almost any food that can't be eaten with silverware, limits how much she drinks so she can avoid public bathrooms (and carries hand sanitizer for those times when she can't hold it in). She has special fibers sewn into the tips so that she can use touch screens, and has special pairs for swimming and exercise. When she first started wearing them, she probably had trouble with tasks that required a lot of dexterity, such as flipping through pages in a book. The gloves also attract a lot of unwanted questions about why she wears them, which she usually can't answer honestly.

The reason I bring this up isn't so much for the sake of representation, as it is for realism. A lot of these minor-seeming inconveniences can really add dimension and detail to a character. I'm sure every person in real life, whether disabled or able-bodied, consistently faces some sort of inconvenience that other people don't even think about. (If you're disabled or otherwise under-privileged, you probably face more of these than the rest of us do.)

If you want more examples, here's my list:

Voluntary inconveniences (things that I don't necessarily have to deal with, but are a consequence of my lifestyle choices):

1) I'm a vegetarian, which means that sometimes I have trouble finding something to eat at restaurants or group dinners.

2) I don't have a smartphone, which often means that I have to explain to people why I can't look something up on a whim. (Very minor, I know.)

Involuntary inconveniences:

1) I have an anxiety disorder. My anxiety disorder isn't debilitating or severe enough that I would consider it a disability (though I'm aware this isn't the case for everyone), but it does affect my personality and my way of navigating through life. It has made it difficult for me to make a good impression on strangers, I don't adapt as quickly to new situations as other people do, and it has manifested as both somatic symptoms (I was convinced I was allergic to eggs for over two years) and as uncontrollable crying spells. The crying spells have mostly gone away since I started medication, but the medication does have side effects. It's also a problem because I'm pursuing a career in the medical field, where the unwritten rule is "keep your mouth shut about your mental illness." (And people wonder why the suicide rate among doctors is so high.)

2) I have a rare condition called Duane syndrome*, which is a mis-wiring of one of the nerves in my right eye. (I can't move my eye outwards.) It doesn't affect my life in any major way, but I do have trouble tweezing my right eyebrow and shaving my right underarm without a mirror, I look really weird in right-sided photos because I have to turn my head all the way around to see the camera, and I sometimes get a headache if I spend too much time looking at the person immediately to my right. It also means that if I ever walk into an unfamiliar ER with altered mental status and doctors can't access my medical records, they'll probably think I'm having fluid buildup in my brain and won't treat me correctly.

3) Seasonal allergies. Enough said.

4) I used to have facial hair before I went through several electrolysis** treatments. A lot of women have to deal with facial hair, and yet I have never encountered a female protagonist in a novel who has this problem (or who has facial hair but doesn't consider it a problem, which is a viewpoint I hope our society comes to adopt). You see hirsutism in movies sometimes, but it's usually treated as a joke.

5) Menstruation. About half of our society has to deal with it, and yet you don't see it mentioned in fiction very often (unless someone might be pregnant).

I'm sure that you yourself could think of a hundred different inconveniences you have to (or choose to) face on a regular basis, but that aren't the center of your life. What about your characters?

*One of the characters in my novel has Duane syndrome, and it does have a significant role in the plot.

**Electrolysis is supposed to be better than laser hair removal, and it worked a lot better for me than waxing and tweezing, but hair can grow back later in life, it can cause scarring (especially in darker-skinned individuals), doesn't work well in everyone (ie, if you have PCOS), and does require some time and money. Also, it involves having needles repeatedly poked into your face, which isn't fun.

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