On disability, diversity and characters

Following on from this post I wrote about pregnancy, childbirth and the irritating clichés of writing, I promised a rant on disability. But first, go and read this post by Joanne Harris on ‘How Diverse is Your Diversity?’

Read it? I’ve had this quote stuck on a virtual post-it on my computer screen ever since I read the blog post.

While books are vehicles for ideas, we may not always share them. This doesn’t mean we shouldn’t read (or even tell) the stories of those with differing views: even if the only reason for doing so is to better learn to disagree. Books should be a source of debate; and we should not be afraid of characters who seem to represent values that we ourselves do not share. To shy away from apparently unsympathetic, difficult, morally suspect or otherwise challenging characters is not to support diversity.


And it made me challenge myself. The second quote I have stuck on my metaphorical wall is;

When did you last read a book about someone blind or partially sighted? Someone deaf? Quadriplegic? Someone with hydrocephalus? Someone with congenital defects due to the use of Thalidomide? How many books have you ever read about someone with a club foot, a hare-lip, or someone suffering from Parkinson’s Disease? How many literary protagonists are amputees, or stroke victims? How many have Down’s Syndrome, or Cri-du-Chat, or Prader-Willis Syndrome? Outside of the one in Notre-Dame, where are the literary hunchbacks?

I’d already started writing Golden Trust & Treasure; Haller, my protagonist, has an amputated leg and uses a false one. But…it made me think. I put Haller in without any real thought to diversity; a mining accident worked for his situation and he’d likely be incredibly injured, plus if you have a leg injury then amputation is a common solution in a world where medicine isn’t the best. But just because I ticked the ‘diversity’ box without really thinking about it, does that mean I can stop?

I pride myself on being fairly diverse, usually without thinking about it – and actually, trying not to make the reader think about it. Anoe’s a single mother. Toru’s gay. Haller’s an amputee. Freja’s in her fifties. There are bisexual, asexual and un-gendered characters (mostly because I haven’t yet asked them what gender they are, and if they don’t tell me when I write them then it isn’t important for the reader to know). There’s a transgender character – not that you ever find that out, or at least not yet. And none of the characters are particularly described by skin tone, or by specific race, so in some ways I’m lucky there; if you think there aren’t any ~insert race here~ people in my stories, examine your own assumptions before pointing fingers at me.

But that’s not the point.

I don’t – I think – automatically make my characters any one thing. Automatically making your default character female is as bad as your default being black and bisexual; diversity is about a mixture. It’s about reflecting everything that’s out there. It’s not about not having the straight white male hero in your story; it’s about recognising that they aren’t everything that’s out there. It’s about everyone being able to recognised something of themselves, somewhere in your writing.

And for me, diversity is about putting a crowd out there. Because I write multiple characters, I have the absolute luxury of being able to be incredibly diverse; I’ve written depressed characters, angry characters, charming characters. I’ve written someone who lusts after someone he can’t have, who hates the life he’s been born into, who dreams of following his talents. I’ve written someone who nearly died and now has to live and work with half a leg, in constant pain, hating the world yet knowing that he has to live within it. I’ve written someone escaping her abusive family, someone who can’t stop returning to them, someone who is an abuser. I’ve wondered how a single mother would cope when her child is attacked. I’ve written a father trying to support his children while their mother saves lives. I’ve debated how someone with severe anxiety would deal with travelling. I’m writing revolution, murder, hatred, passion; all things that maybe I don’t understand, but that I can at least try to. I’ve incorporated different cultures, different points of view; I’ve written different ways of talking, discussing, acting. I try to write as much of the diverse world around me into my fantasy world as I can. Because it’s not always elves and dwarves and humans. It’s not just good and bad. It’s just different ways of looking at the world, and there’s an absolutely endless variety.

It’s something I will always, always be working on. I know I’m not that good. I want to be better. I want to practise, learn, try. I need to get what’s in my head out onto the paper, and I need to bring people to life in my reader’s heads. But I also need to reflect on the sheer amount of difference that is available in human culture. I need to keep pushing myself to learn more and to write that. I need to keep challenging myself to include as much of what I see around me as I can, just so when people read my stories, they can look at someone and say, “I feel like that. I know that. That’s me.”

Author: kate

Kate Coe is an editor, book reviewer and writer of fiction & fantasy. She writes the sparkpunk GreenSky series and blogs at writingandcoe.co.uk. When she's not working, she fills her spare time in between writing with web design, gaming, geeky cross-stitch and DIY (which may or may not involve destroying things). She also reads far fewer books that she would like to, but possibly more than she really has time for.