As The Tithe says in its dedication: “To all people with differing physical and mental appearances and capacities. We deserve a story in which we’re the heroes.”
Truth is, sometimes I want to read a book with characters who look and think like my loved ones and me. Since I’m a writer and the god of my own, tiny, made-up universes (it’s good to be queen!), I realized I have the power to, as the way-overused quote* says, be the change I want to see in the world.
Yeah, I know romance novels exist to provide us with escape pods from our dull, non-HEA lives. This is why sheroes’ flaxen hair so often billows in the breeze and heroes’ pecs are pronounced enough to carve open cans of green beans. But, you know, I like my fantasy with just enough reality sprinkled in.
When it comes to disabilities of any kinds, “just enough” is more often “none.” I almost never find representations of non-normatively-able-bodied peeps in media. When I do, they’re almost always using a wheelchair, which is visually striking but only one tiny fraction of the ability spectrum. Other than that, and a romance novel I read 15 or so years ago that featured a deaf shero, the absence of non-able-bodied characters screams much more loudly in my ears.
As disability rights scholars and activists say, since we’re all temporarily able-bodied (meaning we will or do experience a disability at some point in our lives), the absence of characters with differing abilities grates. I realize it can be fun to project ourselves into idealized literary avatars and pretend for a moment we, too, embody these definitions of beauty and utility, but what happens when we come back to our non-ideal bodies, thoughts, and lives?
This is why I try to write characters that have multiple abilities. Not only do I want to be able to relate to these characters, but as a sociologist who writes novels, I see it as part of my duty as a creator and purveyor of popular culture to leave my readers (and me!) feeling represented.
For example, Joshua Barstow, The Tithe’s main character, is a 20-year-old library caretaker with Charcot Marie Tooth Syndrome. This means she deals with some degeneration of the nerves in her feet and legs, which makes for difficult and extremely painful walking. Josh almost always feels pain.
The Tithe covers a lot of ground, but Josh’s character arc includes her coming to terms with her dis/ability. In the beginning, she is deeply ashamed of her “wonky legs,” which includes hammer toes and high arches, and understandably feels unhappy with the pain she constantly experiences. As the story progresses, she begins to deal with her difference and to understand herself as a product of it.
Blue, Josh’s love interest, has experienced blindness since birth. Deciding how this would affect his social interactions, his perceptions – heck, even the metaphors he uses to describe things – provided a happy challenge for me. And no, his blindness isn’t symbolic of anything. In fact, blindness is, just as being sighted is. Below is one of my favorite exchanges in the book.
“Are you blind?” Izel asked Blue. Josh stopped walking.
“Yes,” he said.
“Blind means you can’t see.”
“What’s it like to not see?”
And this was why children scared her. What would she do if one of them asked her about her legs or even wanted to see her feet? Josh shuddered.
“I don’t know,” Blue said. “What’s it like not to smell the color purple?”
A confused silence followed. “Colors don’t smell,” the other girl finally pointed out.
“Maybe they do and you don’t know,” Blue said. “You don’t miss it because you don’t know what it’s like. My blindness is the same way. I was born not knowing what it means to see, so I don’t miss it.”
Creating diversely abled characters doesn’t only honor our readers but our own experiences, whether past, present, or future.
* Also falsely attributed to Gandhi.