Drop the Plot Crutch (Another Disability Writing Meta) - The 32nd Flavor
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Drop the Plot Crutch (Another Disability Writing Meta) - The 32nd Flavor
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milkshake_b
milkshake_b
Milkshake Butterfly
Fri, Apr. 30th, 2010 08:27 pm
Drop the Plot Crutch (Another Disability Writing Meta)

17CommentReplyShare

amand_r
amand_r
That's Lay-day Snackpants to you, buster.
Sat, May. 1st, 2010 02:26 am (UTC)

I think, thought, that it's easy to use something like this and say that anyone who isn't disabled writing about the disabled then uses them as a gimmick. I thought about this a lot because I once made a major character a paraplegic, and I wanted to be sure that it was a reasonable course of action in the plot (as a side effect of canary wharf) and also it IS a major device. She's married and, before this, had the use of her legs, and you know all the control of the lower body etc. Plus you know, daleks and cybermen trauma, etc etc etc. I don't think it's too hard of a stretch to say that yes, I made a conscious decision to paralyse her, and yes, it influences the plot, but it's not a gimmick. If someone loses a leg or the ability to walk, I'd be pissed if it didn't affect the plot.

I'm not saying that there aren't ways that it can't be cheapened or treated poorly, but the fact is, bad shit happens to people and that effects plot, and I'd like to suffer crap and then see it done well every once in a while than to have a whole subset of people virtually ignored in fic.

Hrm.


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evilstorm
evilstorm
The Nat That Walks By Herself
Sat, May. 1st, 2010 12:16 pm (UTC)

I think MB is pissed at people who do it just to wring heartstrings or artificially insert tension.


ReplyThread Parent
amand_r
amand_r
That's Lay-day Snackpants to you, buster.
Sat, May. 1st, 2010 02:28 pm (UTC)

Yeah, I figured, but I wasn't sure. And those people, well, jerks. Unthinking at the very least.


ReplyThread Parent
milkshake_b
milkshake_b
Milkshake Butterfly
Thu, May. 20th, 2010 06:48 am (UTC)

I think I oversimplified. Oh well, this is why it's a dialog, not a lecture.


ReplyThread Parent
catalase
catalase
Catalase
Sat, May. 1st, 2010 06:25 pm (UTC)

What you just described is a plot. What MB's objecting to is a particularly cheap variety of plot device, in which the story is in no way about the disability itself, but in which the disability is used to create tension and then removed whenever the device is no longer needed. (Unless the character is removed instead, but that's an entirely different sort of author foul play.)

Barbara Gordon is hideously injured, disabled, and transitions her heroism from the action-oriented Batgirl to the cerebral Oracle = plot, and an interesting one as this is rarely done in fiction.

Dean Winchester gets his leg eaten by a demon, spends episode angsting, has leg restored by end of episode by divine fiat= plot device. The key point here isn't just the impermenance, it's that the writer could have achieved exactly the same goal- Winchester angst- by many, many other means.

Using disability purely as a way to make fans weep for their woobie is what's petty and disrespectful, not representing it in fiction period.


ReplyThread Parent
amand_r
amand_r
That's Lay-day Snackpants to you, buster.
Sat, May. 1st, 2010 06:28 pm (UTC)

Yeah, I got that now. I was just unsure.


ReplyThread Parent
milkshake_b
milkshake_b
Milkshake Butterfly
Thu, May. 20th, 2010 06:47 am (UTC)

That's more or less it. Babs isn't really the most ideal example, unfortunately. (I wish I could think of a better one, but I've left these replies more than two weeks as-is.) The reasons behind the initial storyline with her being shot were all really appalling. Her reinvention as Oracle is one of the best examples out there of a good writer coming along and making triumph out of what by all rights ought to be tragedy.

Also, it's not just a case of "the disability is used to create tension and then removed whenever the device is no longer needed"--it's more about relevance and consequences. A character can remain disabled, and remain alive, but still have either the consequences or even the visibility of their disability swept casually under the rug ("she uses a prosthetic now, limps a little, whatever it's cool, back to more important things") because the author has gotten the use they wanted out of it (the character has made their difficult choice, the audience has cried, whatever). Lots of people think this is something to be lauded for, because hey, they've got a disabled character, they're not dead or magically fixed, what do you want?

And to take that even further down the line, it's still not acceptable if that "swept under the rug" disability only comes up again when you need more dramatic tension. ("They're running from the bad guys and her prosthetic broke, oh no!")

Now, that relevance does not have to be a physical or a hugely obvious thing. I was extremely impressed by the Avatar: the Last Airbender episode The Northern Air Temple, because when I first realized the kid we'd seen gliding around so easily in the air couldn't actually walk, I was afraid we'd be getting a "disabled people are just as good as regular people!"-style moral of the week, delivered as anviliciously as impossible. What we got instead was the wonderfully restrained backstory that his father had been inspired to make the gliders and to stay at the air temple by the realization that in the air, "everyone would be equal"--and of course you realize instantly the one he's most concerned about being equal is his son, but you aren't bludgeoned with it.

That case is a little special in a couple ways, though, because I honestly wouldn't have cared much if there had been a lot of story relevance to Teo: it's starting with a character who is disabled in the first place, and it's a lovely bit of writing not to have their disability made into a big deal, to just show them going on with their lives*, precisely because that depiction is so incredibly rare. I can count the cases of it I can think of on one hand, and while there's a certain degree to which I can be sympathetic to a writer's desire to make use of the handy potential for drama a character with a disability makes, that sympathy got used up a while ago.

Then again, I suppose it still does apply: if the story you're wanting to tell is one where someone has a disability but is just depicted going on with their lives and not having it be plot-shakingly important, then you have to have a disabled character, so it gets through the questioning process just fine.

It's really not a quick, easy thing to define, but then it really shouldn't be. If you've gone and made a quick easy decision to make a character disabled, that probably should be your very first clue that you've done it wrong.


* Which isn't to say 'going on with their lives without caring that they're disabled', because they do and should and would, but you can be bitter as hell about not walking or being able to see or frustrated at times, and not have the story harp on it. Like Toph, for example; A:tLA was all around frankly pretty remarkable for this sort of thing, and I hope to shake the hands of everyone involved some day.


ReplyThread Parent
milkshake_b
milkshake_b
Milkshake Butterfly
Thu, May. 20th, 2010 06:28 am (UTC)
Part 1

catalase addressed one of the points I was going to cover, so on to the rest:

It's a truism that in writing the first things you have to learn are the basic "shouldn'ts"--be they grammatical or characterization or world-building or whatever--and then you can play with the more advanced "shoulds" and figure out when those previous "shouldn'ts" can become "shoulds"*. People who make the "Well then I guess I just won't write any kind of [Minority X]!" response really aren't any more special than the countless ones who sulk over having to actually learn the rules of the English language, or pout over the idea that their fantastic cardboard constructions of characters might need a little rounding out. It's childish, and it's stupid to empower them by refusing to discuss the topic in question--those people are going to ignore you whether you talk about it or not, because they're not interested in learning. What they want is to be told that what they're doing right now is perfect, brilliant, and genius, and they're not going to listen to anyone telling them otherwise regardless of how it's phrased.

So, frankly, fuck 'em. They'll either come around on their own some day--many do, because it's a pretty common phase in the life of a writer; I had a horrible case of it myself at 19--or they won't, and in the latter case, why care about them? And if it is the former case, then there's all the better reason to discuss it, because when they do start realizing they could probably use work, they might remember the things they'd once dismissed and ignored (like, not to cite a personal example or anything, something their ninth grade teacher once told them about semi-colons). And even if they don't, there are plenty of other people that are, right here and right now, looking to improve, and will listen, and think about it, and try to apply what they've learned. Only they can't learn if no one wants to post things like this because they're afraid of the vocal percentage of people who will go "Well then I just won't write them at all, are you happy now?"


I think, thought, that it's easy to use something like this and say that anyone who isn't disabled writing about the disabled then uses them as a gimmick.

That's why I included those questions. They're judgment calls, yes, and a substantial portion of people will probably make the wrong call--and honestly, there is no hard-and-fast line, so some cases are borderline enough that any three disabled people might not agree if you asked them. However, plenty of people will wind up thinking about it and realizing they don't, actually, need to break that person's spine or cut off that person's arm or whatever to tell the story they want and need to tell.

What you have to ask yourself is: can the story I'm trying to tell be accomplished some other way? If the story you're trying to tell is the story of Lisa surviving Canary Wharf un-cyberized but paralyzed instead, then no, you really can't. If the story you're trying to tell is about the great hero St'reot'pe nearing the end of his Quest to Save the World when something bad happens and he is forced to take up the SuperShinySwordOfDarkness and imperil his immortal soul, then you don't need that "something bad" to be his horse throwing him and his spine breaking; there are so many other things you can use. But lots of people will do that anyway, because it's cheap and easy and handy to milk for drama.

If you can replace the character or event with something else and get the same effect, that's a gimmick.


* 'Round about here "should" stopped looking like a real word to me. More importantly, though: yes, this does mean that there are times and places where you can write a disabled character who would seem to violate every single one of those questions I asked, and still have it be a good use of disability. But as with any violation of 'the rules', the best way to make sure it will actually be a good and effective thing to do is to know why and when you shouldn't do it in the first place.


ReplyThread Parent
milkshake_b
milkshake_b
Milkshake Butterfly
Thu, May. 20th, 2010 06:29 am (UTC)
Part 2

I thought about this a lot because I once made a major character a paraplegic

And from everything I've heard about that, you did fine--because it effects both plot and characterization, and not just of the person in question, or of the designated hero. But this really isn't trying to be a post discussing how to write disabled characters well--that's an entirely different can of worms and a lot more complex; you couldn't do it in one post, and certainly not one this short, for all that I keep going into it in other comments.

What this post is instead is trying to present the simple question of if you should be writing a disabled character at all, and with some minor changes, the process could be applied to any minority. You should not be writing a female character just so she can be killed off or injured so the male character(s) can have motivation. You should not be writing a gay character just so they can angst about it or be bashed (physically or otherwise) for their orientation. Hell, you can even take it to you shouldn't write a child in just so they can be imperiled to better tug the audience's heartstrings. (Yes, I'm looking at you, Star Trek.) They're all examples of bad writing; the difference with the situations that involve minorities is they add an element of offensiveness that takes the situation from "this isn't very good" to "please punch yourself in the nose."


ReplyThread Parent
amand_r
amand_r
That's Lay-day Snackpants to you, buster.
Thu, May. 20th, 2010 03:14 pm (UTC)
Re: Part 2

Sorry, that just wasn't clear from you initial post.


ReplyThread Parent