Writing the Disabled Character, Part 1

Here I am using the term “disabled” loosely. This can mean anything from quadriplegia to asthma. If an illness/condition is as much a part of their character sketch as their humor, then consider them a “disabled character”.

There’s lots of things to keep in mind but right now I want to focus on medication. Some of us Real Disabled Folks take a lot of them. Currently I have eight full-time prescribed medications and two supplements, resulting in me taking seventeen pills and four puffs on an inhaler. Remembering to take them, and taking them at the right time, is a pain in the ass. Add in the Filling of the Pill Organizer Thingies? And I am so done with taking meds. But wait, we’re not done. I also have five as needed medications so I need to keep track of when I last took one and if one of them is going to interfere with something else.

Many conditions you can saddle your character with are going to require a medication. You don’t have to name it, but you can mention them taking it. The frustration of it. The “crap, did I take it this morning?” or the “is it Friday already?” (because we know what day due to the pill organizer lids). This doesn’t have to hamper your character. It can add a certain depth to her. It can display a part of her personality in unique, distinct ways. Is she OCD? There ya go! Bottles lined up, tray filled regularly, alarms on her phone, etcetera. Is she the complete opposite? Does she have alarms set up not because she is OCD but because she otherwise would never remember? And yeah, there’s apps for that. Sense of humor? She can give them all names. Or mess up the generic names.

And yet this can be done in simple little passing scenes that not only set up the character, but set up her life while a the same time carving out the shape of your character. You can have that character be mature and take her medication like a good girl. Or be a rebel and purposely miss doses. Or have them accept the things as just part of life and handle it with as little thought as what side of her toast to butter.

If you do give them a disability, even a mild one like hypothyroidism, Google is your friend. So is your own physician. Read through some forums. Understand what the condition is like with just as much expertise as you would any other part of your novel. Don’t mess it up. Because disabled readers will notice. We’re so excited to see “us” in books but don’t think we don’t ignore mistakes. If the character takes a pill one morning and bitches about how she has to take it every morning, she damn well better take it ever morning. She stay over with her new love, where’s that medication? Even if she decides it is okay to skip a day, mention it. Or don’t mention the medication at all. You can say she has a condition and just not mention medication which would be perfectly fine. We read books all the time where the characters can go six months and never go pee so we can handle a disabled character not mentioning her medication.

Spring mornings and squirrels

A scene that came to me this morning. It is rough, there’s some grammar bits that need fixing.

Ellen is a character in Nikki’s not yet named Butch Girl book. Nikki is a character from BGCFA. Spam is her dog, a big Rottweiler.

***

Ellen stepped out into the chilly late-spring morning. She could see the steam from her coffee as she raised it to her lips. She leaned her hip against the porch railing and watched Mother Nature in Her natural element. She could see fog down toward the river (no, creek as Nikki keeps reminding her). Wet dew glistened off the tall wheat-like grass in the field beyond the yard’s fence. As she sipped her coffee, she watched the sun’s rays slowly crawl across the yard, causing first the yellow iris then the purple ones to bask in the spot light.

Despite the house being fairly far off the road and in a rural environment, it was quite noisy outside. Dozens of birds flitted about from feeder to feeder. It seemed to her they spent more time chasing each other off than actually eating. The birds hadn’t noticed her standing there or perhaps they didn’t care. Mourning doves and bright yellow finches fought for positions on the thistle feeders. Big blue jays and several grackles hopped around each other as they ate the cracked corn from the flat stones Nikki used for ground feeders. A red and black little bird (something towhee?) scratched at the grass where the sunflower hearts had fallen from one of the feeders. A bright red cardinal perched on another feeder where he pulled out a big sunflower and cracked it open on the edge of the tray.

Ellen heard a low growl and turned to see Spam staring out in the back yard. She followed his gaze and saw a squirrel on a branch. It seemed to be weighing its options as to which bird feeder to feast from first. Ellen grinned. “Must be new to the neighborhood”, she said to herself. The squirrel ran up the branch then came down the tree trunk. It clung to the bark, upside down, about a foot from the ground. Last minute perimeter check.

Spam waited, his big head getting lower and his rump got higher as he slowly rose to stand. Ellen was fascinated with this. She’d seen him chasing the squirrels away before but had not seen him preparing for the event.

The squirrel reached the ground and in leaps and bounds, made its way across the yard toward the closest ground feeding station. Just as it was about three feet or so away from it, Spam let out a deep “woof!”.

For a brief half second, nobody moved. Then the backyard exploded in feathers and fur as the birds and the squirrel frantically tried to disappear. The birds flew away but the squirrel didn’t seem to know where to go. It ran in a circle, still looking for the source of that bark. By then Spam had charged off the porch and was across the yard. The squirrel seemed to realize the errors of its ways and headed back where it came. Ellen laughed as it looked like a gray, blurred line straight back to the tree and back up the trunk.

Spam stopped where the squirrel had been and he sat down. His mouth opened in a wide grin. His duty for the morning was done.

Chasing Tangents

If a scene, character, or even a setting, does nothing to further the story along, then it doesn’t need to be in the book. It is far too easy to get into “developing a character” or “setting the scene” and yet none of it helps the story. Several years ago, I began seeing plot bits as strings. And they had to come together in form the rope that is the novel at some point near or at the end. If a string didn’t tie to that, well, it didn’t need to be there. Tangents can be fun and even educational but if it is a tangent, and not a true plot string, snip it.

In Simple Sarah (the book stuck in perpetual edits since I started in ’04), I killed a character. Not in the ‘had a funeral’ kind of way. I killed her by removing her from the book. I kinda sorta liked the character but it was her horse I liked more. When I realized that, out she went (wow. just realized I wrote that post 3 years ago…).

In The Awakening, I had this family of five. In one version, I had them be all pissy and grumpy and struggling with their new reality. I back tracked a little because this attitude had no basis so I put one in. Didn’t like it. Didn’t know how to end it. So I backed up again and made them all nice and sweet. And that’s when I realized they did nothing to further the story along. There’s enough conflict and tension without them. So, yeah, out they went. One of the characters actually had a good role and I didn’t want to get rid of the role, just the person in it. I spent two days thinking (yeah, smoke was everywhere) and decided who to put there instead. I played a little with that direction and liked it better.

Which is why I am going through the book again but this time, my tangent radar has an upgrade.

Dialogue

A lot of my writing includes dialogue – conversation between two or more persons. When the people within the conversation are of different genders, it is easier for the reader (and writer!) to keep who is saying what when by simply using pronouns. But when they are of the same gender, it can get to be confusing if not done right.

One way to do it wrong, so very wrong, is to repeatedly use names.

“Lorna, did you go to the bank today?”
“Yes, Paula, I did.”
“Good, Lorna. You needed to do that.”
“Paula, are you saying I am forgetful?”
“Never, Lorna! Well, maybe.”

See? Annoying as hell. For f…fudge sake, don’t do that! We don’t do it in real life so why on earth would characters do it? Say the names once then move on. If the dialogue is longer than, say, a page, the writer can toss in a cue now and then to remind the reader who is where.

“Hon, did you go to the bank today?”
“Yes, I did.”
“Good, you needed to do that.”
Lorna turned toward her partner. “Are you saying I am forgetful?”
“Never! Well, maybe.”

I just tried to read a bit of online erotica. Purely for research of course. But that research was ruined by the constant use of names. Every single change of speaker had the name of the person they were speaking to. What might have been a decent story was lost and the reader was experiencing the wrong kind of frustration.

Another error with dialogue is the use of pretty words for ‘said’. Just use ‘said’ and the reader will bleep right over it without noticing yet keep track of who is saying what. But again, don’t do the ‘said’ with every line, just do it often enough to remind the reader.

I don’t think I will ever understand the concept of ‘show vs tell’ but I keep trying. The writer needs to show the reader vs telling them. For example, show them facial expressions that reveal the emotion without telling them the emotion.

Lorna’s lips formed a hard, straight line. “I am not forgetful.”

vs

Lorna was angry. “I am not forgetful.”

Which do you, the reader, prefer? If I did it right, you should prefer the first as I showed you Lorna’s anger without telling you she was angry. The first is also stronger and the second more passive.

Lorna’s reading a book that has four main characters, all women. It doesn’t seem to be that good of a book because she’s had to write notes about each character in order to keep them straight. *I* said it is a bad job of the writer. *She* says she is just confused. Which goes back to the writer not doing a good job of making each character distinct enough to set them apart, make them real. Each character needs a distinct voice in the reader’s head. Lorna says they are all the same and are interchangeable. Not good. Personally, four main characters are too much unless the writer can give them each that individual voice. If they are that interchangeable, then they need to be trimmed down in number. Can the same plot go forward with just two? Probably. Or maybe two are the main characters and the other two are team members, kind of like the poor red shirt ensigns from Star Trek. Stepping forward when needed then fading to the background when not. My first full length book I wrote had at least nine main characters. Far too many which is why the book kinda ended at about 250 thousand words. It was awful, awkward, and even *I* had trouble keeping them apart. It is a good story and someday I will take it apart and re-do it but wow, that’s a lot of characters.

__
PS – As I spend time in The Pit, I spend time thinking. And lately my thoughts are about writing so hence a post about writing.

Believable Angst

Angst is: “An acute but unspecific feeling of anxiety; usually reserved for philosophical anxiety about the world or about personal freedom” (WordWeb). But it is also used by a lot of authors to describe the internal emotional twisting for characters and/or the tension and conflict in a book. Not enough angst, and you wonder why the book was written. Too much, and the reader is exhausted or you’ve made the story unbelievable.

With Romance, the tension/conflict is usually “does she love me yes or no” followed by “she said x but I think she means y so I’m going to run now”. If it were that easy, no one would read it. Usually there’s some sort of medical drama (nothing says I love you like wiping blood of your face or cleaning up your puke, right?). Someone pointed out that nearly every lesbian romance has a concussion in it. And a shower sex scene. Most also have sex in an alley.

So I got Nikki. She’s tall and cute and kinda stingy with her money after years of not having any. Then I got Ellen who is short and cute who spends money too easily because she’s always had someone to bail her out. That and she also keeps an emergency fund on hand for ‘justincaseities’ that crop up. They meet, get to know each other, feel the attraction, get together by the end. I can’t come up with any angst for them. There’s the money thing but that only goes so far before it gets to be annoying. And there’s the Yankee vs Redneck thing which, along with the height thing, is more for comic relief. There’s the dead brother thing but that ties into Harri’s book. I just can’t come up with some believable conflict for them. They just get along rather well, actually. I don’t want to do the misunderstanding thing (something I overdid in BGCFA). Oh, there’s the kitchen. They both love to cook and are rather picky about their kitchen space. But again, that only goes so far.

There has to be something I can do. I want to do this book quickly, get it written (again) and get it sent out. I know I know. Nearly exactly a year ago it was supposed to be out but shit happened. Real Life knocked me for a loop (and Mom is doing well, thank you for asking).

There’s the personal space issue. One is a neat freak (Nikki) and the other is far from it. Then there’s Spam, the big huge Rottweiler with his stuffed elephant.

Sometimes I think I think too much.

Death By Deletion

I killed someone today. No, not a spider. Not even a “real” person, actually.

Simple Sarah, the novel I am working on (and have been for the past 5 yrs), had too many characters. The Sword-Swinging, Glow-In-The-Dark Priestess has had three others with her in the beginning of the book. So I killed one of them. And not even a funeral. I deleted her.

Tamara (that was her name) still exists but as I go through this rewrite, I am changing it and removing her. By the time I get to page 184, she will be gone. Death by deletion. What’s sad is that I won’t miss her. I’ll miss her horse more. Isn’t that sad? Amber (the horse) was a delicate “well-bred” who liked to crush skulls with her feet. She was a wanna-be warhorse. Tamara’s role in the book was minimal and frankly, never went anywhere. She died at the end of the first mammoth writing of the book. She never really did anything. In one re-write, she was the lost daughter of the King but, eh, that was one plot line too many.

I don’t have conversations with my characters. They don’t talk to me. Which is good ’cause I’d freak if Tamara were to be pleading for her life. Worse yet would be if Amber were to appear and start wanting to crush my skull. I’m insane enough, thank you. I don’t need fictional characters talking to me. I do, however, see them in movies. They act out a scene or something and I get an idea for how the scene works or doesn’t work. And Tamara wasn’t working. She just didn’t fit and was a named extra. (Tamara, the sidekick vs Archer #4)

The removal of Tamara caused a minor plot problem that, in fixing it, made the overall plot more believeable anyway. The overall time line has shifted by two years. Lea (the Sword-Swinging, Glow-In-The-Dark Priestess) and the other two with her are now two years younger. This is better, much better.

So, Tamara, it was good to know you. And Amber, sweetie, in reality, you were too delicate boned a horse to be able to crush skulls so well. Perhaps, if I find I miss you two, I’ll put you in somewhere in the Big Final Battle in book three. But then, I’d only kill you off again.

Time Lines

Arrgh.

The current direction of BG2 just ain’t gonna work. I have Ellen and Sam moving down together (from Philly). But it’s just not working. I can’t do Nikki and Ellen’s plot with Sam and Chaz’s going on, too. The time line just isn’t coming together right. And it’s just not time, it’s plot. That thing that readers kinda hope happens when they buy a book, yanno? Silly readers. What do they know, right?

Anyway, I’ve now got to back up and make it Ellen moves down alone, but perhaps Sam comes with her maybe, to help? Then returns up Nawth? She needs to come down later to meet Chaz again, but right now, it just isn’t working.

Sometimes I wish my characters DID talk to me, ’cause then I’d put their fictional asses to work! You don’t like where I’m taking you? FINE! Where do you want to go? I figure if I fall asleep during the movie in my head, then the book isn’t working as it is.

Dammit. And I’d crossed the 10K line today, too!