Disabled characters: who do I really write them for?

A few months ago, I tweeted about the huge disparity in follower numbers between the @EverydaySexism and @EverydayAbleism Twitter accounts. And somebody random came back to me and said something like ‘Well, there are lots more women than there are disabled people.’

I accept that that’s true to an extent, but probably less so than you imagine. Factor in all the people with invisible disabilities, who tend to get ignored, and I bet the number shoots right up. Plus, it’s a pretty fucking limited view of who can care about these issues, isn’t it? Only women give a damn about sexism and only disabled people fight against ableism. And yeah, sometimes it feels like that. Which is a good enough reason, in my book, to pepper my erotica with my own experiences of disability. So that other people, able-bodied or otherwise, get it. That they see the challenges, the unexpected triggers, the psychological battles. I’d like to say ‘so they see that disability can be hot,’ but if I’m being totally honest, I often don’t care whether readers think what I write is hot or not – I just desperately want to share my own experiences.

I’m currently writing a short story featuring a disabled female character, with the intention of submitting it to an anthology. The character in question is freaked out by a physical challenge that would seem relatively insignificant to anyone able-bodied, but it’s a big deal to her. In this particular case, she overcomes her fear, but I don’t want that to be the narrative of every story about disability that I write. It’s just not realistic. But my biggest problem with this story is that she overcomes the fear with the help of a man, she doesn’t manage it all by herself. And in today’s climate of sex-positive, strong women, that feels like a failing.

The pressure I feel to write strong women, a pressure that causes writer’s block like nothing else, is equally applicable to characters with disabilities. In the story I’ve just had published in the For Book’s Sake anthology Tongue in Cheek, the (able-bodied) FMC cries during sex:

He’s losing me, and he knows it. Neither of us can gain enough purchase here on the cushions for him to up the tempo of his thrusts and re-centre me in the moment. So he takes me upstairs, and we fuck like we’re fucking, not kissing, and I give up the pretence completely and start to cry.

Until recently, I’d have found it hard to write a disabled character who cried during sex and not feel like I was perpetuating myths about disabled people being weak. But the truth is, if we write disabled people who are all happy and cool about their disabilities, who’ve dealt with all their issues, and are basically disabled only in a physical sense, we’re doing people who identify as disabled a massive disservice. I think the able-bodied world is often guilty of holding up as role models disabled people who’ve achieved way more than the majority of us could ever hope to – Paralympic athletes for example. While I find what they do hugely impressive, I can’t relate. Partly, it’s about finding it easier to relate to people whose condition is very similar to my own and whose strengths are similar too (Conservative MP Robert Halfon, for example, who mouths off about anything he feels strongly about). But it’s also about feeling immense pressure to be above average – I’ve done it in some areas of my life, and it frustrates me hugely that my body prevents me achieving what I’d like to physically. I want to write erotica that shows it’s ok to be weak, to be scared, to be angry. Because I think those are universal emotions – felt by able-bodied people as much as disabled people, men as much as women.

But universal though the emotions I’m writing may be, the writer’s block on the novel continues. Weak, scared and angry might be ok in a 3k short, but they’re pretty relentless in a full length piece. When I posted an extract on here, I got detailed feedback from several people who I like and whose opinion I trust. One pointed out that the female lead was clearly me, and that that was a risk – no one expects to get 100% positive feedback on a novel and I’d have to be prepared for readers to potentially criticise or dislike a character who is a barely veiled version of myself. And because she’s a barely veiled version of me, she spends the majority of the novel beating herself up. I’m not always sure I like her: how can I possibly expect readers to?

Perhaps readers won’t like her, but if the novel does get published, it should be a pretty good sign that some, at least, do. All my hang-ups when it comes to writing are not caused by other people’s opinions. They’re caused by my own. *I* worry that to turn to a man for support when I’m scared makes me weak. *I* worry that a heroine with a disability that she hasn’t fully come to terms with can never be sexy.

I write to make disability less scary. I write to reduce the stigma that surrounds it. I write to show that you can be disabled and still be sexy.

But right now, it’s not readers I’m trying to convince. It’s myself.

22 thoughts on “Disabled characters: who do I really write them for?

  1. I think everybody writes autobiographical first novels, isn’t that just the way of it? Perhaps it’s just something everyone has to get out of the way.

    Scared, angry and weak definitely sounds universally relatable. I think it’s sustainable across a full length book because so many of us *are* that but we’re also other things at the same time – funny, sexy, brave, worried, creative, political, entrepreneurial etc. etc. You don’t have to have your character do whatever the equivalent of opening a wildly successful bakery and becoming fulfilled in life and love is for you (the chick lit I read all seems to make me feel inferior for not achieving this).

    I think if you’re going to write about a heroine who has what you perceive as your own flaws, you have to remember to include your own strengths as well, or yes, you might end up with Bella from Twilight, who for me suffered the same fate as Brigid Jones – spend the whole novel telling people how crap they are, and readers may also end up agreeing.

    I think as long as a character grows, it doesn’t matter if you’re starkly realistic about avoiding HEAs.

    • Please can you write some erotic fiction about a character with a wildly successful bakery – I have no doubt you’d make a much better job of it than the average chick lit author x

  2. This post sparked so many thoughts that I don’t even know where to start. In my opinion it doesn’t make your character weak to be helped by a man, but strong to accept the help. Admitting one’s own shortcoming to oneself, is a good thing. My Husband is disabled, but those who don’t know it, won’t see it. I know what difficulties he runs into, in daily life, in his work and yes, also in our sex life and D/s relationship. There are some things he would love to be able to do, but he cannot. He accepts that and that makes him strong and sexy to me. I also think it’s okay not to like your main character. Maybe as you continue to write, you will come to like her more. Another thought that crossed my mind is that I need to write about disability. About some of the challenges we face.

    It feels like I am rambling… sorry for that but so many thoughts in my mind!

    Thanks for sharing this 🙂

    Rebel xox

    • Rebel – I’ve only just seen this, no idea how I missed it, sorry! I personally would find it fascinating if you do decide to write about disability – I wish there was more writing about sex and disability out there, both real life and fiction. Thanks so much for your kind comments and best wishes to you and your husband.

      Charlie xx

  3. Preach!

    The pressure to make sure marginalized characters always overcome their weaknesses is real. Weakness isn’t sexy!

    Except to me, it totally is. It takes a special kind of strength to allow people to see you at your weakest. I feel like in showing those moments in your characters’ lives, you’re also showing their tremendous strength.

    As for whether or not people will like your lead character in this particular piece (and, subsequently, you), they might not. But unless you’re looking for validation of self with the story, that’s really not important. What’s important is that people like the story. The two can be mutually exclusive.

    Great post!

  4. As someone who grew up with a disabled parent this really resonated with me. I would just like to say that all of us have blocks, things we can’t do, whether they are mental or physical and obviously some are more severe than others. We all need to learn where those are and whether we need to find away around them or accept those limits and I don’t mean give in without a fight. Also I would like to add that accepting help, from a man, woman or helper pet, isn’t a weakness knowing when to accept that help is actually a strength.

    A disablility shouldn’t define a person, obviously it’s a part of who they are but it isn’t the whole of who they are. Being raised in the situation I was has taught me to look past that and i now don’t care (not in a heartless way) whether someone has a disability of not. It also taught me to laugh rather than cry, after all some of those blockers can be in the most ridiculous circumstances!

    Well I rambled a lot more than I intended to when all I meant to say was great post!!

    Bee xx

  5. More people need to read about kinky people with disabilities, since it will make them more aware of what goes on in the world. Not everyone is ‘perfect’.

    Jolynn has health issues that lead to her not being able to drive herself anywhere anymore. The last time she drove it was in the middle of November when I had the cable guy over all day. No one knows unless they know us personally, or read our blog. You can’t tell by looking at her either.

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