A writer can’t live in a vacuum. They need to interact with the outside world, otherwise their characters run the risk of being two dimensional entities. They may end up being variations of the author, or what they might think are variations. I was very lucky because throughout my career, I worked in several different places, interacting with a variety of people ranging from cleaners, delivery people, to scientists, office workers – and the list goes on. Even in day to day life, I’d always felt lucky that I interacted with a wonderful cross-section of people.
Some of my characters were born from these people – as a compilation of several, or I merely borrowed a single character trait to help fill out a character. Others provided a little background colour. A few have had the dubious privilege of starring in one of my stories as a murder victim.
I found that the best living breathing characters were the ones taken from several sources.
So why should creating an other-abled character be any different?
When I was first diagnosed with MS, I made sure that it didn’t creep into my fiction. Then a few years later while I was unsuccessfully marketing a novel, I realized that maybe I should rethink my approach. Why not have a protagonist with MS? Someone who went from an active lifestyle to being mobility impaired.
It was an interesting challenge.
The unpredictable nature of MS, and its symptoms, offers a wide variety of possibilities. A simplified explanation of MS, is that the myelin sheath protecting the nerves becomes scarred. The location of the scarring (sclerosis) interrupts the nerve conduction and the location of the lesions determines what can be affected such as mobility, memory, or vision, to name a few.
Where to start.
I did draw on my own feelings and emotions. But using a single POV I ran the risk of sounding whiny. With such a variety of possible symptoms, my experience wouldn’t be like someone else’s. The opening scene of my novel has my protagonist suffer a major MS attack after which she’s completely paralyzed, including her vocal cords. A close friend had described the fear she’d felt, trapped in her bed, unable to call for help. In her case she recovered in a few hours. This was never something I’d experienced but her description had stayed with me.
Personal experience is not the only route to research. To get the voice right, or even the terminology, visiting blog sites where you read about personal experiences is quite valuable. When creating a disabled character, don’t forget the interactions with people around them. Friends and family may become overprotective or clingy. They may also be more demanding, insisting that nothing is really wrong with the person and that they’re just being lazy.
Whatever method a writer uses to research their disabled characters, if they keep one thing in mind – they can’t go wrong.
Treat them like any other character.
About Madona Skaff-Koren:
With a degree in biology, Madona Skaff-Koren somehow ended up in mining research. Her scientific background always finds a way into her stories. She is the author of Journey of a Thousand Steps (from Renaissance Press), a mystery novel about a marathon runner disabled by MS who turns sleuth in order to find her missing friend. Madona has published several mystery and science fiction short stories including the Arthur Ellis Award finalist “First Impressions”, which appeared in The Whole She-Bang 2. She lives in Ottawa, Canada, where she now writes full time.
Visit Madona at www.madonaskaff.com or ‘friend’ her on Facebook.