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Avoiding Stereotypes When Writing

On a recent episode of Two and  A Half Men, a character played by Charlie Sheen describes how he flopped around in front of a woman who wanted to marry him. He likens he movement to that of an “epileptic trout.” He says she gave up on the idea of marriage because nobody wants “damaged goods.”

            Is that offensive?


            Is it perpetuating a stigma?


            Does it make me sad? Yes. How many kids and adults and teens saw that and thought, “It is acceptable to laugh at that.”


Most of my own personal research has been about epilepsy stereotypes. Obviously, epilepsy isn’t the only condition that carries stigma. There are so many others. Just the comments in yesterday’s post verifies that. Diabetes. Arthritis. Post-traumatic Stress Disorder. Autism. ADD. Hearing disorders, vision problems. The list goes on and on.

            I think that part of a writer’s responsibility is to think, really think, about how what she or he writes might perpetuate those stereotypes, not just about disabilities, but about abilities, about everything.

We owe that to the kids who read our work.

            Rick Riordan, author of the best-selling, middle-grade, Percy Jackson books, recently responded to my questions about how he wrote Percy, his main character, the son of Poseidon, and a kid with ADD.

            He said, “I always try to avoid stereotypes for all characters. Characters with disabilities are no different and I don't think about the issue any more or less with them. That's not to say I always succeed in avoiding stereotypes, but I think good writing tries to surprise the reader and turn common expectations upside-down.”

            This is part of the reason his books are so much fun, I think… that ability to turn the common experience or the stereotype upside-down, in a sort of Derridian twist. But there’s more to that for Rick Riordan.

            “I wrote about Percy being ADHD/dyslexic for the simple reason that my son is ADHD/dyslexic, and I wanted a character he could relate to. Maybe that's another thing that makes a difference -- a personal connection,” he said.  “I didn't just decide "Hey I need a dyslexic kid" because I thought it would be the flavor of the month, or anything like that. I've worked with many kids with learning disabilities and it went along with the old axiom, 'write what you know.'”

            It’s good advice, brilliant advice, but sometimes you write what you don’t know. Then what do you do?


           When Australian writer Susanne Gervay wrote Butterflies, a young adult fiction about a burn victim, she knew she wanted to stay away from stereotypes. Her problem was how to do that?

            She did months of research and talked to children, family members and doctors.

            “I sought to understand the emotional journey of burns from the point of view of the burn survivor,” she wrote. “When I finally felt that I understood the experience of burns, the medical facts and the social aspect, the viewpoint of the burn victim and the survivor, the family’s perspective, the role of health workers and the community, when the emotional experience of burns was internalized and melded into my own personal experience of growing up, then I put away the research. Only then did I begin the yearlong journey of writing Butterflies.” (Gervay 3)

            Research, however, isn’t always enough. Authors need to be aware of the stereotypes that exist and actively ensure that their own characters do not center around those stereotypes.

            Colin Barnes is a proponent of this idea and even breaks down the stereotypes for authors who have characters with disabilities.    

He suggests the following:

            1. Have your character interact with people as equals. Don’t just have them be charity cases. Show them give as well.

            2. Make your character multidimensional. Make them have complex personalities with a full range of emotions.

            3. Don’t make the disability a sign that the character is evil.

            4. Don’t create a peeping tom feeling to your story. The protagonist’s disability shouldn’t have a voyeur aspect to it. They should be part of a cast of characters, doing an array of things.

            5. Don’t make the character’s disability central to the humor of your piece.

            6. Don’t use their disability as a way to make them a victim.

            7. Don’t make them superhuman in an attempt to compensate for their disability. Make them human. Not sub-human. Not superhuman. Avoid “extraordinary abilities or attributes. To do so is to suggest that a disabled individual must over compensate and become superhuman to be accepted by society.”

            8. Avoid stories where the protagonist needs only be tough and have will power to succeed and survive life with disability.

            9. Don’t make the person with the disability sexually deviant, or asexual.

            10. Don’t expect to create a character with a disability that somehow represents all people with that disability. (Barnes 6-7)


Maybe the best piece of advice comes from a Indiana State college student, who paraphrases C.A. Mellon. She said that authors “need to focus on the person or the story, not create the story around the disability.” (Carlisle 8)

            Mellon, herself the mother of a young women with spina bifida, writes, “Poor writing, a trite plot, and uninteresting characters are no more acceptable when the characters are disabled than they are when the characters are able-bodied.” (144)

How can kids, and parents of kids, and friends of kids, find out that they aren’t alone? How can they hear about others? It is the perfect role for children’s books.

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( 10 comments — Leave a comment )
Feb. 26th, 2008 03:35 pm (UTC)
Awesome post! As a teacher/writer, I can only hope that I can demonstrate the full diversity of talents that occur in individuals, both with and without diagnosed disabilities. In my classroom, respect toward everyone in the classroom comes first - even before the curriculum. It's wonderful to discover that kids are way more accepting of each other's flaws than some adults seem to be. Maybe we should all take a cue from them. :) KYM
Feb. 26th, 2008 04:45 pm (UTC)
I love that about kids, too. And you must be such a fantastic teacher/writer just because you want to demonstrate the diversity of talents that are out there.
Feb. 26th, 2008 08:23 pm (UTC)
Great post, Carrie! Very thought provoking.
Feb. 26th, 2008 10:01 pm (UTC)
Thanks, Liz.
Feb. 27th, 2008 12:40 am (UTC)
This is insightful. I especially like Barnes' suggestions about making disabled characters multidimensional, and that you can't expect your character to represent everyone with that disability--it makes sense that you would fail, and it's better to not claim you know everything about it and can speak for everyone; it's much more honest to help one character speak.
Feb. 27th, 2008 03:08 am (UTC)
I like that insight too. I think sometimes we want so badly to be inclusive that we forget to be real.
Feb. 27th, 2008 01:15 am (UTC)
Once again, a great post. Learning to write without stereotyping is something all authors should keep in mind, even if they're not planning to write about a disabled character.
Feb. 27th, 2008 03:08 am (UTC)
Thanks. That's true, too.
Feb. 27th, 2008 06:30 am (UTC)
Thanks, Carrie!

What a great list for expectations.

It's such a complex multidimensional goal. I also hope that apprehensions of writing potentially controversial characters doesn't hold authors back from including them in stories.

Another suggestion that I found in my own research was the idea that disabled people don't necessarily want to be cured, or normal. Many times the disability is a core piece of their life experience, and to seperate it would be to lose a sense of self. Not that people choose the frustrations, but that there is an appreciation for the whole rather than segmenting the disability into a box of its own.

I appreciate reading your insights!
Feb. 29th, 2008 05:13 pm (UTC)
I really appreciate you reading this post.

I love your suggestion. It's a good piece to remember. Thank you for reminding me about that aspect.
( 10 comments — Leave a comment )