Crafting characters / Represention

The First Thing is the Why

Before I begin, I’d like to state upfront that I’m not saying that only X can write X, for any iteration of X—at all. (Please refer to this heads-up as many times as necessary while you read this article.)

At Can-Con last year, I was lucky enough to take part in a panel on the intersection of spoonie representation and sexuality in writing, and we had a blast. It was a great time, the questions were fantastic, and as part of the discourse, one of the audience asked about how they—as an author who had no disabilities—could work to create better visibility and representation in their own work when it comes to disability.

Given the context of sexuality, the question was framed from a point of view of romance, and was something like, “Since it’s obvious there needs to be more positive representation in romance of people with disabilities, how do you suggest we do better at writing this?”

And it struck me that I answer that question a lot about queerness and have a go-to response, but I hadn’t applied the same thoughts to disability. This is probably just another thing I can add to my list of “I’m able-bodied enough/I don’t really count as having a disability” issue (working on that, promise).

But there and then, in the moment of the Q&A, it occurred to me to apply the same response as the one I give when asked the same question about writing queerness.

So, I asked: Why you? Or, more eloquently: Why do you think you should be the one to explore this voice? What’s your motivation?

Why you cartoonThat might seem blunt, and it might not seem any less blunt when I expanded on the question, but I really think it’s worth examining why any author chooses to write a character with a disability (or any identity in need of solid representation, frankly) when they’re not a part of that identity themselves.

Now, before I go further, I want to be clear that I’m primarily talking about point-of-view (POV) or very much major characters here. When I write, I try to consciously be aware of what I’m showing my world to be. I might write in a version of Ottawa with vampires and demons and magic, or a world where telepathy and telekinesis is a thing Canadians are learning exist, but it’s still some version of my actual life, and as such, there will be people in it who aren’t like me. Of course there will be. That’s reality.

So, in Triad Blood and Triad Soul, the characters aren’t all white gay cisgender people. The trio of the main three POV characters, though? They’re all queer men. One is biracial, one is bisexual, and one is so close to my nerdy self it’s maybe a little embarrassing—he even suffers a migraine just like one of mine in the second book—but they’re not very far out of my wheelhouse, so to speak.

They do, however, argue with a Métis guy they kinda-sorta rescue, Curtis missteps with a doctor who uses a wheelchair, they work with black wizards and demons, question a genderqueer druid, and so on. That’s just translating our world to the framework of my urban fantasy.

In my upcoming YA? The main character’s father is deaf, and while I’ve had pretty decent interaction with the Deaf community in my lifetime, I’m still sending it out to friends for an eyeballing. Even though the main character isn’t himself deaf, he’s fluent in sign and involved in the community to a depth further than my own experience. I want to double-check I’m not making major errors. I’m still pondering how to write ASL (which has syntax and grammar completely different from spoken English). Do I “translate” it, leave it as-is, or some combination of the two?

Anyway. The point being, I write worlds (and therefore characters) where deafness exists. Where wheelchair use doesn’t mean a character can’t be the doctor. Where the guy time-traveling and trying to fix his life’s mistakes also has seizures.

Because the real world has all those things.

Okay, well, maybe not the time-travel, but you get the point.

That level of inclusivity is something I can do, and strive to do as well as I possibly can: paint a world where we all exist. As a queer guy and a spoonie, that matters so much to me—and getting it right is paramount. I’m not an idiot, I’m sure I’ll misstep, but I can and do learn from critical feedback, I try very hard to find #ownvoice discussions and learn from them (and to politely request help or a beta read, the same way I do when I ask my lawyer friend if they’d mind reading over a legal thing I’m hopeful I researched and got right).

But right now, I can’t imagine writing a story with a POV character entirely out of my wheelhouse. There are two reasons for this—and I’m not prescribing here; it’s completely a personal choice.

One? The last thing the world needs is another book where a well-meaning white, cisgender, queer guy bollocks up representation. I promise there are enough of those already. Truly.

Two? It’s way, way more important to me to lift #ownvoices up. The same way I’d rather read, review, and boost the signal of trans authors writing trans characters, I feel the same way about my fellow spoonies. I promise you there are #ownvoice books out there that don’t get the noise books by cisgender able white authors get. Publishing is just like the rest of our culture: it’s got all the same baggage. So if I were to write a character, to use my voice to attempt a voice that is not my own, I’d honestly feel a bit like I was hogging an already limited mic instead of passing it to someone who doesn’t get heard as often.

So, when I say, “Ask yourself why you want to write this representation,” that’s my answer: I want to write worlds that include the diversity I see around me because I know first-hand how awful it is not to see yourself anywhere in fiction. This means I write including those of us with disabilities, those of us who are queer, and so on, but I’m not going to overstep with a narrative voice I don’t myself own. I don’t want to take up that space.

But I also want read widely enough to have titles and authors in mind so when someone says, “I’d like to read a book that includes good autism rep,” I’m not left with a list of neurotypical authors writing characters that might or might not be decent representation.

Or, put even more simply? I’m not going to write the next great bisexual-ladies-in-love novel, I’m going to suggest Fiona Riley.

So why would I do it differently when it comes to disability?

Nathan and Coach’Nathan Burgoine is a tall queer guy who mostly writes short queer fiction, though he’s up to three novels now. Light was a Lambda Literary finalist. Triad Blood and Triad Soul are available from Bold Strokes Books. He lives in Ottawa, Canada, with his husband Dan and their rescued husky, Coach. You can find ’Nathan online on his websiteTwitter,and Facebook. Coach often steps into the frame, and ’Nathan wouldn’t have it any other way.


5 thoughts on “The First Thing is the Why

  1. But wouldnt this box in writers? And wouldnt it create weird lines ie disabled readers only reading disabled authors. I mean, authors are not their disability, sexuality, etc.


    • I’m certainly not saying #ownvoice is a straightjacket nor a fence, and I’m sorry if that’s how it came across. By no means was I specifically talking about reading within your own identities, either; this was aimed more at the writing side of things.

      I only intended to emphasize two things:

      One, that if an author intends to “write outside their lane” (so to speak) with a major voice that it seems important (or for me personally, imperative) to ask and answer the “why” first. And again, I mean that more in regards to a central or main character POV voice, not the population of the fictional world at large (though it’s totally possible to do real representational damage with even a minor character in passing).

      Two, when given the chance, we should “pass the mic” and recommend authentic voices with strong representation, to help the book culture (be it publishing, editing, reviewing, or reading) catch up to the actual range of voices out there. It’s not hard to see these imbalances, and active effort to read and be loud about #ownvoice written books that don’t get that attention is worthwhile.

      So, put another way: I don’t have to only write queer or spoonie (specifically, in my case, gay cisgender male with migraines/blindness/seizures) voices. Nor do I only have to read them (quite the opposite, I want to read outside my own voice as much as they can, frankly, though I’m totally going to read a tonne of queer stuff because I want to read about people like me, too).

      But when, say, a list is gathered like “twenty autistic character books you should read!” it strikes me as imperative to make sure those books weren’t all written by people who are not themselves autistic. I think of the “To Siri, With Love” fiasco happening right now, for example, where a book about autism is being lauded with praise, but every autistic person I’ve encountered who has read the book is talking about how awful and harmful it is.

      There are—and always will be—authors who write brilliant characters, including central, main-voice characters, who are significantly outside of their own experience. And that’s fantastic. I also imagine they’ve spent time thinking about why they wanted to write that character, and worked hard to make that representation as solid as they could.

      I hope that answers your question.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Good comment! I’ll let ‘Nathan answer the himself but when I spoke with him about it (because I’m a straight person who crafts queer characters and my latest space opera WIP is from the POV of gay warriors), he emphasized that his main point of this article was asking oneself why are one is writing the characters. My personal feeling is that if someone really desires to portray a positive representation, they will be a good listener of own-voice folks, and find the best beta readers, to make sure things are copacetic.

    Btw, I also love that you said authors with disabilities are not our disabilities. You are so right on that. I don’t think I’d be offended if a person without a disability wrote a main character with a disability, as long as they really did their research in the realities of that POV, and maybe didn’t assume own-voice territory. Certain stories have to come from personal experience.

    Does that make any sense? I might be full of cake right now.


  3. Pingback: Conversion Therapy, Revenge Porn, and Criticism | 'Nathan Burgoine

  4. Pingback: Needing a sensitivity editor doesn’t mean you’re an insensitive person. – Cait Gordon—author and editor

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