My younger son, Benji, is nonverbal and autistic. I don’t share it much because one of my primary responsibilities is protecting his dignity and privacy. And it’s usually not relevant to this site. But like any person important to you, his influence is always there in my writing, nevertheless. In this post I’ll share one of the ways my craft has changed because of him.
Ben has a limited vocabulary, though his communication includes expressive gestures and sounds, not just words. In talking to us (people who clearly are too dim to understand), he’s practically speaking three languages, and often, more than one at a time. It’s not his problem when we can’t figure out the translation; it’s ours.
To an outsider, however, it might create an uncomfortable situation. Not because that person is a bigot who despises neurodiversity, but because they are walking in unfamiliar territory. I liken it to me meeting a Black man for the first time (in my memory, he looks like actor Brock Peters in his Star Trek days). I was just a little kid, terribly shy around strangers, and before me stood a person so completely unlike every person I’d known in my secluded little rural town. At least, that’s the lie your brain tells you. In every aspect that I could see except skin color, he was like my neighbors.
I hadn’t been taught to hate or even dislike Black people; I just had some unintended bias to push past because my world was filled with people who looked like me and had basically the same beliefs and ancestry.
It’s one thing to know there are a variety of people in the world. Seeing them is another. Further still, interacting with them changes your perspective in significant ways. Watching Black people on TV wasn’t the same as meeting them. And meeting one certainly wasn’t the same as having people like him in my daily life.
I choose to believe the same lack of experience is true for people who aren’t sure how to react around Ben. It could be uncomfortable at first, but the smallest effort by them can overcome that. I don’t think they can do it alone, however. As Ben’s father, I believe one of my responsibilities is to help people with this, which also helps him.
Now, I grew up as a Boy Scout and I’ve always cheered for the underdog. I’m predisposed to helping others and recognizing those who are disadvantaged. But there’s a distinction between that and being an advocate. Believe it or not (sarcasm), there’s a difference between adding a rainbow frame to my Facebook picture and standing up to LGBTQ bigotry when people post it. Advocacy requires deliberate action, and I can help by leading through example, by sharing posts like this, and by injecting it into my books.
The child who has only lived amongst the sparrows expects all birds to look the same, the witch had taught Tildy.Tildy Silverleaf and the Starfall Omen
As such, I regularly reflect on what I’ve written: Is my cast homogenous? Are they all just variations of me? Am I looking at dialogue from a narrow point-of-view? Am I representing all the wonderful variances in the people I know and love? If I don’t like my answer, I’ve got some work to do. From a writing process point-of-view, it’s not all that different from all the other basic story editing we do; however, considering it as a human, this is far more important.
Side note: an unthinking critic might think I’ve got a checklist of qualities that I’m marking off as I write. No. These are people, not groceries. Stop whining about wokeness and political correctness. There are more people in the world than your selfish self.
One of the things I worked on in Book 1 was adjusting the Northern-Europeanness of everything (castles, dress, dialogue, holidays, culture, etc.). What if it wasn’t a traditional castle with towers and walls, but a massive hollowed-out rock formation? Going into Book 2, I didn’t have to think about it as much.
As another example from Book 2, Samor’s best friend has a disease like Progeria. However, this isn’t a plot device. He hasn’t been afflicted for some greater reason that makes the hero a better character; the disease’s effects aren’t character-growth opportunities for the supporting cast. He’s just a kid, and he brings a perspective to Samor’s life (and therefore the Reader) that no one else can.
Think about it for a minute: what if this afflicted person was aging quickly because their body was emitting a power that protected our hero? No. That strips away a person’s dignity and reduces their purpose to being a prop in someone else’s tale. I’ve read enough stories, or watched ones, in which characters served purposes exactly like this. I didn’t think that much about the other side of things – the humans depicted – until Ben entered my life.
Look, I know these are my characters and I can do whatever I want. But one of the guiding principles for my books is to help people see themselves in my writing AND the people important to them. If my characters are only variations of myself, or props, I will have utterly failed. Inclusion matters, and that’s true for every person, even if they think it isn’t (especially for those who think it isn’t, if we consider how much effort they put into resisting).
For the reasons I mentioned at the start of this post, and more personal ones, I don’t yet have a character like Benji in my story. The point of this post isn’t to put a particular kind of person into your story; rather, it is to put people in your story who aren’t particularly like yourself. When I ask myself tough questions, when I make myself feel uncomfortable, I grow a little and so does my writing. If I’m successful, so do my Readers. “Turn and face the strange,” David Bowie sang a generation ago, and he didn’t define “strange” in a pejorative sense. While he might have outwardly meant embracing the differences that are developing in one’s self, I think embracing the differences in others is equally implied.
Speaking of embraces, it’s time to hug my kiddo. Good luck with your writing.
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© Michael Wallevand, August 2021