PHYSICALLY DISABLED PROTAGONIST
- WEDNESDAY, OCTOBER 23, 2013
- PHYSICALLY DISABLED PROTAGONIST
- Posted by Linda Robertson
- I've mentioned before that there's a super-secret sneaky book I am collaborating on with a good friend. While a collaborative effort is proving to be a slow process, this project has been an amazing trek into possibilities. What's the reason for that limitless feel? I'm certain it is largely due to the main character having a physical disability.
- How exactly does character limitations equal possibilities?
- When you write a character who is whole, or at least when I do it, I work at giving them a few flaws that lend them realness and which make readers feel sympathetic towards them. I also work on where they draw lines that they refuse to cross, then invent a situation that forces the character over that line in a gut-wrenching and dramatic way.
- With a character who has a disability of the physically handicapped variety, their major flaw is, well, obvious. Instead of spawning a personality flaw like...well, for examples I'm going to borrow from The Complete Writer's Guide to HEROES & HEROINES Sixteen Master Archetypes by Tami D. Cowden, Caro LaFever, and Sue Viders, the Chief archetype has possible flaws of being stubborn, unsympathetic, or dominating. The Bad Boy archetype has the possible flaws of being pessimistic, bitter, or volatile. The Swashbuckler archetype has the possible flaws of being unreliable, foolhardy, or selfish. I'm just scratching the surface there, but I think you're catching on to my interpretation of flaws.
- With a physically handicapped character, those archetypes and flaws may still exist, and, sure, they have that defining moment in the past where something scarred their psyche creating the person they are currently in the story, but in that dark moment they lost something more...they were robbed of some basic ability that (probably) everyone around them takes for granted.
- Think about that.
- How exactly did they come to have this disability? Under what circumstances? Out of foolishness like drunk driving? Did they make a choice that saved another's life and was it a stranger or a loved one? Was it more random, they were simply in the wrong place at the wrong time? Each could lead to vastly different versions of how they personally feel about the loss, (Good attitude or bad? Haunted by it? Chip on their shoulder? Overcompensating in other areas?) and each tells us more about the character.
- And what about hose lines drawn in the sand...they've already manifested. There are things that a physically disabled person simply can't do. So--of course--you devise a situation where that's the one thing they need to do.
- How do they accomplish it? MacGyver-like mental prowess? Indomitable will?
- For a mental handicap, lets say you can have a cop who killed someone in the line of duty, who is now afraid to draw his gun. When someone he loves is in danger, will he or won't he? It's a question of character. It's a good story question, especially if you show him in similar but increasingly dangerous situations in prior scenes where he can't overcome his fear...yet his side-kick saves the day each time and things are okay...but now he's dealing with feeling inadequate on top of everything else. It's interesting and should get readers invested in the story, right?
- But lets make it a physical handicap and say your cop character has lost his arm due to injuries sustained in his last gunfight. (Oooo the questions and self doubt... "What if I didn't draw my gun? Would things have ended differently? Would I still have my arm?") Now it's not feasible to have him on active duty so we have to give him a more personal problem: he and his family have become the target of a killer. Perhaps he's slipped onto some questionable meds to cope with his disability and now no one--not even his former partner--believes this once top-notch detective. Colleagues pass off his frantic worry as hallucinations or post-traumatic stress. NOW lets put him in the dire situation where saving his loved ones means shooting a gun. Worse, the only gun available is a shotgun with pump-action. Will the desperate one-armed cop try the 'don't draw' tactic he feels he should have tried in the first place? Will he give up and give in to all his new inadequacies? Or will he find a way to load and then prime that gun to fire? Will he find a way to aim it steady and save the day?
- The disabled character inherently has more overt layers, more to overcome. Read as : More to play with as the author. He has limits an author simply can't wave a magic wand and cure for convenience. He also has some undeniably gut-wrenching decisions to make. I'm not saying that you can't weave in equally powerful layers that create similar depth and struggle with a whole character, I'm only saying that with a disabled character those layers have a value unlike the challenging moments of a whole character.
- Creating a story that fits such a character, one that shows the hardship as well as the mental effects of the injury, one that is subtle and believable as it leads inexorably to a place where that one thing must be overcome--that's the tricky part.
- RULE TO REMEMBER:You must must must do your research on the disability. You must portray it honestly, with sincerity that honors the truth those who have the affliction deal with daily, or you'll undermine your own efforts.
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