As The Tithe says in its dedication: “To all people with differing physical and mental appearances and capacities. We deserve a story in which we’re the heroes.”
Truth is, I’m tired of reading about characters who don’t look and think like my loved ones and me. Since I’m a writer and the god of my own, tiny, made-up universes (it’s good to be queen!), I realized I have the power to, as the way-overused quote* says, be the change I want to see in the world.
Yeah, I know romance novels exist to provide us with escape pods from our dull, non-HEA lives. This is why sheroes’ flaxen hair so often billows in the breeze and heroes’ pecs are pronounced enough to carve open cans of green beans. But, you know, I like my fantasy with some reality sprinkled in. I want to interact with people who look and act like, you know, people.
I almost never find representations of non-normatively-able-bodied peeps in media. When I do, they’re almost always using a wheelchair, which is visually striking but only one tiny fraction of the ability spectrum. Other than that, and a romance novel I read 15 or so years ago that featured a deaf shero, the absence of non-able-bodied characters screams much more loudly in my ears. In fact, if I read another story about a fiery, petite redhead shero with blazing green eyes who meets (probably via a stumble of some sort that ends with her in his arms) a tall, chiseled, brooding and arrogant hero, I may have to throw myself out my office window. Luckily, it’s on the ground floor, but still.
Even just sticking with the romance genre of books, we find characters who consistently embody beauty ideals. They’re not only young, able-bodied, perfectly gendered, and light-skinned**, but they’re several steps beyond “normal” and into ideal. Their eyes are lighter, their body frames exaggerated (smaller if they’re female, more muscular if they’re male), their fashion sense impeccable. I realize it can be fun to project ourselves into these avatars and pretend for a moment we, too, embody these ideals, but what happens when we come back to our non-ideals bodies and lives?
This is why I write characters that are a little more real. Not only do I want to be able to relate to these characters, but isn’t it part of my duty as a creator and purveyor of popular culture to leave my readers feeling better about themselves?
So let’s meet one of these characters I keep tossing around as faceless examples of what I’d like to see. Joshua Barstow, The Tithe’s main character, is a 20-year-old library caretaker with Charcot Marie Tooth Syndrome. This means she deals with some degeneration of the nerves in her feet and legs, which makes for difficult and extremely painful walking. Josh almost always feels pain.
The Tithe covers a lot of ground, but Josh’s character arc includes her coming to terms with her dis/ability. In the beginning, she is deeply ashamed of her “wonky legs,” which includes hammer toes and high arches, and understandably feels unhappy with the pain she constantly experiences. As the story progresses, she begins to deal with her difference and to understand herself as a product of it.
Blue, Josh’s love interest, has experienced blindness since birth. Deciding how this would affect his social interactions, his perceptions – heck, even the metaphors he uses to describe things – provided a happy challenge for me. And no, his blindness isn’t symbolic of anything. In fact, blindness is, just as being sighted is. Below is one of my favorite exchanges in the book.
“Are you blind?” Izel asked Blue. Josh stopped walking.
“Yes,” he said.
“Blind means you can’t see.”
“What’s it like to not see?”
And this was why children scared her. What would she do if one of them asked her about her legs or even wanted to see her feet? Josh shuddered.
“I don’t know,” Blue said. “What’s it like not to smell the color purple?”
A confused silence followed. “Colors don’t smell,” the other girl finally pointed out.
“Maybe they do and you don’t know,” Blue said. “You don’t miss it because you don’t know what it’s like. My blindness is the same way. I was born not knowing what it means to see, so I don’t miss it.”
Creating diverse characters is absolutely a political as well as personal project.
* Also falsely attributed to Gandhi.
** Even the romances I've read that feature non-White characters all-too-often make them light-skinned hotties with hazel eyes. Embrace the awesome of brown, my friends!