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The Victorian hero of my 2012 Golden Heart finaling novel, A HERO TO HOLD, is disabled. I admit the Registered Nurse part of me played out a secret agenda when I put David Scott in a wheelchair.  I wanted to present a character whose disability was dealt with matter-of-factly. It’s part of him but doesn’t […]

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Why That Character?

Posted by on Feb 20 2014, 12:03 pm

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The Victorian hero of my 2012 Golden Heart finaling novel, A HERO TO HOLD, is disabled. I admit the Registered Nurse part of me played out a secret agenda when I put David Scott in a wheelchair.  I wanted to present a character whose disability was dealt with matter-of-factly. It’s part of him but doesn’t define him. It’s something he deals with, but it’s not a huge part of the story. He’s a complete, complex person—who happens to have a disability.

I wanted every woman reader to fall in love with David and find him utterly sexy and desirable and forget he couldn’t stand or walk. I realized I’d achieved my goal when I wrote a scene that had David stalking across the room. I’d forgotten he couldn’t walk!

When I started writing AHTH, I decided to read all the books I could find that featured disabled protagonists—especially those in a wheelchair—to see how other authors had handled such challenging characters. I already had a vision for David, so wasn’t looking for a template. I was just curious.

I didn’t find many, but most I found, I read. The last three years I’ve noticed a huge increase in romances featuring disabled military veterans. I attribute this to the War on Terror and our growing number of veterans left dealing with physical, emotional and spiritual challenges.

In preparing this post, I discovered a really interesting 2012 blog on Dear Author: Ridley’s blog post starts with recommendations for books she liked that feature disabled characters. (What I’d originally planned for this post.) Then her post expands, getting into why many authors who write about a disabled character get it wrong, citing oft-recurring themes of what one commenter calls “super-crips and poor unfortunates.”

When I sought out disabled characters, I didn’t spend much time analyzing the themes of the books I read. Ridley’s post presents opinions I wish I’d been privy to earlier. It becomes a vetting on how disabled characters are often portrayed— and concludes they’re too often shown either as people who’ve overcome every physical obstacle and are fairly impervious, or as those emotionally crippled by their disability. Many of the commenters reveal they have disabilities, and so feel they’re particularly astute regarding how the disabled are portrayed.

The post made me wonder how good a job I’d done with David. I showed how some of David’s traits helped him successfully deal with his disability.  Other personality traits left him vulnerable and sometimes coping with anger and depression. One thing I know I got right. The story is about David, not his disability.

I made David physically disabled because I wanted to change the view of a person who looked at a man in a wheelchair and saw a wheelchair first and a man second—a disabled man. After reading my book, I hope that person sees a man—and, oh yeah, he’s in a wheelchair.

To be honest, I’m not sure why I wanted to do this, but I suspect authors often have personal reasons for the themes and characters they choose to write about. They might be driven by a need to teach, explain or help. They might want their readers to care about something that’s important to the author. Or maybe, perhaps without even realizing it, they want to explore something inside themselves.

Have you read a novel that changed your opinion or your view of something? Did you have a personal reason for writing about a particular theme or character? I’d be interested to hear.




20 responses to “Why That Character?”

  1. Pintip says:

    This is such a great post, Sheri. I love how you forgot he was disabled and had him striding across the room! It sounds like you were successful in your goals, and I look forward to reading David’s story someday!

    • Thanks, Pintip. It’s odd I started out to write something quite different for the post, but my focused changed as I was reviewing items to include. Exactly like when your story takes a turn in a different direction than originally planned.

  2. Elisa Beatty says:

    Such a fascinating post, Sheri!

    It’s really true that popular stereotypes about the disabled are either that they’re uber-optimists who let nothing stand in their way (and are thus destined to be motivational speakers) or sobbing messes who won’t come out from under the bedcovers.

    Showing someone as fully human and complex, with strengths and weaknesses, good days and bad days, is key no matter what sort of person you’re depicting.

  3. Terri Osburn says:

    As the non-analytical type, I’m never much aware of why I write what I do. I think it often comes around at the end that neither character is ever perfect, but they are still perfect for each other. And I like the idea that they compliment each other.

    Since I’m eternally single, perhaps I’m creating in fiction what I don’t have IRL? Huh. See, this is why it’s better not to dig too deep. LOL!

    • Terri, there’re a lot of heroes on the pages who are “dream men,” even those with flaws!

      Do you think the adage, “there’s someone for everyone,” is true?


      • Terri Osburn says:

        Shari, as a hopeless romantic I’d like to say yes. But my realist side says they don’t always find each other. The good thing is that I’m totally fine if Mr. Right lingers for a while. My life is pretty good, man or no man. 🙂

        • Terri, I also wonder if they always find each other. Remember Longfellow’s poem Evangeline? She and Gabriel spent their lives trying to reconnect–and they knew who they were looking for!

  4. Great post Sheri.

    I think writers tend to shy away from this subject for fear of ‘getting it wrong.’ I applaud you for doing all research to get it right! (After being on the brainstorming loop with you, I now know you LOVE research. And you’re darn good at it ;0)

    • Yes, Tammy, I lose myself in research (sigh), and almost anything can get me searching. Hate it when I realize HOURS have gone by, though. Maybe I need one of those “treadmill desks?” I wouldn’t feel so guilty about those hours, then.

      For David, I relied more on my nursing experience and education, although I did research, too. One of those books I’d recommend to anyone as a fabulous read. CLIMBING BACK by Mark Wellman. It’s Mark’s story of how he became a Park Ranger and climbed Yosemite’s El Capitan after becoming a paraplegic.


  5. John says:

    Hi Sheri.
    I love your post. Avoiding cliches is very difficult where cultural stigma is so ingrained we need to train ourselves to (a) see it, and then (b) deal with it maturely (i.e., don’t capitalize on it, let it be in an honest way, get on with actual and complete character development). I admire the effort and the result.

    • Hi, John. Thanks for commenting.

      You’re right about cultural stigmas, which was what drove the blog post I mentioned. It’s so easy for discrimination to grow from negative portrayals that through ignorance become ingrained in the culture. I think writing fiction presents an opportunity to fight preconceived ideas/prejudices–simply by developing multidimensional, realistic characters.

  6. robena grant says:

    Wonderful post, Sheri. Writing a hero who is disabled physically is a wonderful tribute to our many injured heroes returning home from war. So many sad stories, but then again so many wonderful stories of men and women who would never give up, and in many cases people who became stronger in spirit.

    • Absolutely, Roben. My character, David, was injured in battle.

      I’ve been seeing a lot of contemporary romance with wounded veteran protagonists. The success of J.R. Martinez, acting and on Dancing With The Stars, is wonderful. One person can do so much to raise awareness for all wounded warriors.

  7. Great post, Sheri! Love this: The story is about David, not his disability. I can’t wait to read this book. Thanks also for the insightful article. I gave a character in my 3rd book, my late father’s backstory which includes more baggage that what they could carry in their seabags. I know that I will find some healing by writing this story. Surely, many authors write about crippling – both physical or emotional – characteristics in their characters to help with their own healing. Write On, Girl!!!

    • It’s why writers have to dig deep, right, Heather? Our characters don’t need to have our experiences, but I think we have to be in touch with our emotions in order to make our characters’ emotions believable. Luckily, no one has to know what or how much we have in common with them. ;->

  8. Talia Quinn says:

    Fascinating to contemplate, Sheri. It sounds like you’ve handled the disability issue with delicacy and thought, and the book sounds great. I think as writers, we look for stories and characters that give rise to organic reasons for drama, and this does exactly that.

    (Also stories and characters that contain themes that resonate with us on a personal level, though that’s often harder to see until much later.)

    For myself, hmm. I want to say that Flowers from the Storm by Laura Kinsale made me think differently about stroke victims. I think in a way, it did, because she got inside his skin so effectively, I felt like I knew what it was like to go through that experience.

    I sometimes find myself wanting to write about big issues that have had a huge impact on my personal life, but it’s hard to gain the distance to do them justice. Maybe someday I will.

    • Talia, I second your assessment of Flowers from the Storm. The hero made it so easy to understand the frustration of someone with that type of brain injury. Very powerful accomplishment by Kinsale.

  9. Sharon Wray says:

    Talia beat me to it! I have to agree that Flowers from the Storm was the first book I read that made me think differently about non-perfect characters.
    I’m used to dark, emotionally-damaged characters, but I don’t know if I could write a physically disabled one.
    To be honest, I’ve never thought about it until today.
    I can’t wait to read your book. And I think it’s a testament to how much you love your characters that you didn’t even remember David couldn’t walk. 🙂

    • Thanks for commenting, Sharon.

      When FLOWERS FROM THE STORM released, there weren’t many if any heroes with mental issues. Happily, today’s market is much more tolerant of characters with mental, physical and emotional challenges.

      A huge best seller last year was THE ROSIE PROJECT by Graeme Simsion. It’s about a genetics professor with Asperger’s who decides he’d like to marry. It’s hilarious and touching. And I love that the hero has a psychologic disorder, which you just never see in a fictional main character–much less in a romance! It’s wonderful that the book and character have met with success.

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