chapmansmythe (chapmansmythe) wrote,

Creating Realistic Special Needs Characters

From Blame it on the Muse

My Left Foot.

I am Sam.


Lorenzo's Oil.

Tom Cullen from THE STAND, Lennie from Of Mice and Men. Shall I go on?

Obviously Hollywood and books are aware of, and portray special needs characters with their own particular slant. As I've had the privledge of working with people of differing abilities for almost ninteen years, they always find their way into my books. I often give my characters their own physical or emotional handicap.

In my book, The Bride of Blackbeard, Constanza is missing a finger--but I won't tell you how it happened. ;) Bride of Blackbeard

My book Project Mendel, has a deaf-blind child in it. Project Mendel

It's something I do naturally. It's hard for me to write a book and NOT have a character with differing abilities. Because for them, small things, things we take for granted, are colossal when accomplished.

Why do authors or film makers make use of these characters?

Well, man vs. himself (the emotional or physical handicap), man vs. the environment are already in play due to the nature of the person themselves.

I'll be writing a series of articles around this subject. Today, I'll add a little life story. Because truth is the origin of all fiction worth its salt.

Frank* came along with my father's business, like a precious family heirloom. When he purchased the Beer Distributor, the owner stipulated Frank must stay on. Frank was a nice sort of man, who--due to bad luck in his genetic lottery, would have trouble obtaining a job. He was a work-horse, 'built for plowing' as my dad would say.

My father readily agreed, and was glad to have him. Frank passed on owner to owner, decade after decade, till I heard he passed a few years ago.

I have a to-be-sold book, where the majority of the minor characters have 'differences'. (insert ominous music here) Some editors cringe at it--but I'm guessing there's someone out there who wouldn't flinch.

See, I've been in the foxhole--seen the struggles firsthand. Fought on the front lines for the struggle for one's mind and body. It ain't pretty--but the stories are worth telling--if you can find the emotional fortitude to send your mind there.

I have difficulty controlling my voice in blog posts. I don't want to cheapen my experiences so they come out schmaltzy--but also don't want readers to picture me as a bell-ringer, sporting a placard calling, "Bring out your dead!"

Last, but not least. My own personal hero. I read Temple Grandin's books by dead of night (like many, many parents) on my quest for biological knowledge. I've read every book, Thinking in Pictures, Emergence: Labeled Autistic. She has more too, on her animal husbandry vocation.

Before I saw the movie, I had typed the line, "Different, not less," to describe one of my characters. Hand over Heart. My mouth popped open when I saw the movie. I removed it from my ms. Temple's mom uttered the exact phrase--I guess mom's think alike.

She gave me hope, knowledge and lit the fire of perserverence in so so many. So--don't be afraid of special needs characters. But--get them right. Talk to people with whatever disability you're writing about. Never, never cliche them, please.

One diagnosis can be experienced in million separate ways. As individual as the person themselves.

Thanks. Go light some literary fires.

*Frank's name changed


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