Between the Lines: Representing Health!

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When writing stories, a lot goes into the creating of characters, and Between the Lines has discussed, repeatedly, the importance of characters’ who resonate with audiences. A lot of thought is given to how characters interact with one another, and how they face the calamities that, inevitably, befall them in their quest to the end of the story. Not many stories, however, talk about how characters exist within themselves. (Unless, of course, the story is about the character coming to terms with that one aspect of themselves, and when that happens, well, it’s a different story completely, isn’t it?) Specifically, the writing of characters who suffer from mental or physical illnesses, or disabilities, is an area of writing that could definitely do with substantial growth.

That’s not to say that there hasn’t been progress. Arguably, characters with mental illnesses have made a powerful revolution to media as we know it, and have edged their ways into mainstream fiction. Physical disabilities, on the other hand, maybe aren’t as common, doing a great disservice to the possibility of diversifying the stories we see on the daily. (Is anyone keeping a count on how many times I use that phrase in this column?) The inclusion and exploration of the mental and physical health of characters adds a three-dimensional weight to characters, bringing them into a new light and moving away from the standardized able-bodied, able-minded mainstream character.

And the truth, again, is that neither physical disabilities or mental illnesses are rare. The problem is in the research that goes into writing nuanced characters who correctly represent the reality of the situation, and the fact that it’s a very particular type of story that makes into the mainstream, and quite often, they tend to run the same way. For what it matters, these stories do exist, the problem is in finding them, and writing them in a way that does them justice.

The problem is that while we don’t often give it a thought, the stories we consume play an equal part in shaping our perceptions of the world – we believe what we see, both in fiction and in reality. With that, how can we deny the importance of representation, not only for those who we are representing, but for audiences in general, to aid us in breaking out of our boxed world views, which we can’t help but fall into? Stories, and I cannot ever stress them enough, aren’t ever just stories. They’re the beginning of a social and moral education that we cannot go without, they are enlightenment and opening.

For the next few weeks, we’ll be talking about what makes characters three-dimensional and how the inclusion of mentally or physically ill characters makes stories more interesting and more real to the wide audiences that good stories should reach. We’ll talk about how there is a bittersweet edge to this type of representation, the tendencies of falling into overused clichés or tropes when writing, and the importance of research.

On a side note, I want to ask everyone reading to call me out on any offensive or inappropriate language used, and if there are better or more sensitive terms I can use to talk about what I’m trying to say.

Onwards!

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