Q&A

How Quickly Should Characters Adjust to a Disability?

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I think I have some pretty positive disability portrayals in the story. I have an old mage based on a wonderful person I used to know, who (just like his real-life inspiration) has a hunchback and a pronounced limp. He’s also missing much of one hand, which he keeps as it is, and one eye, which he had replaced with a bionic one.

Another character gets her foot crushed in an accident. She has it replaced with a bionic foot, and has a pretty long rehab where she gradually learns to walk on it, using a cane for a while, but eventually regaining her previous level of mobility. Both the bionic eye and bionic foot are perfectly normal by the standards of this world.

The MC, however, at one point has her entire brain replaced by a bionic construct, plus the top and back of her skull. This is completely new and experimental surgery. It’s a long story, but she chooses to have this surgery since an antagonist will attack her and destroy much of her skull and brain in the near future, and there seems no way of stopping this from happening. With a bionic brain she might stand some chance of surviving, and she could have both brain and skull repaired afterwards.

Even though the MC wanted this surgery, she’s initially really uncomfortable seeing herself in the mirror with her face attached to this partitioned metal dome that now replaces her skull, etc. She gets over it fairly quickly, though. However, Husband felt upon reading the book that the other characters were a bit too quick coming to terms with how she now looks. Although they’ve seen people with replacement limbs or eyes before (and both, I should add, look very realistic), they’ve never seen anything like this. For reasons of upkeep of the complex bionic brain, the MC’s gotta have this skull that can be opened via a special mechanism in the back of her head… She really LOOKS like a cyborg, in a way no one else in this world does.

Obvs her friends won’t be MEAN to her, and obvs they WILL come to terms, Husband just thought it all went a bit too quick… Now I would like to hear your thoughts on how to handle this.

-Jeppsson

Jeppsson,

Thanks for the question!

When a change in appearance is purely cosmetic, most people do pretty well in adjusting to it. However, when a person attaches a negative meaning to a change, they can have a much harder time adjusting to it. So the big question here is, what meanings do the other characters attach to this change? For example, is it a reminder that the main character is in danger, or a sign of hope that her life can be saved?

In addition, anytime a visible change marks someone as a member of a marginalized group, it brings with it a weight of stereotypes and stigma. All those negative messages can bring up strong feelings in people. Especially in privileged people, feelings like grief and worry are common. This means that the amount of ableism in the setting will affect the strength of the other characters’ reactions.

Finally, I want to say that if you do decide that the other characters should have a stronger reaction to the change, be careful how much of it you show to the audience. Spending a lot of time on people who are acting out oppression is hard on audience members who experience that form of oppression. Also, there is an ableist pattern of portraying disability as a huge tragedy that will prevent people from having meaningful lives, and dwelling on negative reactions is one way this pattern comes out.

I hope that helps!

Best wishes,

Fay from Writing Alchemy

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Comments

  1. Jeppsson

    Thanks for the reply, Fay! I think I managed to handle it well in the end… Although I needed to ponder over the whole thing a bit and do a few rewrites.

  2. Dave L

    Good that her friends won’t be mean, but w/out meaning to, they might stare, or be obviously trying NOT to stare. Or she might THINK that they’re doing that

    One thing that could work, depending on your story, is to have so much IMMEDIATE danger, that by the time things slow down enough for her friends to get a good look at her, they’ve already been interacting for a while. Whether you can do this in your story, of course, depends on your plot and your pacing needs

    Naturally, some of her friends will adjust faster than others

    POV also makes a difference. If you use first person or close third person from the MC’s POV only, we’ll get a different impression than if we’re in the head of a friend or two who notices (or tries not to notice) her new look

  3. Kenneth Mackay

    I can see some people having an extreme reaction to this change – they might consider their friend dead, replaced by a computer-controlled zombie programmed to act like the person, and even believe they ARE the person, who died when their brain was removed.

    Is having your personality and memories uploaded to an artificial brain something known and accepted in this world, or is it experimental?

    If the latter, even the person concerned might harbour doubts about whether they are really the person they think they are!

    • Jeppsson

      I actually have a long-ish answer to that question!

      So in this world, people (and animals) have souls. The souls are less abstract than they’re usually made out to be, even though knowledge of them is mostly based on indirect evidence. Normally, a soul is intertwined with the brain. If someone loses their soul they go irreversibly braindead, i.e., dead period, unless the body is in a lifesupport machine.

      The scientist who performs this surgery on the MC is part of a research group that has been working for quite some time on putting bionic brains in rats, and later monkeys. At first they kept failing – they lost the soul in the process, and the bionic brain wouldn’t work without a soul either. It just shut down, and so the animals died. Eventually, though, the researchers made the whole thing work. They’ve now got a bunch of rats and monkeys with bionic brains who seem to do fine.
      Now they wanted to do it on a human (a seriously ill brain cancer patient or the like), but getting permission was really tricky; there were people questioning whether they really had managed to transfer the animals’ souls, OR just managed to make bionic brains that work without souls, in which case the animals were presumably some kind of hollow shells just mimicking sentience.

      However, because the MC is a mage, she can perform a certain trick only mages can do; temporarily (for a couple of minutes) making her soul smaller, denser, and semi-independent of brain functions through an intense effort of will. So they do this test post-surgery where she contracts her soul, a nurse turns down her brain fuctions to ten percent of normal speed, and then she answers a few questions and walks around, before they turn the brain up to normal again. This would have been impossible if the brain was all she had, and it was down to ten percent function.

      After the test, this issue is settled; she really does have a soul post surgery.

  4. Cay Reet

    I think it also depends on how regular disabilities are – the more often you see people with a disability in your regular life, the more normal and natural it seems.

    With the new and never tried brain transfer, it should be a bit harder for people to come to terms with it than an artificial body part which is regularly replaced (the eye and foot you mentioned). How you show that, as others have mentioned already, is down to the viewpoint character or characters, though. A friend who is a viewpoint character could think how weird it still is and how much they hope the MC is okay and not influenced by it in any bad way. The MC herself could be uncertain about whether someone just looks in her direction or stares at her, whether people are afraid of her or despise her. That, however, again depends on how socially accepted disabilities and artificial body parts are on the whole.

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