I grumbled about children in fiction (particularly in, but not limited to, media fiction: TV, movies, etc.) some months ago. When I re-read the post I metaphorically smacked myself on the forehead, remembering that what initially got me thinking about all this was a TV show in which an autistic kid (and his family) were menaced by a serial killer. In this show, the boy exercised agency and saved the day. Exercising agency=good, certainly. But I wondered why, given the shape of the plot, the writers decided to use a child with a disability, particularly because the “magical powers” given him by his disability did not seem out of the realm of possibility of a kid of his age without autism.
This a vexed and irritating thing. Don’t get me wrong: I am all in favor of including different kinds of people in fiction–different eths, different religions and cultures, different genders and abilities. And I don’t require that those characters be there for a reason (either an external quota–it needs a female character, or it needs a gay character, or a person of color, or…) because an awful lot of us are here without reference to the fact that we’re female or Sufi or lesbian or diabetic or from Cairo or are nearsighted. But sometimes who a character is has a bearing on how the character deals with the world, and using that is a wonderful thing in fiction. We all have experiences and knowledge that comes in handy in a pinch, things that can turn an ordinary person into a hero (or a villain).
But I get testy when the difference of a character is used as shorthand for a whole class of abilities or virtues not otherwise in evidence. I wept while watching Forrest Gump, but I walked out with the uneasy sense that the screenwriter and director were trying to convince me that because he’s developmentally handicapped Forrest is a better person than everyone else–that his disability makes him naive, and his naivete makes him pure. Or the increasingly familiar suspense trope of an autistic kid who has supernally acute skills that allow him to break sophisticated codes or solve complex mathematical problems–whatever is needful to the plot. Or the blind woman whose stunningly acute sense of hearing lets her overhear the diabolical plot of…well, someone. Ditto the deaf kid (though one of the best reverses on this is in The World According to Garp, when a girl has her tongue cut out by rapists to keep her from identifying them…never thinking that she’s still able to write a description of the criminals). The marginalized person-shorthand is akin to the dreaded Magical Minority (Bagger Vance, I’m looking at you) who exists to magically solve a problem for the (usually non-minority) protagonist. They’re not people in a story, they’re a cluster of identifying traits, shorthand for the solution.
So how do you have a character in fiction who is different in some way without making that difference the only important thing? The best I can suggest is to make the characters people, not saints, and not a collection of symptoms. Making Forrest Gump more than a metaphor would change the shape of the film, and probably that’s not what Robert Zemekis wanted. But I woulda liked that movie better.