I got a FaceBook message the other day from someone I haven’t been in touch with for a while. I’ll call him ‘Wilf’. We were friends in a ‘real life’ writing group which has since dissolved since the library kicked the group out. While things were going strong, Wilf and I had something of a vigorous debate about the ‘wisdom’ of me including a few deaf characters in my various stories.
I hadn’t thought of this tendency of mine as a matter where wisdom had to be applied, to be honest. Wilf’s view was that I ought to rein those characters in or write more hearing characters if I didn’t want to be thought of as a ‘one trick pony’.
This led to a heated group debate, and was probably one of the reasons we got booted out of the library. Now, I could understand where Wilf was coming from; although he’d never read anything I’d written apart from the odd snippet read out loud, his automatic assumption was that the character’s deafness was part of the plot. It never was. I did try to explain that these characters were deaf because people sometimes are just deaf, and that it wasn’t any more complicated than that.
“So, what happens when Ryan’s hearing worsens, then?”
“It doesn’t,” I replied.
“Because he isn’t going deaf. He’s already deaf. The story is about his relationship with his father.”
“Does it get better, then?”
“His relationship with his father?”
“No!” Cue elaborate rolling of eyes. “His hearing!”
“No, his hearing has nothing to do with the plot. But it does complicate his relationship with his father, who isn’t the most patient man in the world.”
“Oh. Why make Ryan deaf, then?”
I didn’t roll my eyes. You’d be proud of me. I was very calm. To begin with. But when he started asking me if Ryan was really me, in disguise, I got fed up and accused him of writing his hero, the blue, three-boobed Duke of Narg as a fictional manifestation of himself. He looked at me as if I were mad. Of course it wasn’t him! How could I think so? Well, the Duke of Narg had perfect hearing. So did he. So there must be a direct correlation.
He told me off for being facetious.
Okay, maybe that was a little facetious, but I was running out of debate steam in all honesty, and it seemed the quickest way of showcasing my indignation.
So why do I include more than the average number of deaf characters?
There is an element of writing what I know. When I write hearing characters (which happens more than 90% of the time), I have to remember:
- To make sure that I include sound effects
- That they (hearing characters) can talk on the phone, do FaceTime or Skype
- That they can hear each other in different rooms
- That I don’t have to engineer their spatial relationship so they can see one another’s lips
- That they don’t need to be talking in good light
- That they can hear their name being called
- That they don’t have to hit a fatigue wall because they’re not lipreading
- The list goes on and on. It’s actually quite hard work for me, putting myself in the shoes of someone who can hear.
When I write deaf characters, they tend to have severe or profound losses, and they are always oral (non-signing). I do try to keep the tone light. I’m not writing about deafness to make any political points; I’m just trying to show what normal life is like, and to show the range of experiences different people have. I have yet to write a signing deaf character, and that won’t happen until I’m familiar enough with British Sign Language to do justice to a character who will essentially be not just speaking but thinking with an entirely different grammar and who lives in an entirely different world. Until I can treat BSL with authenticity, I won’t try to tackle it.
There’s quite enough of a challenge trying to convince readers that there is such a thing as a profoundly deaf person who doesn’t sign. We exist. We’re just not widely heard of because people associate ‘profound’ loss with entire loss, rather than people with a loss at the very top of the continuum. I can hear a little with my aids in but nothing short of a gong being clanged next to my ear with them out. That’s quite profound enough for me, thanks very much 😉
My current project is the novel-length follow-up to Single-Syllable Steve (link below). I barely touch on the details of his deafness in the initial short story because it’s written from the heroine’s point of view, and she doesn’t realise that he has a hearing loss until late in the story.
A Brotherhood of Bouncers, the sequel, is divided between the perspectives of Steve and his hearing girlfriend Celeste, and shows a lot more of the finer details of love either side of the hearing line. It is a rom-com with the bedroom door left open, and it has been absolutely liberating writing the truth about deaf sex, covering both the joys and the infuriation.
Any questions? Similar experience of being told you’re overusing a niche, personal experience in your writing? I’d love to hear from you.
Until then, I bid you a pleasant Monday evening.