Person-First Language and Designing Characters: An Underdeveloped “A-ha!”

Ask any writer what makes a good story work, and they’ll most likely tell you “the characters.” Which is only natural. Characters are the people your readers will come to care about–whether they are loved or loathed–at least if you’re doing your job as a writer. The wants and needs and struggles of your characters will drive the narrative of your plot and, when done well, will intersect with the overarching plot of your story to deliver an emotional gut-punch at the climax.

It is important, then, to give your characters problems, struggles to overcome that will be relatable to your audience. So, as authors, we mine the things that we have struggled with, or that people we know have struggled with, or that we’ve heard about that seem like they would be interesting or difficult struggles for our characters to deal with. The problem is that as we get further away from our own experience, the less we understand how that struggle actually shapes an individual’s life and personality. We want to give our characters an interesting problem to overcome, but having never overcome that problem ourselves we run the risk of subordinating the humanity of our character to their struggle.

The modern fiction market is interested in representation, both of authors who have new and diverse perspectives, but also of characters who represent groups of people who have been given the short-shrift with regard to representation in the media. This motivates authors to try and include representation of people with disabilities, neurodiverse individuals, and other underrepresented groups in their fiction. Which is great! Fiction should be a space where people see themselves represented, and it’s important for authors to try and be as inclusive as possible when crafting their worlds and their casts of characters.

But, every so often, an author misses the mark. Instead of their representation being inclusive, it is appropriative, or stereotypical, or exoticizing, or harmful in some other way. I know that for me, personally, when I contemplate introducing a neurodiverse character or drawing on a culture other than my own in my worldbuilding, I often worry that my representation will be inadequate, that it will cause more harm than good.

In my Master’s program, I recently confronted a similar problem. As a teacher, you want to create an inclusive classroom environment where students with disabilities or who are neurodiverse are able to participate. To properly meet the needs of such students, you have to acknowledge the disability or difference. At the same time, you cannot reduce the student to their disability or difference. You cannot subordinate the student’s humanity to their disability.

One safeguard against doing so is the use of person-first language, which boils down to shifting the focus of your discussion and thinking from the disability to the individual. Though person-first language is not universally preferred (as discussed in this excellent blog post by Emily Ladau over at Think Inclusive) it is a useful linguistic tool for framing our perceptions of people as primarily humanistic, with any description subordinated to that essential humanity.

The same principle can be applied to characterization. When creating a character, it is important above all to imbue them with humanity and personhood. Whatever else your characters are, they must be individuals with dignity and worth and agency. They must be people first, before they are anything else. This may be a bit of a stretched connection, and I am probably overextending my credibility by saying so, but I think that considering our characters with person-first language can help to make them rounder and more real-feeling.

At any rate, I think this will help me feel more confident in my character writing, even if it doesn’t actually solve any problems.

I’m curious what others think about this, especially people who have been hurt or offended by poor characterization. Do you think a writer regarding their characters with person-first language can at least safe-guard against dehumanizing characterization? If not, why not?

 

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