I write characters who are people, first and foremost. This means that when I have an idea of who they are, that’s who they are. Maybe at some point this was relevant to the plot; maybe it never was and that’s just who sprung to mind, fully-formed.
Zoey in the small college town slice of life tale loses half a leg aged nineteen, and I cannot imagine an adult version of her with both. (Lower left, for the record.) Mostly I focus on Ada, and Zoey’s only her singing coach, albeit a singing coach who’s survived a plane crash and won a lawsuit to the tune of millions. Adult Zoey has been working toward her new normal for years, but she’ll never not have PTSD or anxiety again, and though she has enough money to buy as many fun lower leg attachments as she pleases, she has pain from the amputation as well as from the injuries she got in the crash… which was the spring of her junior year, so she was seventeen, and she spent a good year in a coma recovering.
For Zoey, and not for everyone, losing that half a leg is more of the same instead of misery on top of misery. She has money, though. She can afford to be blasé or even excited (“Hey, look at these prostheses! How cool!”). She knows chronic pain and is already on drugs to control it, though they don’t work perfectly and sometimes you’ll see her zipping about on a scooter.
In no way is Zoey meant to be prescriptive, when I write her. She’s of a particular temperament, a roll-with-the-punches, middle-fingers-blazing sort of person, but she suffers the same as anyone else when she miscarries, and is anxious during the pregnancy that follows. What will her medication do to Baby? What will relaxin (the hormone that loosens a woman up for labour) do to her? Is she at risk for the same complication? (Only low risk. It was a full trisomy 16.)
She is, as I conceive of her, a whole human being. The crash and the amputation will leave her with a few extra considerations while she goes about the business of living, but she lives. Her story is not about what happened to her. Her story is about what happens next, and a great deal of it is an ordinary life, with a boyfriend who will marry her, a career, and a wish for a child. And, yes, a medication cocktail and a collection of prostheses (“This is my conducting leg; it’s designed to fit this shoe…”).
That’s who she is when I write her. She’s not a lesson or a symbol. She’s not a sob story. She has quirks completely unrelated to her varying disabilities, like a disdain for authority and a rocky relationship with her mum. Sometimes she’s overbearing because she thinks she knows what’s best the people around her. She’s competitive and ambitious about her singing, and this brings out the absolute worst in her (and I am writing from experience) but she will mellow into a passionate vocal coach and conductor. Bit of a tiger still, but more understanding. All of it is part of who she is, so to emphasize only the disability erases so much of the story.
Here’s to telling entire stories, then.