Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Why I Chose To Make A Wheelchair User The Protagonist's Best Friend

Joseph Mitchell, Eric's best friend in Half-Vampire, is an unusual character in a YA novel.  To be honest, I can't ever recall reading a YA novel that had a wheelchair user as a major character.  Why'd I choose such a character?  Well, I needed someone to teach Eric not to focus on his disabilities.
The character of Joseph was inspired by 3 real people.  One was "Suzy," a severely hearing-impaired girl who was in my dance group when I was growing up.  A deaf dancer?  How?  Well, she felt the music rather than heard it, and she watched everyone else very closely.  No one in the audience ever knew she heard next to nothing.  And Suzy was an excellent lip-reader, so all the rest of us had to do was remember to turn toward her as we spoke.  Another inspiration was S., a 20-something-year-old actor I worked with in community theatres about a decade ago.  Due to a birth defect, S. had legs that didn't grow after infancy, so they were amputated, leaving him to use either his hands or a wheelchair to get around.  (The character Joseph walks on his hands the way S. did.  That's where I observed the motions and the possibilities.)  S. was completely undeterred by his lack of legs; he sang, danced (in and out of the wheelchair), acted, skateboarded (a legless skater is something to see!), and never made his difference an issue.  After a while, most of us didn't notice.  The third influence was J., a young man paralyzed at age nine from the armpits down.  Yes, he's a wheelchair user, but he's also a singer, dancer, actor, and was even the student-body president of his high school.  As with the others, J's a person, rather than a disabled person.
If you could meet these three people, you'd understand why one girl once complained to S., "[name deleted], you're the least *&^% handicapped person I know, but you get all the good parking places!"
Joseph doesn't ever focus on his "handicaps."  In fact, in the scene where he's telling Eric to stop whining about his own (Eric, after all, has a genetic disorder that gives him a bad reaction to sunlight and makes him crave blood, which definitely make him different from his classmates.), Joseph admits to his own disability: the fact that he cannot sing.  (I stole that from Suzy; she really couldn't sing very well.)  It never even occurs to Joseph at the moment that his lack of legs might be a handicap.
I'm sure there might be some readers who think Joseph is an unbelievable character, but I promise you that he's not.  His amazing attitude was shared by 3 people I know who had great excuses to be negative about their lots in life.  And Joseph's physical strength and ability to walk on his hands are completely modeled after S., who could do the same things.
Plus, I thought it would be a nice change to have a wheelchair user in a YA story.
So now you know.  :)

PS.  If anyone can think of any good YA books that feature wheelchair users, please drop a note in the comments.


  1. I loved Joseph and found him very believable! I have been mentally wracking my brains to think of another character in a wheelchair, but can't come up with any. He reminded me a little of Stevie on "Malcolm in the Middle." Stevie was so awesome because his main character traits were brilliance and perpetual worry; the fact that he was in a wheelchair was something you barely noticed after a little while! Same thing in "Friday Night Lights" with Jason Street. At first his being in a wheelchair is a huge issue, but as he gets used to it, the viewers do, and soon there are so many other things to focus on about him!

  2. the people who inspired joe sound like such brave, amazing people- thank you for sharing their stories and for bringing a character like that into your books!

  3. Hey, very nice site. I came across this on Google, and I am stoked that I did. I will definitely be coming back here more often. Wish I could add to the conversation and bring a bit more to the table, but am just taking in as much info as I can at the moment.
    Thanks for sharing.
    CP Wheelchair

    Keep Posting:)