I don’t read many books about blind characters. This is in part because there aren’t that many around, but also because the ones I have read just weren’t terribly good. I have enough problems dealing with misinformed opinions and well intentioned ‘help’ in real life that reading about them in my leisure time makes me angry.
I know these authors don’t intend to make me - or other vision impaired readers - angry. Many of them read the books that came before theirs and thought they’d done their research. Many of them observed colleagues or relatives who are blind, and thought they understood blindness. Some of them are even blind themselves, but their stories are still affected by the ignorance of the sighted world.
While researching for this essay and my own writing ebook I searched writing forums all over the internet, where amateurs and professionals converge to support and inspire each other. I came across numerous discussions about writing blind characters. The advice people gave was extraordinary in its misguidance and ignorance. ‘Blindfold yourself and walk around the house,’ they would say “Blind people see darkness” or, my favourite; “colour-blind people only mix up one or two colours. There’s no such thing as complete colour-blindness.” As a person with achromatopsia - complete colour-blindness - I quickly set them right.
Not one of these writers intended to lead the others astray. Writers are an emphatic bunch; we truly care about getting things right. They just didn’t know any better. Their attempts to create realistic blind characters are flawed from the onset because of the general lack of knowledge in society surrounding people with vision impairments.
So how does a writer portray ‘realistic’ blind and vision-impaired characters? Is there really such a thing? What should the writer be aware of when crafting their next blind protagonist?
First of all, I do not believe a writer can create a truly ‘realistic’ character, because characters aren’t real. They exist in the vacuum that is the narrative, and cannot be drawn from the plot to tend their garden, or sit down with a cuppa, or wash behind their ears. Characters are too busy stomping, slashing and stumbling their way through the narrative to worry about the real, mundane aspects of life - they’ve got disasters to prevent, plot-twists to navigate, and love-triangles to entangle themselves in.
The author attempts to create the illusion of reality by implying these mundane aspects and writing a character that the reader connects with on such a level the reader understands exactly how that character would react in any situation. As an excellent example, the Harry Potter books created an entire online community of fan fiction and reader interaction and speculation, because you could predict with absolute certainty what Hermione or Snape or Dumbledore would do in any given situation, and that was half the fun.
I don’t think I’ve ever read a book featuring a blind character where I’ve felt that sense of connection, and I’m at an advantage over other readers because I’ve experienced vision-impairment firsthand. I believe this is because most authors don’t understand how a blind person lives day to day.
For a blind person, it’s the process by which they navigate their life - and not the life itself - that differentiates them from a sighted person. A sighted person takes the bus home from work; a blind person takes the bus home from work. They both start at point A and move to point B. Only the process differs.
Likewise, a sighted person experiences their first kiss, and a blind person experiences their first kiss. A sighted person will see the tilt of the head, the sparkle in the eye of their lover as they move forward, inch by inch, their lip curling up into an almost smile as they press lightly at first, then firm. They would close their eyes and feel the sensation of heat against heat, heart against heart.
A fully blind person won’t see the head bending towards them, but they will feel the electricity in the air, the closure of space around their lips, the pounding of their lover’s heart against their own chest and the warmth of hands caressing their back.
When you write about blind characters, you cannot deprive them of experiences without legitimate reason: inequality, historical precedent, safety precautions - these are all legitimate reasons if used as plot devices. But you can’t forbid your characters from experiencing love, or rejections, or guilt or betrayal or hatred or joy because you don’t believe they should.
In the last novel I wrote - an alternative history set in Victorian England - of the main characters was a blind man. In fact, he’s one of my favourite historical personalities; he’s actually one of my heroes. In the story (but not in historical record), he betrays his friends. Although he redeems himself in the end, the betrayal had to be carefully plotted; I couldn’t have the reader slamming the book shut in disgust.
His blindness could not prevent him from betraying his friends, nor did his blindness cause the betrayal. When it came time for him to redeem himself - he did not do this because he was a blind man, but because he was a good man.
My blind character had to be the same as the regular characters - flawed beyond belief, capable of terrible decisions, but also aware of his own actions and able to make good for his own mistakes. Even though at times his decisions and personality were influenced by his sight-loss, he had the right to experience betrayal, redemption, trust and love, in the same way as the sighted characters. He took the same journey, just with a different process.
Removing sight - the most common descriptive sense - from a character allows a writer to explore the other senses, to discover the world beyond the veil of sight. It’s scary to contemplate, but not impossible to write. Talk to people with vision difficulties, become their friend, understand their struggles and their triumphs. Don’t blindfold yourself and walk around the house - you could trip and injure yourself, and you’ll no better understand a blind person then if you hopped on one leg for a day to understand an amputee. And most importantly, dare to tackle the challenge of portraying a blind character in your fiction. With the right research and attitude, the world of literature will be all the better for your efforts.
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