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Let’s Talk – Disabilities in Romance

I’m writing this post today from Duke Cancer Center where I will be talking to third-year medical residents as a survivor of ovarian cancer (Survivors Teaching Students is a nationwide program – https://ocrfa.org/get-involved/survivors-teaching-students/ ).  

As I watch the people move before me, I am awed at some of the conflicts, determination, and love that I see. These people (and I can proudly say that I was one of them) are heroes and heroines, battling against foes plaguing their bodies. They often have husbands, wives, and partners with them.

When we, as authors and readers, talk about increased diversity in romance, we often jump to race and sexual orientation diversity. We’ve made great strides in offering readers wonderful stories in these areas, however, I still do not see many disabled heroes and heroines in romance.

Decades ago I met a young writer at a conference who had just pitched a story idea with a blind heroine. She was told by the agent that she would not be able to sell a blind heroine to a publishing house. Do you think this is still true?

Some say that readers want fantasy when they read romance. That bringing the challenging conflicts that come with a disability to a romantic story could turn readers off. But with television shows like ABC’s Speechless, with a main character with cerebral palsy, I believe the tides have begun to turn.

 

My Highland Hero shaving my head when my hair started falling out. He shaved his too.

As an ovarian cancer survivor, I’ve thought about writing a heroine with cancer. Of course, she will live as I only write happy endings and that is what readers of romance expect. But as I toss and twist the plot in my mind, I realize that the story actually falls more into the category of realistic fiction than romance because the fight for the woman’s life becomes the focus and not the building relationship. Can such conflicts overshadow the romance, thus shunting the book out of the romance genre?

There are all types of disabilities, some much easier to deal with than others. I could easily see a dyslexic heroine or an amputee. I’d like to read a romance between a cancer warrior heroine and a doctor. The whole taboo thing about patient/doctor boundaries would be so interesting to explore. The military book I read while judging last year’s Ritas had a very strong hero dealing with the loss of his leg and phantom pain. The core story still remained about the growing relationship.

But what about someone with bipolar depression or complete paralysis from a spinal injury? Would these types of disabilities be too much for the casual reader? Or would these books open a view into the struggles that come with these conflicts, pulling readers into the richness of the characters? However, again, would the focus in these books end up being on the physical/mental conflicts rather than the romance, making these books realistic fiction with romantic elements?

What do you think? I think we’ve come a long way in areas of diversity over the last decade, but I still don’t think all people are represented in romance. Do you have examples of diverse heroes and heroines with disabilities? Do you think there is a market for such romance? What type of diverse heroes and heroines would you like to see in romantic literature?

 

And before you leave, since it is still September, which is Ovarian Cancer Awareness month (and I’ve got my teal on!), please remind yourself of the symptoms of this sneaky, vicious disease.

 

Bloating that is persistent

Eating less and feeling fuller

Abdominal pain

Trouble with your bladder

Other symptoms may include: fatigue, indigestion, back pain, pain with intercourse, constipation, and menstrual irregularities.

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Hi! When I’m not writing Scottish Historical romance and driving my kids around, I’m an educator and advocate for Ovarian Cancer Awareness. When I was diagnosed six years ago, I barely knew even one symptom of this very quiet disease, which is the most deadly of the GYN cancers. If you are a warrior, survivor, or just want to chat, please feel free to contact me at Heather@HeatherMcCollum.com . I’m an “open book” when it comes to talking about my OC experiences. Heather

 

 

 

14 responses to “Let’s Talk – Disabilities in Romance”

  1. There is definitely a market. It’s real life. Writers have written about characters with all types of physical and mental disabilities, successfully sold them to publishing houses and then gone on to sell the rights to film. Examples; An Affair To Remember, Dying Young, Me Before You, As Good As It Gets, At First Sight, Benny & Joon, A Beautiful Mind, Four Weddings and A Funeral. These are a few on my favorite movie list that have been adapted from books. So yes, if you have an idea to use a person with a disability or health issue, write it with heart! I’ll buy it.

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  2. I think this could be a huge market; it’s already growing.

    The 2015 Rita winner for novellas was HIS ROAD HOME by Anna Richland–about a vet with physical and neurological disabilities from an IED. That is a gorgeous book. I promise you, Rey will have drooling over him by the end of the story. (Anna Richland is a member of RomVets–a group of romance writers who are also veterans. Check us out!)

    Same with THE MADNESS OF LORD IAN MACKENZIE by Jennifer Ashley. The hero almost certainly has Asperger’s (although in the 1800s, he wouldn’t have been diagnosed.) Another amazing book–where you find the hero so incredibly hot despite his differences.

    I wrote a YA heroine with a memory disorder (permanent chemo-brain from a cancer treatment that cured her.) I think this book is of the “fiction with strong romantic elements” variety though–because her struggles to create a future for herself when she cannot rely on her memory form the central plot. But she despairs of ever finding someone to put up with her, and she finally does with a sweet, patient, sexy boy. (WISHING FOR YOU).

    I hope commenters will leave some other suggestions, because I would support stories where the H/h have disabilities–whether the disability is part of the plot or just another facet of the person.

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  3. I think this could be a big market; it’s already growing.

    The 2015 Rita winner for novellas was HIS ROAD HOME by Anna Richland–about a vet with physical and neurological disabilities from an IED. That is a gorgeous book. I promise you, Rey will have drooling over him by the end of the story. (Anna Richland is a member of RomVets–a group of romance writers who are also veterans. Check us out!)

    Same with THE MADNESS OF LORD IAN MACKENZIE by Jennifer Ashley. The hero almost certainly has Asperger’s (although in the 1800s, he wouldn’t have been diagnosed.) Another amazing book–where you find the hero so incredibly hot despite his differences.

    I wrote a YA heroine with a memory disorder (permanent chemo-brain from a cancer treatment that cured her.) I think this book is of the “fiction with strong romantic elements” variety though–because her struggles to create a future for herself when she cannot rely on her memory form the central plot. But she despairs of ever finding someone to put up with her, and she finally does with a sweet, patient, sexy boy. (WISHING FOR YOU).

    I hope commenters will leave some other suggestions, because I would support stories where the H/h have disabilities–whether the disability is part of the plot or just another facet of the person.

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  4. jbrayweber says:

    I do think there is a market for books with characters who have disabilities. There is beauty in overcoming mental and physical challenges. Happiness, heartwarming, heartsick, bittersweet, whether mental or physical that emotional punch is what romance readers want.

    I have a prominent secondary character with a physical disability in one of my pirate books. No, he didn’t wear a hook or peg leg and wasn’t marred in battle. He wasn’t even a pirate. 🙂 But he was a cocky fellow and though there were many things he couldn’t physically do, he made up for it in ways that surprised those around him and (eventually) gained the respect from the hero.

    The fact of the matter is we are not cookie-cutter. People are vastly different in so many ways. Yet most of us want the same things—acceptance and love. What a great topic, Heather!

    Jenn!

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  5. Tamara Hogan says:

    Heather, as a person who has a couple of chronic health issues that aren’t obvious at a casual glance, this topic resonates. Anyone who crafted a romance novel with a character like me would have to accommodate chronic pain, sensory sensitivities, and the occasional, urgent need to find a restroom. Sexy, right? 🙂 Yeah, not so much. But a husband who risks getting a speeding ticket to get you to the nearest bathroom in time certainly is. 🙂

    Concerning reading books with characters who have disabilities or health challenges, bring ’em on! I think it’s important that a wider slice of real life be represented in romance fiction, and that there’s a market for these stories. But for me, a certain…matter-of-fact authorial voice would be essential for enjoyment. I’d love to read books featuring characters who manage their disabilities or health issues WHILE LIVING THEIR OTHERWISE ORDINARY LIVES. Plots or romantic conflicts relating solely to the disability or health issue would really turn me off, as would a ‘woe is me’ character, or a saintly narrative.

    People with disabilities and health issues aren’t saints, they’re people – people who have lives, who do interesting, everyday things having nothing to do with their disability. Who love/hate their jobs, who have annoying parents, who get pissed off when their cat misses the litter box, who have sex, who fall in love. Shying away from the physical and emotional realities of living with a disability would be a disservice to the character, but I’d argue that focusing on it overly much would also be a disservice – to both the character and the reader. As writers, we need to remember, and honor, genre expectations.

    I want to read stories about fascinating, three-dimensional people…some of whom happen to have disabilities, if that makes sense.

    Heather, I hope you have a productive day at Duke. The residents are fortunate to have you, as are we. 🙂

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    • Julia Day says:

      Perfectly said, Tamara. I have a daughter on the autism spectrum. When she was a teen and something went wrong for her, she would sometimes ask if it was because of her disability. And I would say, “Maybe. Or it could be because you’re a teen. Or because you’re impatient. Or because you’re introverted…”

      A disability is just one aspect of a person. I love that romance writers could be the group that makes multi-dimensional characters with disabilities an expected part of books.

      Thank you for writing this post, Heather!

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  6. Heather D McCollum says:

    I love all these comments! Wonderful points and great recommendations.

    Thanks, everyone! It’s an important discussion.

    I wrote a heroine with terrible scars on her face, which she got from oil burns. She had magic (it was paranormal historical romance), so she hid the scars from everyone, except her magic didn’t work on the hero. There’s a fabulous scene where he talks about scars and how they show that you’ve faced something horrible and you won by surviving. The book came out a month after I was diagnosed with cancer.

    : )

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  7. Awesome post, Heather!!! I, for one, would like to see more characters with disabilities. My WIP features a secondary character with Down Syndrome.

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  8. MonaKarel says:

    With the increasing number of veterans suffering physical and mental disability I feel strongly about including them in our writing. They are not disabilities, they are people with disabilities on a difficult path.
    Zoe York’s most recent Pine Harbor story deals with an extreme athlete who nearly died in an ied disaster. His recovery isn’t quick, but it’s beautiful.

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  9. A friend of mine is now legally blind after years of macular degeneration. She wrote a great YA book about a high school aged girl with the same affection. FYI if you met my friend, you wouldn’t immediately know her struggles. When she pitched the book to an editor, the woman kept saying, “But would that REALLY happen?” Sigh. This is why we need heroes and heroines with challenges–because people have a limited perception about how disabilities look, act and play out in real life.

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    • Julia Day says:

      Jennifer Armentrout, a NYT best-selling YA author, has retinitis pigmentosa and is slowly losing her sight (although I’ve heard her say that she still has several years before legal blindness.) My daughter’s boss was diagnosed with RP at 12!

      Disabilities don’t care about age, affluence, race, gender, culture…

      Both of my daughters have disabilities (the invisible kind where it isn’t obvious when you see them.) But they deserve to be at the center of their own love stories, and there ought to be books that reflect it.

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  10. Getting ready for contest season and switching ms with other unpublished writers, I read multiple wonderful stories over the spring and summer. One featuring a blind hero (written by a blind writer), a hero with Marfan Syndrome, a heroine that had beat breast cancer, complete with mastectomy and the ever-present worry that it could return, and a protagonist with a very accurate depiction of autism/GED who didn’t see autism as a disease.

    None were “issue books”, and all had three dimensional characters and wildly romantic plot arcs. So the stories are being created, and I hope to see all of them on shelves one day.

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  11. Kimberly Field says:

    I think there is a market for this. I think it is easier to find a hero with a disability than a heroine. I saw a reader post the other day that she was looking to read books with the heroine having a disability, because she needed to know that there were happy endings for people like her. I have read a couple great books that I did recommend to her. Rachel Cross’s Rock Him, the heroine has rheumatoid arthritis, and Montana Darling by Debra Salonen, her heroine is a breast cancer survivor and has body issues because of it.

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  12. Cynthia Huscroft says:

    I agree with your colleagues and the other commenters…there is definitely a market for this genre on a lot of levels (many of which have already been mentioned). There are so, so many forms a disability can take…some visible to the naked eye…others not. It is as interesting mix of emotions and reactions as to how folks…well…react to a visible disability. I had the opportunity to experience this first hand after foot surgery and most of my outings required either a wheelchair or a walker. Many folks looked away but as they passed by me, I looked many of them in the eye and just said “hi!” It was very interesting to be in in that position and a positive experience for me. I’ve since healed, but won’t forget that chapter in my life.

    On another note, 2 books that came to my mind right away were “The Fault In Our Stars” & “The Hunchback of Notre Dame”.

    Great post and great food for thought! Thanks, Heather. & that resident was lucky to have you as a teacher – it sounds like a terrific program!

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