When I set out to write a realistic fiction novel, True North, I knew one of my main characters would be a dad with a spinal cord injury who was a good man, with a dark secret in his past, and a fairly significant character flaw. As a high school English teacher for 20 years, I sought to create a young, strong female protagonist, of which there are not enough in contemporary fiction, along with characters who would create empathy. I wanted to write a book parents could talk with their teenagers about and maybe see some of their own flaws in those of the characters’ parents.One man’s flaw is that he is homophobic, and no one, not even his wife, understands why. I needed this character to have a functional disability which would require in vitro fertilization in order for his character to actually become a dad in the novel.
Actually, I personally did not need this; the plot required it. There needed to be embryos which could be transferred to a lesbian couple. My husband, incidentally, also has a spinal cord injury, so I did spend time developing Andrew, my character (and not my husband, whose name is Geoff) to be not only physically different, but also to have a very contrasting personality from my husband. The only similarities in my Venn diagram is that they both use a wheelchair and have two children.
Andrew is homophobic. Geoff is not.So, I’ve apologized to him no fewer than 1000 times in the years since the book came out.Our children have two pairs of married lesbian aunties. Our kids at 6 and 7 know that women can marry women and men can marry men and women can marry men and vice versa, and we only want them to find the right person to share their lives with when they are good and ready and, obviously, at least 30 years old.
Andrew also has a drinking problem, but oddly no one seems to think that is an issue. Geoff does not have any internal or external conflicts with addiction, beyond skiing maybe. Perhaps readers believe that maybe, just maybe, Geoff Krill, professional skier and Chief Motivational Officer of the non- profit Eastern Adaptive Sports, who changes the world one wheelchair at a time, boozes it up too much on the side.
Andrew also doesn’t want to talk about his injury. This more than anything ought to clue people in that Andrew’s character is nothing like Geoff’s. Geoff loves to talk about how he became paralyzed. He even goes into detail about what he remembers being in shock and lying in a snowbank following his snowmobile accident which left him paralyzed from the waist down at age 25. People invite him to speak at their schools or to their newly injured grandchildren to do just that– to share thoughts and advice about being disabled.Andrew felt his life was ruined after his accident. Geoff, clearly, does not, or he would have been powerless to win me over.
Andrew and Geoff could not be more different.Well, they could have been if I had given Andrew a different kind of functional disability. But I didn’t. And the result of this is a collective confusion among our family and friends living in the White Mountains of NH who say things like, “Man, Heather, I had no idea (emphasizing the NO), Geoff had issues with gay people.” They whisper the end part afraid of being noticed. Or maybe they follow up with a compliment on the novel, “What a great read, loved all the characters, but I could not get past Geoff– I mean, Andrew– having such trouble with the lesbians who were the moms. ”They are fixated on the homophobia as the principle quality of character connecting the two men based solely on the spinal cord injury. Now, as a regular person living in society who does not know our family, reading True North, fortunately, will not impact your thought process the same way.
However, my one regret is creating “the dad character” with a spinal cord injury. My poor husband. His own disability causes far fewer issues in his real life than the one I created for Andrew in this world of fiction. There are not many fiction books out there either which deal with physical disabilities or embryo adoption, so we are a unique genre. Our best characters, as in real life, are dynamic and round; they grow and change or they don’t.If they remain static or flat, they are boring and no one wants to talk to them, let alone read their flatness.
Heather Krill is a writer- wife- teacher-mom who lives in the White Mountains of NH with her husband, Geoff, a paraplegic and professional skier, and their two children, Carver and Greta who are 7 and 6.Please check out her novel True North, website www.heatherkrill.com, author FB page Heather Krill, @heatherkrill1 on Twitter, and, most recently added in the New Year, her Youtube channel “Writing from the Front.”