When Blindness Becomes a Writing Tool
By Dr. Wesley Britton
Last week, I had very different intentions about what I was going to say in this blog post. I planned to write about how my own disability, my blindness due to the genetic disease called retinitis pigmentosa, had helped shape my main protagonist of the Beta-Earth Chronicles, Malcolm Renbourn. After all, the launching point for the entire series was my wondering what would happen to a human who is blinded when he’s drug through a barrier separating the multi-verse and taken to an alternate earth. How could a blind man turned into a blind alien cope with a planet where he doesn’t understand the language, see anything at all around him, and adapt to a culture completely different from anything he has ever known?
But rather than delve into those matters today, I thought I’d share with you a writing lesson I learned this weekend. For my ghost-loving grandson, we went to see the movie Winchester for his birthday. Unless you’re blind yourself or have gone to the movies with someone who is blind, you probably don’t know about the headsets that provide audio descriptions of whatever movie you’re seeing.
I’ve been relying on audio descriptions for years, but at Winchester I was really struck with the depth of details I was hearing. Perhaps that’s because the mansion where the story is set is so strange that the audio track had to be very vivid. The narrator had to describe long hallways with boarded up rooms and staircases that went nowhere. He had to describe strange faces and appearances by spirits that weren’t human. Well, at least not alive.
But in addition to the weird, the narrator also had to describe normal curtains blowing in windows, what items were on tables or cabinets, what things were hung on the walls or dangled from the chandeliers. He had to describe what the characters looked like, what they were wearing, and what their expressions and movements conveyed to viewers. If they looked pensive, that’s the adjective he used. Or aggressive, resolute, all manner of terms on the emotional spectrum.
In the theatre, blind viewers got every scene and setting painted for us in colors, lighting, cleanliness, atmosphere, sizes, you name it. In short, the audio track had to do just what we authors need to do for readers on the printed page.
So I’m proposing that a useful exercise for authors is to pretend we’re creating a narration for an audio description when we’re creating our settings, characters, meals, movements, anything visual a reader would want to see in their minds. For a blind writer, this was a good lesson as I’m naturally not visually oriented. For all the things I needed to describe in my books, I had to rely on very old memories or emulate imagery from my reading.
Since my stories are set on a different planet, I didn’t have to try to capture any recognizable places. Instead, I had the challenge of world-building, that is, crafting settings largely from scratch. To make them believable, recognizable or not, the descriptions had to be vivid and multi-sensory. Whether I was successful or not, that’s your judgement to make. Whether you’re successful or not in your own writing, well, why not consider how a blind movie-goer would experience the time and place where your characters are doing their things?