My Main Character is Ableist – My Response to a Call-Out That Never Happened

When my book, Chemistry, first came out I wasn’t sure what kind of reception I would get.

Stella Blunt – for those who haven’t read my book – is not always an easy person to like. She swears, she’s permanently in a rage about something or other, and she can’t take a compliment. I knew my heroine was what they call an “unlikeable” heroine. I knew I was taking a risk in letting her go out into the world.

My hope was that people could see past all of that. Stella has her good points, after all. She is passionate, she is intelligent, she solves her own problems, and she desperately wants to be a better person. Though she constantly berates everyone and everything, she doesn’t spare herself, either.

I open the book with a scene that immediately presents and confronts Stella’s flaws, so I hope that it’s clear that Stella will be growing and changing throughout the series. She takes the first steps toward change in Chemistry and there will be more growth and change in History.

To my relief, the vast majority of readers love Stella, either because they admire her spunk and sass, or because they identify with her raging insecurities, or both.

But every now and then, Stella meets a reader who can’t stand her, and that’s fair.

My negative reviews almost all focus on Stella’s faults – her foul language, her tendency to overreact to just about everything, and her inability to handle a difficult situation with any amount of serenity or grace. And that’s okay.

But you know what my negative reviews don’t mention?

The fact that Stella is ableist as fuck.

That’s right – Stella is ableist but that’s not what bothers the people who dislike her. They care more about her bad language than they do about the fact that she repeatedly uses words like “crazy” and “insane” as insults. They care more about her continually-raised voice than about the fact that she spends half the book trying to decide whether she wants to date someone who may or may not have physical and mental health issues.

Now, if you’re a Stella fan and you feel the need to rush to her defense – please don’t. It’s okay to love Stella. I want you to love Stella. I love Stella. But we don’t always have to love the things she says and does. Stella is a work in progress – we know this about her. She has some flaws. She has a lot of flaws. And that’s okay. But we also need to acknowledge those flaws.

If you think Stella isn’t ableist, then please go read up on ableism before you say so.

The worst part is that she doesn’t even really know that she’s ableist. Stella is keenly aware of many of her own faults. She struggles to suppress her intellectual snobbery, and she works hard to control her irascible temper – although she generally fails. But she considers her “should I date him even though he has a disease” mental debate to be completely okay. She doesn’t think twice about slinging around words like “crazy”.

I’ve been bracing myself from the beginning for a reviewer to see this and call out my book for ableism. I’ve thought about how I would respond, and how I would reassure people that Stella has already taken the first steps to overcoming her ableism, but that most of the work will happen in History.

But I’m starting to think that it isn’t going to happen. So I’ve decided to just put it out there now.

Hi. My name is C.L. Lynch and my main character is ableist.

It’s the casual kind of ableism that you’re likely to find in most teenagers who have never been forced to confront their own prejudices and privilege. It’s the kind of ableism-invisibility that most people have unconsciously – the kind that only disabled people notice. But I want you to know that I didn’t do it unconsciously. Her ableism is part of her character journey, and it will be addressed heavily in History.

Please understand that my book itself is meant to be anti-ableism. As someone who suffers from mental health issues, loves someone with a disability and has worked with some amazing and admirable people with disabilities, I revile ableism and deliberately set out to address it.

Chemistry contradicts common paranormal romance tropes by presenting Howie Mullins’s undead-ness as a disability as opposed to a superpower. He doesn’t sparkle. He isn’t super fast and super powerful. He is clumsy and has trouble learning new things. He has a lack of emotional prosody in his voice due to brain damage. He also (as we learn later on) suffers from intrusive thoughts and a certain amount of anxiety. But he is a person worth loving and fighting for.

Sure, I could have made Stella be some sort of wonderful human who naturally overlooked all of these issues and saw the person underneath right away, but that would make her too to much of a Mary Sue. Ableism is one of the most overlooked kinds of privilege/prejudice and the fact is that most teenagers and even adults evince it in one way or another. I wanted to start with a heavily flawed character who goes on a journey, and ableism just seemed to come naturally to Stella.

While Chemistry sets the foundation for Stella’s personal growth, History will go into it in much more depth, as foreshadowed by my bonus novella, With You. Howie will get to tell you his side of things – he isn’t the saint that he appears to be – and he will have his own character journey to go through as he comes to terms with who he is, and Stella will need to do the same.

I promise.

Down with ableism.

Love,

C.L. Lynch