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I want to use a 12yo girl with down syndrome as main character. Trisomy 21 people has a low IQ, normally around 50, at least according to Wikipedia.

I've known a few people with such syndrome over the years, but never so well that I could rely on what I know from them to create my character so, the most obvious choice would be Forrest Gump, since I don't want the character to be too much dependent (and one thing I can say about the Trisomy 21 people I knew, is that they are dependent but not that much that the couldn't handle themselves in normal daily tasks, on the contrary).

Another awesome reference would be Corky Thacher, from Life Goes on TV Series, even because the actor that played the role has down syndrome himself.

The problem is that I don't want the main focus of the story to be the character struggle against his impairment. It's not a drama. The girl will share the plot with another main characters and I don't want to develop her in such a deeply way, because of the book size.

I think it's easy to fall into clichés and I don't want that also. I want her to a believable character who is facing a really complicated situation with others that can help her in the same way they would help a 12yo normal child but, of course, will underestimate her because of the problem she has.

So, my question is, did anybody work with such characters? How you managed to escape the cliché problem?

(btw, just tell me by the comments if you think this question does not fit here, and I'll delete it)

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Two terrific portrayals have been in recent Nebula and Hugo nominee Movement, and the perennial classic Flowers for Algernon. Both these stories excelled at giving the character a unique voice that's both rich and very believable. –  Standback Aug 5 '13 at 9:15
    
Reading Movemente right now. Thanks –  Psicofrenia Aug 5 '13 at 9:18
    
By the way, exactly what cliche do you see as the problem here? Could you identify it more clearly? –  John M. Landsberg Aug 19 '13 at 7:18
    
I would say it's hard such characters tend to be too weak or too strong for what they are, and that's clichè. –  Psicofrenia Aug 19 '13 at 8:27
    
I'd highly recommend The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time. It's told from the perspective of a fifteen year old boy with Asperger's, and the focus isn't on his struggle with the impairment; simply how he deals with the world. –  Lexi Aug 19 '13 at 13:27
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5 Answers

Perhaps the best example of creating the POV of a developmentally disabled main character comes from the first part of Faulkner's The Sound and the Fury. One big issue there, though, is that it is really, really hard reading. The character (this bit is portrayed in first person) doesn't have a great sense of how to tell narrative and as such the story jumps around all over the place and sometimes key details are left out. You pretty much have to read that part a few times over to make much sense of it.

Otherwise, if you want to have a main character with Down's Syndrome, my advice is to do research on the subject. My guess is that you don't have a relative with it, so that's why you're asking. There are a great many pitfalls with portraying the developmentally disabled, not the least of which is presenting them as a modern-day noble savage (this is more or less exactly what Forrest Gump is). As with all of your other characters, you need to create someone with their own goals, their own demeanor, and their own strengths and weaknesses, and none of those attributes should be or include "Down's Syndrome". Should this influence all of that other stuff? Sure. But a good, fleshed-out character is more than a "person with Down's".

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Indeed my main goal with that character is to be a letter to other characters. I don't want her to have goals, other than passing trough the events of the story. The only way for her to do that is to be helped, what will become one of the goals to others characters and some of them have background that would imply in a sense of duty to help a girl in distress. I could do it with a "normal" 12yo girl but that formula has been used a lot, and I really see that character as somebody with mental impairments. I'll check The Sound and the Fury. Thanks –  Psicofrenia Aug 5 '13 at 13:34
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+1 for the "noble savage" point. There's something of a cliché in writing that all mentally handicapped people are portrayed as sweet, loving, morally pure, etc. In real life, just like everyone else, mentally handicapped people have a wide range of character traits. –  Jay Aug 5 '13 at 15:06
    
Yeah... this may sound really strange but a good example of a developmentally disabled character who is not a "noble savage" is the movie Gigli. –  NotVonKaiser Aug 5 '13 at 20:25
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Speaking in more generic terms, we can always resort to the art of rhetoric and, particularly, to the use of the three main rhetorical styles of Logos, Pathos and Ethos to create solid, believable characters.

In short, they are:

Logos represents the logic. In this rethorical style, one can use logic to build a character. That is, either the character is a logic person or the narrative itself uses logic and deductions to directly or indirectly explain a character. I personally think this suits better in scientific or descriptive stories or articles.

Ethos represents the character's beliefs. Good characters can be built when they adhere to their beliefs. That is, the character's actions throughout the story must be in accord to their ethos, or to what they believe. Please note that his beliefs don't need to be true or false or even right or wrong. What is important here is that the character has his beliefs and that he acts in accord to his beliefs and personality.

Pathos represents the emotions. Characters that are built using pathos are those to whom we feel empathy, or disdain, or contempt. Whatever the case, we feel for such kind of characters. We feel pity for suffering characters, or anger for evil ones. We celebrate the successes or achievements of hard-working characters, and so on.

In your case, I feel that a mix of Ethos and Pathos may be used to build a strong and believable character that suffers with down syndrome. It could be a bit cliche if the character only had an emotional appeal. It could even look "pushy" if someone's disability were exploited in such a way. But the ethos part, that is, the character's personality and his actions may contribute to his background. For example: instead of feel pity for him, you may lead the readers to celebrate his conquers. This is just an example...

You can read more about it in various sites and sources. In a quick search, I see these two:

A General Summary of Aristotle's Appeals

and Good old Wikipedia

But I strongly advice you to run further searches in this issue.

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This is really interesting. I always worked based on the temperament vs character dichotomy but this is surely worth some digging. –  Psicofrenia Aug 6 '13 at 7:22
    
Another interesting thing is the deliberate use of the common character archetypes. –  Filipe Fedalto Aug 6 '13 at 15:45
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I think the easy answer is: Do some research. See if you can find some non-fiction accounts of the treatment or behavior of mentally handicapped people. In this Internet age, I suspect that with a little searching you could find some articles on line where parents or other care-givers talk about living with a mentally handicapped person.

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One of the most famous short novels ever written, John Steinbeck's Of Mice and Men, has a mentally challenged character as one of its main characters. You certainly need to read this to help you understand an excellent way of treating a character of this type.

The hero of my own story, "Conditioning," which was published in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, is a mentally challenged adult. The story is not about his mental limitations, but about certain actions he takes that are a result of how he sees the world. In order to accomplish this, I had to put myself into his head, and imagine how I would respond to certain situations if there were some characteristics of those situations that simply were unrecognizable to me, and hence to him. (And that's really the fundamental basis of how you do what you need to do to write a character like that in a sympathetic way.)

Let's take a very, very, very crude example of this. Let's just say you imagine an alien creature who lands in the woods. He walks out of the woods and wants to get to a city to meet our political leaders. He comes to a highway, but has no understanding that automobiles carry people to cities. He says to himself, wow, those sure are interesting speedy animals, as he sees cars going by. And he walks past the highway and walks further into the woods without ever flagging down a car.

Obviously, the situations and circumstances in serious fiction are much more subtle, complicated, and sophisticated than this, by far. But in a context like this web site, I hope that the broad and overly simplistic example above can give you an idea of what the basic concept is. Good luck!

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Make sure to show that their internal logic makes sense to them. It won't work rather often but it is normal from their POV.

For example, when my daughter was young she discovered that adding salt to food made it taste better. She would taste food, add salt, it would taste better, so she would add more salt , rinse and repeat until the food was so salty as to be inedible.

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