Four Tropes to Avoid When Your Villain Has a Disability
As someone with a chronic illness, I appreciate fictional characters with disabilities—including heroes, side characters, and villains. However, evil characters with health conditions often fall into tired tropes, some that are harmful to the disabled community. The following are some tropes to watch out for when your villain has a disability.
Trope #1: Disability = Evilness.
Disabled people aren’t automatically evil (surprise!), but this trope exists because writers appreciate the symbolism. It’s also common to use a disability as the source of a villain’s evilness—for example, they struggle with trauma from an accident, or, if they’ve been disabled since birth, they envy the able-bodied; they’re lonely or ridiculed as a child; they’re in pain all the time and want to get revenge on the world for their condition.
In Battlestar Galactica, the turning point for Felix Gaeta’s morality is when he loses his leg. He’s had a lot of horrible things happen to him (like cylons destroying his planet and trying to kill him), but it’s this particular event that brings him over the edge, which suggests that disability is the absolute worst thing that can happen to you.
Ant-Man and the Wasp’s villain, Ava Starr (a.k.a. Ghost), has chronic pain and does whatever it takes to find a cure, including attacking people and leaving them in the quantum realm, where they could be lost forever. She is angry, bitter, and makes rash decisions. While chronic pain certainly can impact your personality and influence you to do uncharacteristic things, her villainy is so wrapped up in her condition that when it’s cured, she suddenly isn’t a villain anymore. The message that people are evil or “wrong” until they’re better is unsavoury for those of us with illnesses we have to live with forever.
Disabled and chronically ill people are no more likely to turn evil than the next person (in fact, we may be less likely to, because brainstorming dastardly plots and managing minions takes a lot of energy that we just don’t have).
Trope #2: Physical deformities are scary.
Hook hands, peg legs, and eyepatches are especially popular on villains. They are often used solely to make the villain look frightening. Writers use technological and medical devices for their creep factor as well, such as the life support that keeps Doctor Who’s Davros alive.
Star Wars demonstrates how disabled villains and heroes are often treated differently; Darth Vader gets an intimidating black body suit to keep him alive after he suffers from severe burns, but Luke Skywalker gets a human-looking robotic replacement after his hand is cut off.
People with physical scars, deformities, and medical interfaces receive the clear message: people are afraid of me; I can’t be a hero; I don’t belong.
Trope #3: People with mental illnesses are violent.
Mental illness is often the subtext of unhinged villains who do twisted things, but that illness may never be named or properly depicted; such is the case with DC’s Joker. In the 2019 film, the Joker’s transformation into a murderous, violent character is triggered by his mental deterioration, which includes hallucinations and other random symptoms.
Psychotic illnesses are constantly stigmatized and misrepresented in fiction, and mental illness is wrongly associated with extreme violence. This suggests people with mental illnesses are to be feared and may abuse others, when they are the ones who more commonly receive abuse. Portrayals like this are harmful to people who have real struggles and are looking for understanding and assistance from those around them.
Trope #4: Disability is a consequence of being evil.
People with disabilities already struggle with questions like “What did I do to deserve this?” The fact is, we did nothing. Life just isn’t always kind.
Fiction can perpetuate this guilt by using disability as a stock punishment for evil. For example, in Peter Pan, the subtext of Captain Hook’s missing hand is that he deserved to lose it and be forever chased by a crocodile, because he’s evil. In the Spider-Man movies and comics, Norman Osborne is the amoral head of a giant company, Oscorp, pushing for the development of money-making technologies; he turns into the Green Goblin after being exposed to one of these experiments. In Wonder Woman, Doctor Poison creates deadly, toxic weapons, and she has facial scars due to accidental exposure to her own gases.
Treating disability as karmic punishment is an unhelpful and discouraging message.
What to Do Instead
If your villain has a disability, try demonstrating the condition as something they simply have to live with instead of linking it to their evilness. You could use a specific condition (make sure to research it and hire sensitivity readers to ensure accuracy) instead of generalizing symptoms. Even if you create a fictional illness (such as Amanda Brotzman’s Pararibulitis in Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency or Cloud Strife’s Geostigma in Final Fantasy VII: Advent Children), you can be specific about how the illness manifests.
Also, consider giving other characters illnesses and disabilities, not just the villains. We want to see ourselves in our heroes, too! Don’t give your villain the most physically apparent disability in the story, either. If everyone else has invisible conditions and your villain is the only one with a missing leg, a scar, or an eyepatch, what does that say about those disabilities?
Be thoughtful about how you portray these villains, and you will end up with more interesting, well-rounded characters who aren’t simply stigmas of a condition. Yes, villains can have disabilities, but not all of us with disabilities are villains.