How to Write Disabled Characters
Recently, I read a post in a writers group where someone argued that you shouldn’t worry if your story isn’t diverse. Just let the narrative “flow” naturally, unfiltered by the “pressures” of society. If you have an all white, abled cast, who cares! No one wants tokenism.
The problem with this idea is that we, as writers, are influenced by the prejudiced culture we live in. Allowing our stories to flow “naturally” means they are full of our biases. White people have been reading stories about white people for so long that it may not feel “natural” to include characters of other races. Disabled characters have been shunted to the sidelines for so long, that it may not feel “natural” to put them in another role. The fact that peoples of minority are calling for representation in stories that have been primarily dominated by white, abled, cisgender characters for centuries is not “peer pressure.”
Making stories diverse takes work and effort—but that work is important. People in the minority should get to see themselves in the stories they read. And people in the majority should see people who aren’t like them in the stories they read. Representation matters.
There are a lot of harmful tropes you can fall into where characters with disabilities are concerned. Contrary to popular practice, you do not need to write a book that entirely revolves around their condition in order to include those characters. (Of course, if that is the book you want to write, go for it! But don’t let your genre keep you from representing a wide variety of characters, including those who suffer from serious health conditions.)
I highly recommend you hire sensitivity readers to ensure your representation is as accurate as possible, but this article and the resources below can be a place to start.
Here are six questions you should ask yourself if you have a disabled character in your novel.
1. Does the plot focus only on the disability?
There are plenty of popular, contemporary fiction books about disability being published, such as The Fault in Our Stars by John Green, My Sister’s Keeper by Jodi Picoult, or Me Before You by Jojo Moyes. And there’s nothing wrong with writing that kind of book (except for the problematic themes in Me Before You, but I won’t get into those here). However, people with disabilities, such as myself, also appreciate being represented in other stories—ones in which the plot isn’t completely wrapped up in our condition.
Maybe I want to see myself as a crime-fighting superhero who just happens to have cancer (Dream on, you say? You obviously haven’t read The Mighty Thor). Maybe I want to read about a character with cerebral palsy who gets dropped into a fairy tale (A Curse So Dark and Lonely by Brigid Kemmerer) or a heist-planning thief who uses a cane (Six of Crows by Leigh Bardugo).
It might be challenging to figure out how someone with a wheelchair would navigate a spaceship or how someone with chronic pain would go on a quest across a monster-ridden country, but it’s not impossible. Read about your character’s condition. Talk to people with disabilities. The fact that you’re here is a great start.
2. Is the character more than their disability?
My illness is a big part of me, but I am not just a sick body. I have a personality. I have wishes, dreams, and goals. I have gifts and flaws. I am more than my illness. Characters should be too.
Historically, authors have used disabled characters as objects of pity or to inspire a protagonist. Consider Tiny Tim from Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol; his only narrative purpose is to teach and inspire an able-bodied man. He functions as inspiration porn, a term coined by Stella Young, a disability activist who had osteogenesis imperfecta.
“When people say you’re an inspiration, they mean it as a compliment,” Young said during a TED Talk in 2014. “We’ve been sold this lie that disability makes you exceptional and it honestly doesn’t. … I want to live in a world where we don’t have such low expectations of disabled people that we are congratulated for getting out of bed and remembering our own names in the morning.”
I’ve been appreciating the show Speechless, because it makes fun of this trope by showing how ridiculous it is. In the pilot episode, one of the main characters, J.J., is greeted with applause from his new classmates simply because he’s in a wheelchair; he’s even recommended for class president for the same reason. No one knows him, but they “don’t have to” because he’s an “inspiration.” The show uses these tropes to humourous effect, pointing out that people with disabilities are just trying to live their lives like everyone else. We do not exist to inspire others.
3. Is the character cured or killed?
Writers may be tempted to overcome the “problem” of disability by curing it or killing off the disabled character. It’s not that you should never write about the death of a sick character, just don’t do it for pure dramatic effect or because you don’t know what else to do with them. There are so many great story opportunities you can take advantage of by portraying your character struggling with a condition rather than by completely removing it.
It may be tempting to write about a finding a cure as part of a quest. Being sick can feel like a problem to be solved, especially considering the popularity of medical dramas like House, in which episodes are structured around diagnosing a patient in forty-five minutes. I’m not sure most people realize how unrealistic those shows are (though I still watch them, because who can resist House’s sarcasm), and that a diagnosis doesn’t necessarily mean you get to feel better.
As a writer, perhaps it feels unfair to leave a beloved hero in pain or disabled. This is, perhaps, why author Nicola Yoon ended her YA novel Everything, Everything (spoiler warning) with the reveal that the protagonist actually doesn’t have Severe Combined Immunodeficiency after all. Surprise! She spent most of her life thinking she had this condition, but she’s not actually sick. She can leave her house and be with the boy she loves. What a happy ending, right? Except for anyone reading the book who actually has Immunodeficiency and were excited for a character they could relate to. The book’s main selling feature and entire premise—that a girl with this condition can live happily ever after—was all a lie.
While chronic illness feels unfair to me, too, I don’t get to drink a magic potion or wish away my illness. Conditions are often labeled “chronic” because they have no cure.
Consider how your story might work if the character’s illness isn’t cured, and they survive to tell the tale. Raven from The 100 TV show is an example of how this can be accomplished—she has chronic pain due to nerve injury and she never gets better. The show even dangles a cure in her face, but its too good to be true. In the end, she accepts her pain as part of her, even as she struggles to deal with it throughout the show.
4. Is the disability overcome by magical or other means?
Particularly in science fiction and fantasy, a character may have a disability that really isn’t a disability, such as being blind but being able to see just fine using magic. In a way, this sees disability in a positive light, but it’s not realistic for the character to never experience repercussions or disadvantages.
Avatar: The Last Airbender navigates this dichotomy well with Toph Beifong. Because Toph is an earthbender, she uses her bare feet to sense what’s around her and can navigate as well as any other character, for the most part. There’s a magic element to help her “see,” but she doesn’t perceive colour or detail—earthbending simply helps her see where objects are so she doesn’t walk into them. The show also makes a point of demonstrating that she is still blind. There are times when her feet are burnt or she has to wear shoes and can’t sense her surroundings anymore. She can’t perceive everything with her earthbending, either, such as when an object is thrown at her, or when she and Katara have a spa day and she says she would like to know what Katara looks like.
Other characters frequently forget that Toph can’t see and make comments without thinking, which creates amusing dialogue, such as when Sokka complains, “It’s so dark down here! I can’t see a thing!” and Toph replies, “Oh no! What a nightmare!”
Due to her earthbending abilities, Toph may not accurately portray all the elements of what it’s like to live with blindness, but she still is disadvantaged and people still say thoughtless things to her; that thoughtlessness mirrors society’s behaviour towards people with disabilities.
5. Is the disability only there to make a villain scarier?
Sometimes, the only reason a disability is introduced is so a villain looks scary. Hooks, peg legs, eyepatches, and scars are especially popular on evil characters. They are often there for no other reason than to make the villain look more frightening.
Technological and medical devices are commonly used for their creep factor as well, such as the life support that keeps Doctor Who’s Davros alive. An iconic example of how villains and heroes are treated differently is in Star Wars; Darth Vader gets an intimidating black body suit with flashing buttons 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 who constantly see these types of villains get a clear message: I am scary looking. People are afraid of me. I can’t be a hero. I don’t belong.
Instead of resorting to this trope, use disabilities to make your characters, villains or otherwise, three dimensional. Demonstrate their conditions as something they have to live with, perhaps struggle with, and not just an aspect of their evilness. And make sure to give other characters illnesses and disabilities, not just evil ones.
6. Does the story accurately show what it’s like to live with this disability?
Illnesses and disabilities are often difficult to understand if you haven’t experienced them yourself. You don’t need to have a particular illness to write about it, but do your research.
A couple stories I’ve read lately, ones that feature characters with chronic pain, have completely ignored the exhaustion element. These characters experience pain 24/7, but become ruthless, powerful warriors, able to fight and train with the best of them. I don’t think these authors understand how impossible that is when constant pain drains your body of the ability to be physically active. If you really want your character with chronic pain to be a warrior, consider how that might be possible.
For example, in a fantasy story, perhaps there’s an elixir that removes their pain and exhaustion for a few hours every day so they can train, but then the pain returns tenfold later and this takes its toll on them. Or, consider a different role besides muscled fighter for a character with chronic pain.
Even if you’re making up a fictional illness, take the time to understand the stigmas that sick people face and how common elements of illness (fatigue, missing work, feeling like a burden, etc.) impact daily life.