Friday, March 2, 2018

9 Tips for Writing Physically Disabled Characters in Fantasy

There are two things I would love to see more of in literature:

1. More Batman comic books. Because...Batman.

2. More fantasy books with physically disabled characters. many reasons. Let's talk about a few of them.

Fantasy is an amazing genre meant to inspire a sense of wonder and courage and hope. Fantasy is capable of being a reflection of our own world, but with unique and wonderful twists.

And, yet, often times it doesn't do these things. It is very rarely a reflection of our world. How can it be? After all, there are a lot of physically disabled people here on earth. But how many are there in the fantasy genre? Barely any. And that's a problem.
9 Tips for Writing Physically Disabled Characters in Fantasy
Sure, sometimes the physically disabled get represented in fiction that delves into what it looks like to be disabled. That's cool. But can we not be depicted in fantasy novels as well? Do you know how uplifting that would be? Think about it. There's a reason people loved Black Panther so much. After years and years of the African and African American community being featured in books and movies about black suffrage, they were finally represented in an action movie that showed them as heroes and people of power with a rich history and culture. They were finally treated as "regular" characters, not "diverse characters." And that's huge.

We can do the same when it comes to the physically disabled: Show them as humans first and disabilities second. It's not hard.

And, yet, there's something about physically disabled characters that seem to be taboo in the fantasy novel writing realm. Authors are skirting around the subject. Why? I can guess at a few reasons:

Authors find it restricting to write characters that are disabled. They're limited in what they can do: Physically disabled characters can't run, fight, or be badass. They'd probably just die immediately. Right?

Authors don't feel they have the right to write disabled characters. If you aren't physically disabled, you can't write a physically disabled character. I mean, sure. You can write characters that are of different genders, different races, different religions, but a different level of able-ness? *gasps* How is that possible?

Do you hear that? That's the sound of me groaning and rolling my eyes.
Let me help you help me stop rolling my eyes. Here are some tips you can use when writing physically disabled characters in fantasy:

1. Broaden your scope. Physical disability is something that prevents a person from normal body movement, function, or control. Do you know how many different types of disabilities fall into that category? Tons. Which is unfortunate, but guess what? That means you can be as creative as you'd like to be. There's MS, crippled, muscular dystrophy, cerebral palsy, various spinal problems, various types of chronic pain, chronic fatigue, and more. On top of that, you are free to make up your own types of physical disabilities.

2. Don't be afraid to make them your main character. Despite what you may think, having a disabled main character isn't impossible. It requires creativity which, surprise surprise, is necessary for any type of novel-writing. So maybe your character has a hard time walking. He can use his cane as a weapon...or perhaps he's can be an expert scholar or magician or equestrian or dragon-rider or griffin-rider or any-type-of-mythical-creature-rider. So maybe your character is in constant pain. Well, she probably has a high pain tolerance, making her a perfect, badass, scary warrior. Don't for one moment think that having a disabled character will limit your fantasy story. Because you know what? One thing your disabled character will certainly have is a unique outlook on life...and also a huge amount of determination. That's perfect material for an amazing character. Go for it.

3. Never lose sight of the disability. Disability shapes a person whether they want it to or not. It determines how they live their day to day life, either because they aren't physically capable of doing things "normally" or because the disability has so influenced their personality that they live differently (either for better or worse). So every time you write about this character, you need to ask yourself: How does their disability enter into the situation? You need to be able to look at things zoomed out: If they have chronic fatigue, how does that play into them being able to captain a ship across an ocean? You also need to see things zoomed in: If they have a crippled arm, would they be able to easily roll underneath a fence to escape a pursuer or would their arm get in the way? Always, always, always pause to think about how your character's disability enters into everything from plot to character development to dialogue to individual scenes.

4. Don't define your character by their disability. While you shouldn't ever lose sight of the disability, you shouldn't get lost in it, either. A helpful tip? Change the way you view your character: As a being (elf, dwarf, human, etc) first and a disability second. This will allow you to create a well-rounded character. Also, understand that their story doesn't need to revolve around their disability. In fact, it probably should not (harken back to my Black Panther commentary above). Give your character hopes, dreams, skills, personality traits, and background outside of their disability. Develop them as you would any other character.

5. Do your research. What, you thought writing fantasy means you don't have to research anything? Ha. That's funny.
Though your disabled character does live in a made-up world, you still have to research to make sure that you are accurately portraying the life of a disabled person. If you are basing their disability after a real one, you need to look into the real disability. Even if you've made up a disability, you'll want to pull symptoms from various illnesses/disabilities to add realness to your character. AND you'll absolutely need to talk with disabled people (either online or in person) to learn about the daily struggles their lives hold. As mentioned above, disability changes everything in a person's life. If you don't do your research, you'll overlook important facts and your character will fall flat.

6. Take world-building into account. Seriously. Skipping this step would be the equivalent of the 2015 Fantastic Four movie. Translation: It would be really, really bad. This is a fantasy novel, isn't it? World building is important, isn't it? Don't think for one moment that disability shouldn't in some way connect with multiple aspects of your world. A few examples:
  • Religion. In our world, often times physical disability was (and still is, in some areas) seen as a curse by a specific deity. This may be the same in your world. OR it may be the opposite. It depends. But put some thought into it. 
  • Magic. Can magic cause, fix, alleviate, or worsen a disability? Why or why not? 
  • Survival. Is your world a place where people with disabilities can easily survive? Are there specific jobs they can have? Or will they be cast aside, shunned, unable to obtain work or food? How disability friendly are various cities and races? 
  • Healing. Can your disabled character go somewhere for treatment? A healer? Shaman? Apothecary? 
  • Social status. Are the disabled frowned upon or looked up to? Why? 
  • Transportation. If a character can't walk, how do they get from place to place? A wheelchair? What is it made of and is it powered by magic? Can they travel by dragon? What about palanquin? A flying carpet? How expensive are each of these modes of transportation? Are some only accessible to the rich? 
Think long and hard about how disability ties into your world building. This will strengthen character, plot, and world.

7. Don't use the Magical Healing trope. The what? The "Yeah, my character was disabled, but there's a magical cure and he's all better now" trope. That's incredibly unhelpful. I'm not saying that you should never, ever do this, but....You probably shouldn't. What's the point? If you're going to do this, you may as well write an able-bodied character.

8. Don't kill them off. PLEASE. I know this is completely new, shocking information, but it is discouraging for disabled people to read fantasy novels where the disabled character dies just to provide development for another character.

9. Don't worry about not being physically disabled yourself. To answer the question that I know a lot of you are wondering: No, you don't need to be physically disabled to write a physically disabled character. I plan to write an entire post explaining why, but for now: Just write. Write the character you want to write. Bring a new, unique character into the fantasy genre. And don't let anybody tell you that you don't have the compassion, skill, or ability to write a character who is different from yourself.

Have tips you'd like to add? Please leave them below, along with any questions you may have. Also, if you know of any fantasy novels that have a well developed physically disabled main character (or, at the very least, a well-done secondary character), please let me know! I'm always looking for new books to read. Thanks!

Have writing, reading, or writer's life questions? Use the hashtag #ChatWithHannah below or on social media to have them answered on my Youtube channel!

Related articles:
7 Tips for Writing a Character with a Chronic Illness
4 Fundamental Errors in the Diverse Books Campaign (And How to Fix Them)
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  1. Have you read Six of Crows? I thought the way Kaz used his disabilities (physical, in the case of his leg, and mental, in the case of his aversion to touch) as part of his image was super cool. And he was a main character, and he was a completely developed character outside of his disabilities, and he wasn't magically cured. I thought it was awesome.
    I also totally agree with your point about Black Panther- that aspect what so well done! I feel the same way with female characters- sure, there's a woman on the team, but is she just there to be 'diverse,' or make a big deal that it's A FEMALE CHARACTER? Then I'm not as happy as if there was just a character. Who is female.

    Off topic #ChatWithHannah question- how do you avoid copyright issues with using gifs/pictures from shows and movies? I get nervous pulling pictures from online, especially for the images I add stuff to so I can pin them on Pinterest, but I blog about movies a lot and want my posts to look cool. Any tips?

    1. I have read Six of Crows. A lot of people use Kaz as an example of a good disabled character...I didn't notice it being either good or bad. I didn't enjoyed that book for other reasons, so I think I was so annoyed with those aspects that I couldn't focus on Kaz. Maybe I'll re-read it to get a better feel. Thanks!

      Awesome point about the female character "diversity." I've noticed that, too.

      Thanks for the great comment and I can't wait to address your question in the March #ChatWithHannah (coming on the 21st)!

  2. Neuronal firing while reading your article: 1.Two nights ago we watched the genesis spider man movie with Toby Maguire (?) I'd forgotten one of the board members that ousted the Green Goblin was in a wheelchair.
    2. When I had a disabled character die in one of my books, I cried, not just because I like the character, but I hated the necessity as I hate the trope of killing the disabled character so the MC grows.

    1. I'm so glad this post got you thinking, Lelia. Thanks for the comment!

  3. Amazing post, Hannah! I have some characters in an upcoming story who are dealing with physical limitations or illness. I want to keep it understated and subtle because it's not the point of the story, but I don't want to fall prey to the stereotypes either. This post gave me some great things to muddle over as I prepare and research, especially in the world-building department.

    1. That is SO cool, Elza! Cheering you on. If you need to bounce ideas off of me, just let me know. Mostly just because I'd love to hear your story ideas. =D Thanks for the comment!

  4. I've been waiting so long for a post like this, thank you! Some shameless self-promotion, my novel "The Sorceress and the Squid" deals with a disabled main character - and it's fantasy! ;) I'm definitely interested in writing more disability into future fantasy stories of mine and I'm totally with you, there should be more diversity in fantasy fiction. Great post!

  5. Wow, thank you so much for posting this! I have a disabled character in my story (though it's not fantasy) and this article helped a bunch. THANK YOU!

  6. Really needed this post this week!
    At first I didn't think I had any characters that are disabled in any way, but my main character is blind, a side char is paralyzed, one is a burn victim, one is partially deaf, an another char is going to be in chronic pain, though I'm not sure yet exactly. This is all in my fantasy series.
    I think why I like writing disabled characters is because I'm type 1 diabetic.

  7. Excellent post. We see this same problem with something as simple as medical issues. Someone breaks their leg? Fine, but how are they easily scrambling up the side of a building 5 minutes later and leaping from rooftop to rooftop. People write the injury and then just forget about it (or have it heal in a ridiculously short period of time without any miraculous intervention). Research, and just stopping to think about it, will usually help resolve some of these issues and make the story more believable.

  8. Yes, I would've loved to read about someone like me who has a chronic illness (or even someone remotely similar to me) when I was younger. I still would.

  9. Thanks for a great post Hannah! Really helpful, since my current fantasy WIP has a few disabled characters. One is blind, and in the 2nd novel he will have a few POV chapters/scenes, which is going to be interesting to write. Another is about to get an acquired brain injury, and right now I'm trying to work through exactly what that is going to look like.

    In terms of good books, a few years ago I read Gives Light by Rose Christo, which is about a teenage boy who is mute after an injury he received as a young child. I really loved the book--beautifully written with an MC that just broke my heart. I'm pretty sure there are a few sequels as well but I haven't read those.

  10. For a certain character of the main cast in my historical fantasy WIP, this post is actually very timely.

    He is extremely quiet. I've already established that he's spiritual in personality, and in a flashback that he did talk a lot more as a child (and that he had a part in making another character what he is, so he has purpose in the story), but now that I'm coming up on writing one of his key scenes, I'm considering a deeper character trait, that he went deaf since then.

    I personally grew up with hearing loss until my teens (eardrum surgically replaced), so I feel almost obligated to have a character like this. But if I go this route, will definitely do some research to get it right.

  11. Thanks for the encouragement. I'm currently working on a "rural" fantasy (it's modern day in a rural community that is blended with mythical creatures). Book one has my main character an asthmatic, book 2 has the main character with a stutter. I'm not sure if I'll have my main character in book 3 dyslexic or what, but I wanted to give wing to students who have regular problems in school.

    As for a book that has a main character with a physical disability, the best I've seen is Imaginary Boy by Mark Eldrich. It looks like you may still be able to find a paperback available. The main character is a young boy who wants to be a hero. It's not until about chapter 3 that you even realize he's physically disabled. That's when we see other people's responses to him. It's excellent.

  12. "There's MS, crippled, muscular dystrophy[...]" Um, no. I have to disagree here. "Cr*ppled" is not a disability any more than the N word is a race. It's an extremely offensive term abled people use to describe people with a variety of disabilities, and should never never never be used unless it's a disabled person using it to describe themselves in a reclaiming kind of way. It's harmful to list it along with actual medical terms.

    1. Hi Jennifer! My apologies if you found the term offensive. It was not used in that context. Crippled is a descriptive word that explains a disability related to movement: Either the inability or difficulty to move one or more limbs. You mentioned that it is used to describe people with a variety of disabilities. That was why I employed it. It is a broad term that I used to spur people into thinking about various movement-related disabilities or illnesses they could represent (rheumatoid arthritis, paraplegia, polio, etc) just as my listing of broads terms like chronic pain was used to spur people into thinking of diseases that cause pain-related disabilities (Lyme disease, fibromyalgia, etc).

      I hope that it is clear from the context and tone of my entire post that I am working to be a voice for people like myself who deal with physical disabilities. My hope is to always raise awareness and encourage fellow authors to stand beside me and represent the physically disabled.

      Thanks for the comment.

    2. Whether or not you meant it as a slur is irrelevant because it IS a slur. That is one of the most offensive words you can use to describe us, right up there with inval*d and r*tard. I've been reading your blog for so long, and I thought this was a safe place. Maybe you need to read tip number 5 again, where you say "you'll absolutely need to talk with disabled people (either online or in person) to learn about the daily struggles their lives hold." One of these struggles is ableism, and people who correct us when we try to point out how we've been hurt.

    3. Technically, cripple isn't a slur. People have just made it into one. Hannah obviously didn't use it to be hurtful or offensive; you just chose to perceive it that way.

  13. Have you watched Avatar: the Last Airbender? There's a major character, Toph, who is blind. She is an earthbender, which means she can manipulate rocks, but this also allows her to tap into her connection to the earth and is able to "see" by feeling vibrations. This not only lets her overcome her disability to some extent, but gives her an advantage and makes her a top notch bender. They travel by flight a lot, and she has trouble feeling vibrations in the desert due to shifting sands, as well as not being able to see surface details, so she is still disabled. There are lots of great jokes when people forget she's blind. "What is this?!" "I don't know, it SOUNDS like a piece of paper" and as they are flying (through the desert no less) "There it is!" everyone looks to where Toph is pointing, then remember she's blind and glare at her.
    Even if she weren't blind, she would be a great example of a strong female character, and her being blind makes her even more awesome.

    You also may be interested in this comic: Most of the characters have either natural or magic-induced disabilities.

  14. Hi! I love your blog! I was wondering about a character in my graphic novel. She can poison people with a touch, but the poison is poisoning her as well, so that she has trouble moving because it is so tiring to her. The problem is, she is getting sicker and sicker, so I'm not sure how to make sure that she doesn't get so sick that she should be dead. However, I don't want to completely get rid of her disability, because of the reasons stated above, so I'm at a loss for what to do. Any suggestions? Thanks!


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  16. Hi there,
    I am designing my main character as a blind man who is a Ranger in my DnD inspired world, and he becomes so as a consequence of healing magic (a sorcerer saved his life but the cost was his sight). Unfortunately, I have never read any fantasy work with blind characters in it. Can anyone reccomend me something if they know any?
    Sincerely grateful,

    1. Hi Bianca! That's so cool that you are writing a blind character! And I love that your story is inspired by DnD. =D

      Off the top of my head, I know that Beth Wangler's Irellia the Nightwalker short story has a blind protagonist. It isn't out yet, but I've read a lot of Wangler's work and she is incredible. I'm sure this character will be great. The story should come out this month. Iif you sign up for her newsletter, you'll get it for free when it releases:

      My secondary character in Flames of Courage is blind, but I'm not sure that that's helpful to you because the story isn't from his POV.

      If you like comics, the rep of Daredevil's blindness is very interesting in Mark Waid's renditions. His 2014 run (Devil at Bay and onward) is particularly good.

      I'm sorry I don't have more recommendations. If I find more, I'll let you know. I'm cheering you and your writing on!

  17. Hey there! Thank you so much for this, it's been really helpful as a general rule of thumb.

    Question: I have a character in a twine game (Choose your own adventure novel) I am currently developing, named Dmitri. In this story, I've written him as being the companion to the reader of the story, since the reader of the story is the protagonist. He uses forearm crutches to accommodate a lack of mobility in his legs. I've tried to both explicitly mention that he does so (he grabs his crutches from the backseat of the car before leaving) but also not focus too much on it, for fear that I might get something wrong, or draw undo attention to his disability.

    Have I done this tastefully, or is there something that I ought to avoid/focus on/edit?


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