Sunday, November 3, 2019

Writing Disabled Characters: What You're Doing Wrong

This post is long, so I'm gonna keep the introduction short. Disabled characters are severely underrepresented in fiction and, unfortunately, when we are represented, we are often misrepresented in harmful and ignorant ways. 

Positive representation is not only encouraging to the disabled community, but also helps non-disabled people have a better understanding of disability, thus giving them tools to be better allies. Because there is so much riding on disability representation, let's try to get it right, shall we? 

Here's a list of things you'll want to make sure you aren't doing. If you steer clear of these, you should be okay.

Writing Disabled Characters: What You're Doing Wrong

Some disclaimers first: 

1) I use identity-first language when discussing disability for a variety of reasons. If you're about to leave a disgruntled comment below and tell me that I should be using people-first language, I encourage you to do some research. Perhaps start by reading this article. If you still have questions about my language choices, feel free to let me know and I will give my full reasoning in the comments. 

2) I'm not touching on autism in this post because autism is generally categorized as differently-abled rather than disabled. I will be writing a post about ASD at some point, but I didn't think it was appropriate to blend that into this post. So if anyone is reading this thinking, "Hey, she forgot about autistic people!" Hold your horses. 

Okay. Here are a list of things that authors often get wrong when writing disabled characters:

You are pitying your character. This happens in real life and it happens in fiction. I call it The Look. When people see a disabled person or learn that somebody is disabled, they instantly look at that person with pity. Because oh man, how sad. Disability is a horror. How can they live like that?

I see this in writing a lot, too. Authors write their disabled characters as characters to pity. Not a character to cheer for. Not a character to look up to. Not a character to simply read and think, "Oh, hey. I like this person." Nope. Authors go out of their way to make you feel sorry for the character because of their disability.

Nope. Stop it. Stop it right now. If you are writing a disabled character and all you see is someone to be pitied, then that means you have not taken the time to stop and learn about disability or the disabled community. Do you have any idea how badass disabled people can be? No? Then go educate yourself by talking with disabled people, reading their blogs, buying their books, and viewing their art. Then come back to your character and do better.

You only show one side of disability. Sometimes writers approach their disabled character one of two ways:

1) This character's disability has given them superpowers and their life is super cool.

2) This character's disabilities has made their life a living hell with no upside whatsoever.

Both of these are insane. Being deaf doesn't magically give you incredible, life-alteringly-amazing eyesight. And having apraxia doesn't suddenly suck all of the joy out of your life. If you want to discuss disability, you need to show all of the angles. Sure, disability isn't a superpower, but it can often make us more empathetic and more perseverant than your average person. Yeah, disability can make life very difficult, but we still have ups in our lives just like everyone else.

Dig a little deeper and make sure you aren't just showcasing one tiny thread in the massive tapestry that is disability (yes, I realize this sentence is weirdly flowery, but I've committed to it so we're all just gonna deal).

Your character gains value once they are seen as "useful" by non-disabled characters. This is by far the most common trope I see when it comes to disabled characters. The character is put-upon, discriminated against, and seen as useless by their society. But then the character goes and proves their worth by doing something heroic. Suddenly all the non-disabled characters gain respect for him/her and life is good.


Gif of a minion saying "ehhhh. No."

No person should be treated inhumanely until they can find a way to be useful. This is a very harmful message that should never be lauded in fiction or anywhere else. If your entire plot revolves around your disabled character working to earn better treatment by proving themselves, you have work to do.

If you are dead-set on using this trope, trying turning it around to show the dangers of equality through usefulness. Or the idiocy of usefulness being measured through level of ability.

You made your villain's "badness" stem from their disability. I just...*takes deep breath* Stop writing that. You're lowering the IQ of the entire street.

People don't "go bad" because they are disabled. I've been disabled eight years now and I generally only have violent inclinations when I read about villains who's disabilities magically turned them evil.

Take Ant Man and the Wasp, for example. One of the antagonists (Ghost) makes a lot of very poor (and violent) choices, supposedly because she's in pain. For the entirety of the movie, her character motivation is: "I hurt, I want to be healed regardless of whether I hurt others in the process." We're led to believe that she's messed up because of her pain (we're also led to pity her, which is a whole other issue). Never does the movie address the fact that maybe she makes terrible life choices because she lost her father at a young age. Or because she was abused and raised to be a killer right after the emotional trauma of losing a parent.

Obviously none of those traumatic events motivated her or led her down the path she's on. Clearly it was just her disability.

And of course her disability leads her to completely disregarding everyone else's needs because clearly disability is all-consuming and it's better to hurt other people than to live with disability another day.

*rolls eyes dramatically*

If your villain is only bad because of their disability (or because of being mistreated due to their disability), then you need to dig deeper. Disability does not a villain make. Pushing that storyline is hurtful to the disabled community and does nothing to help people understand disability.

Go back to the drawing board, please.

You aren't showing the social ramifications of disability. Non-disabled people can be weird around disabled people. It's just the truth. Ever noticed that people don't like to make eye-contact with wheelchair users? Or that people stutter over the word "disabled" like saying it out loud will summon Voldemort himself? On top of this, disabled people can struggle with friendships and social circles for a variety of reasons. Sometimes social outings are not accessible, sometimes disabled people are led to believe they are a burden and thus pull away from people so as not to inconvenience anyone. The list goes on. Be sure to include the complex relationship dynamics that come with disability (unless you're writing based off of my below Bonus Tip below, then just ignore this).

You are ignoring how disability affects your character's self-image. Internalized ableism is, unfortunately, a thing. So if you're writing fiction set in our world (or a world that doesn't understand and/or look kindly upon disability), don't forget to show what this does to a character's psyche. Internalized ableism (or being mistreated by people because of a disability) can lead to low self-esteem, defensiveness, etc. However, having a disability can also lead to viewing yourself as an overcomer, a fighter, and other positive self-images as well. Doing your research will more fully help you nail these complexities down. Speaking of which....

You didn't do your research.
Pick a disability, then research the heck out of it. If you don't, your representation will fall flat.

Now, when I say research, I don't mean poke around WebMD for a bit. 

Gif of Sherlock from the BBC TV series saying "Do your research" with a disdainful look on his face.

I mean talk to people with the disability you are writing. Read blogs and books by them. Note that I said blogs and books, plural. Disability is very complex and each person experiences it slightly differently, so you want to read widely so you can see what parts are commonalities and what parts aren't. This will allow you to better develop your character.

Also remember to read blogs and books by caretakers, loved ones, etc so that you can go about crafting good character dynamics as well. But these should always be your secondary sources, not your primary sources.

Your character's defining trait is their disability. Errrr. You realize disability isn't a personality type, right? And you understand that disabled people are, in fact, people? Correct? Okay. Then I see no reason why you can't go about building your disabled character's personality the same way you would any other character. Give them interests, likes, dislikes, motivations, etc. Sure, some of their personality traits can be related to their disability, but not all of them.

You're using a non-disabled character to "humanize" your disabled character. *smushes face into pillow* *screams* Disabled people are people. People. Peeeeeeopole. PEOPLE. It's not a difficult concept. If your disabled character needs a non-disabled character foil to humanize them or make them interesting or relatable, then you have some serious prejudices you need to work out. Do disabled people face unique challenges in life? Yes. Does that make us alien? Bizarre? Impossible for non-disabled people to understand without the help of an abled character foil? Nope.

Do better.

You're falling into one of the two main disability tropes. Clearly, disabled people have one of two personalities: They are either endlessly cheerful and kind or very grouchy and mean. There is nothing in between (or outside of) these two tropes.

If you want to write a 2D character that also perpetuates an incorrect view of disability, then by all means, follow this trope. But if you want to write a good character, remember that disabled characters should have unique personalities and story arcs, just like everyone else.

You are excusing or rationalizing poor behavior because "Oh, poor them, they're disabled." Look. I get it. Obviously, we disabled people have a hard go of things, so the moral system that applies to non-disabled people doesn't apply to us. We are 100% justified and even morally correct when we hurt other people because hey. We're hurting all the time.

Gif of an elderly lady standing up and saying, "That's not how it works! That's not how any of this works!"

You know how we talked about the importance of not pitying your disabled character? Well, this is what happens when you don't listen to that tip. You pity them, so you give them passes on things that a non-disabled character would not get a pass for.

This is not a difficult concept, but just in case you're struggling with it, please repeat after me: Disability is never an excuse for poor behavior.


Got it?

Okay. Let's move on.

You forget about the disability. You mention the disability a few times, then it just kind of...vanishes.

Yeah. About that.

Disability doesn't work that way (unless you're writing a temporary disability). For instance, you can't have a character who's missing a hand randomly be able to easily open a jar or put on a belt. That character with a cane can't suddenly sprint up a flight of stairs. Your intellectually disabled character (depending on the exact nature of their disability) isn't going to be able to easily read instructions or carry out a conversation.

If you're writing a disabled character, always keep sight of the things that they can or can't do. That should be obvious, but apparently isn't.

You feel the need to keep mentioning the disability. This is what happens when you try to avoid the above point, but swing too far to the other side. Writers sometimes have the tendency to gawk at their own disabled character. This sucks because, as writers, we have the great opportunity to normalized disability and show readers that disability isn't something bizarre or upsetting or alien. Don’t blow this by frequently shoehorn disability into every page.

Your character isn't really disabled. Ah, the old “we thought this character was a wheelchair user, but surprise! They’ve been faking the whole time” trope. This SUCKS. Stop it. People are already skeptical of disabled people, especially those with invisible disabilities, those who are ambulatory wheelchair users, or those with disabilities that flare up on some days but aren't very bad on others. Doing the “fake disability” trope not only feeds into this skepticism, but it also validates it.

You're planning to kill the character off (for not-very-good-reasons). Ever noticed that the disabled characters are usually the first to die in a novel? They’re usually killed off to motivated non-disabled characters or to evoke emotion in readers. Both of these are cheap reasons. Give us positive representation. Give us warrior disabled people (like the deaf general in the Dragon Prince). Give us disabled people who get happy endings (like Dr. Watson in the RDJ Sherlock Holmes movies). Give us characters we can actually connect with rather than characters that are just going to be killed off for emotional effect.

You're employing the "magical cure" trope. You take your disabled character and have them healed by some magical force (or a non-existent technology, if this is sci-fi or futuristic). This is also known as The I-might-as-well-have-not-written-a-disabled-character-at-all trope. 

Gif of Captain America saying "Son, just don't."

This is unhelpful and absurd because A) Your character is no longer disabled, so it's not really disability representation, B) Magical cures do not exist in real life, so how is the helpful to readers?, and C) It sends the message that you weren't comfortable with (or felt limited by) by your character's disability, so you wanted to find an easy way to get rid of it. None of these are good, so don't even go there.

Bonus: Your disabled character is constantly discriminated against. Now, this isn't necessary a "you're doing it wrong" point, but it is something for you to think about. Disabled characters are constantly discriminated against in stories for the sake of realism. But here's the thing: Not everyone is terrible to disabled people, so it's important to show positives. And, if you're creating your own world, it may be nice to show a world that is accessible and open to everyone, no matter their level of ability. It would be a great way to show people how to be more inclusive. If you feel like taking positive representation to the next level, perhaps give this a whirl. 

And there you have it. If you're interested in reading books with positive disability representation, I recommend The Electrical Menagerie by Mollie E. Reeder, Gathering Blue by Lois Lowry, Dragon School by Sarah K.L. Wilson, Just Under the Clouds by Melissa Sarno, of any of my own stories (except Vengeance Hunter, which, while a good story, is my only publication that doesn't feature disability). 

Do you write disabled characters? What are you doing to make sure you are writing a positive representation? Did I miss any points? I'd love to hear your thoughts! 

As always, please keep comments respectful and thoughtful. Thank you!

Related articles:
9 Tips for Writing Physically Disabled Characters in Fantasy
7 Tips for Writing A Character with an Intellectual Disability
7 Tips for Using Story Writing to Raise Awareness for a Cause

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  1. I love this so much. I'm Type 1 Diabetic and I'd love to read more stories with Diabetic characters that aren't a side character mentioned once. Or in fantasy.

    I also write some disabled characters and as I'm working on a story with one right now, it was supppper helpful. Going to be referencing back to this a lot as I continue writing and picking up some books from the library 😅

  2. Very helpful (and challenging), thank you!

  3. Very Well, Thanks for sharing such a informative content with us. This is really useful, I really need it and i will start to do it. Write more and more
    clipping path

  4. Very interesting! :) I "suffer" from a genetic disease, which causes me to sit in a wheelchair quasi since birth. I think all of these points are very important and I hope that in future I'll see more stories fespecting those. I like writing aswell and I like to include disabilies in my stories. (I haven't published nothing yet)
    Btw, the character I identified with the most in my life was Charles Xavier. I think he's sooo interesting, struggles with his disability, learns to not only deal with it but also in some way "appreciate" it. He has many flaws but is just as empathic and deep. Love it!

  5. Love this post! I've always been a little chicken to create disabled characters because I wanted to do it right, and now I feel more prepared if I want to create one in the future(I just might, now that I've read all this).

    I've noticed a lot of these tropes before myself, and I felt that they were wrong, but before now I never took the time to break them down to WHY they were harmful.

    Again, I loved this post! *clap clap*

  6. I loved this post! It might sound odd, but I've always been interested in disabilities... I wouldn't want one -- I'm a wimp -- but it's cool to me to see the ways people live without things I take for granted. Sight, hearing, limbs, organs -- crap, my phone dims a lil' bit and I'm like 'what shall I do. I cannot see'. My sistersi sister in law knits and changes her daughter's diapers and paints and she doesn't have fingers and I'm like...I awe. I always feel stressed adding a disabled character to a book, though, cause I don't want the Big Bad Misrepresentation Wolf to come eat me, lol. I kind of accidentally added this disabled character to my book because he appeared and I was like, 'Yeah, you're partially deaf' and just went with it... since then I've been informed that 'deaf' shouldn't be used (?), that having a helper (as he had his sister) implies that he's incapable and it's insulting (great), and a plethora of other things that make me stress out more. But I guess I got tired of the fact that if a disabled or unique character is in a book, it's the entire plot. And I guess this was just kind of a thing I wanted to explore on the side of Isaac's character. I wanted a character who was quiet and who relied on someone else, but somehow held up his own character, and being hard of hearing just made sense to me.... I DUNNO. I'LL FIND OUT, but that's my long comment ��‍♀️

  7. Nice job kid. As someone who is physically disabled you did a really great job with this.

  8. Kindle Books is a saturated market. To stand out and grab eyeballs, authors need more reviews. Being a novelist with disability, I am finding increasingly difficult to stand out from the crowd. I am getting a few hundred reviews from and hope for better Christmas season..

  9. 1) Did you use a gif from an insurance commercial?
    2) This is such a good post. Your blog is always making me think. I look at everything differently since I started reading it, especially my own writing. I'm trying very hard to take your advice and include disabled characters in my fantasy story, and this post, while extremely helpful, has majorly lowered my confidence level. The very last thing I want to do is misrepresent disabled people in my writing. But I just know so little about this subject...and I don't even know where to start researching...*begins to hyperventilate*
    3) I need to find and read Dragon School. Now.

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