Writing Disabled Characters: The Basics
How to Write a Disabled Character
As a short story writer, novelist, or poet, you want to include characters with disabilities in your work. For some authors with first hand experience, it is easy. For others, it can be challenging to figure out how to write them accurately and respectfully. With these steps, you can make all your characters shine.
Understanding the Disability
Recognize that a lot of what you know about disability may be wrong.Consider each "fact" you know about a given disability, and ask yourself where it came from. If the answer is "pop culture," then that information may not be accurate.
Choose disability-friendly language.People with disabilities are often very careful about what terms they prefer to use. What do they call themselves, and what do they wantnotto be called? Respecting their language preferences will please disabled readers, and encourage non-disabled readers to do the same.
- For example, the word "cripple" has a very different connotation than "amputee".
- Not all disabled people prefer the same terms; there is often diverse opinion within a given population.
Read from the disabled community.What are their lives like? How do their symptoms affect their experiences? What sort of character would they love to read a book about? Understanding their perspectives can help you build a believable character with a disability like theirs.
Recognize that disabled people are very diverse and have different experiences.Many disabilities are a spectrum: for example, many blind people are notcompletelyblind, and simply have some degree of low vision.Some disabilities are stronger on some days than on others, based on stress and other factors.
- The spoon theorycovers how some people need to budget their energy.
Remember that people with disabilities learn and grow.A girl with Down Syndrome will be able to do much more at age 15 than she could at age 5. Disabled characters, including characters with intellectual/developmental disabilities (IDDs) will be able to learn new things and gain skills. They will simply do so at their own pace.
Writing Disability Realistically
Read personal accounts from people who have the disabilities you wish to portray.What are their lives like? Where do they struggle? Are there any gifts that come with their disability? What do they feel are common misconceptions?
- See if any people with disabilities would be open to being interviewed. There is no substitute for face-to-face time with real people.
- If you are polite and clear, many disabled people are willing to offer advice and answer questions. Try asking questions via social media.
- Remember that disabled people are diverse.Notwo people are exactly alike (whether it's two blind people or two people with Down Syndrome).Symptoms can vary between individuals.
Write acharacterfirst, and the disability second.Every person is a unique individual, with interests, strengths, and flaws, if they have a disability or not. Although a disability is a character train, a disability is not a defining character trait.It will influence their life, but their personality (likes, dislikes, relationships, skills) is far more important. Spend plenty of time developing them as a person.
- Avoid the mystical disability stereotype. This is the idea that people with some sort of physical difference will always have something bordering superpowers. Examples include autistic people having superior mathematical powers, like in the movie "Rainman", or the idea that blind people have enhanced sensory ability.
- Most disabled people are quite ordinary: they wake up, eat breakfast, go to work, and live fairly average lives. Portraying disabled people as "beautiful tragedies" ignores the fact that in fact, most people with disabilities are not any more or less tragic or beautiful than anyone else.
Explore what goes on in your disabled character's head.Some writers make the mistake of portraying people with cognitive disabilities as "irrational" or "mysterious" beings whose thoughts and behavior make no sense. The reality is that everyone has a reason for what they do, and the clarity of disabled people's thoughts is often underestimated. The way of thinking may be very different than others, but if observed closely, there are logical reasons behind every behavior.
- If your disabled character isn't the main character, that's fine. You can still attribute thoughts to them, and have the main character recognize what's going on in their head. (For example, "Lucy visibly relaxed as soon as the Christmas music came on. She loved happy song lyrics, so I kept a playlist of songs with good messages.")
Consider intersectionality.People with disabilities come in all shapes, colors, backgrounds, socio-economic levels, and so on. Readers have been calling for diversity,and an easy way to satisfy that need is to write more than one deviation from the privileged "norm" at a time. Try writing a black woman with cerebral palsy, a chubby boy with Down Syndrome, or a blind lesbian.
Recognize that illness recovery (when possible) is often an arduous task.This may require medication, therapy, and/or lifestyle adjustments.It may take years of hard work. Recovery is not a straight line, and there will be good days, bad days, and relapses.
- Mental illnesses such as depression and psychosis are sometimes possible to recover from completely, with enough time and effort. This often involves a combination of pills and therapy, along with a loving and supportive environment.
- Some conditions and illnesses have no cures. In this case, the individual's best outcome is to manage their symptoms and understand their limitations better.
- Some disabilities, such as deafness and autism, are not "illnesses" but simply conditions.
Recognize that in real life, getting disability accommodations can be very difficult.Many parents of disabled children, and disabled adults, have to fight for necessary accommodations.
- Faking a disability for accommodations would actually take a ton of energy. (The idea of fakers also makes it more difficult for real disabled people to get the help they need.)
Portray seeking help and self-advocacy as positive things, not as signs of weakness.Admitting that you have a problem and need help (especially involving medication) is a very difficult task. Many disabled people struggle with the idea that it's "all in their head."You can help people with disabilities by showing that it's okay, or even heroic, to ask for help. This can help them have the courage to do this in real life.
- Stay far away from stereotype that mental illness medications are for the weak.These medications may be the only way to have a decent or functional life.
- For some people, a diagnosis and the subsequent accommodations are an enormous relief.It also affirms that it isn't a moral fault or "not trying hard enough."
- Show disabled characters asking for help, and non-disabled characters asking the disabled character what they need.This can encourage the idea of people with disabilities asking for and receiving help when they need it.
Try exploring the tension between meeting one's needs and blending in.People with disabilities (especially teens) may feel insecure about being different and not "passing" as non-disabled.If disability is a significant part of the story, then this may be an interesting dynamic.
- Some people with disabilities are very nervous about others knowing they are disabled. Others choose not to care what others think of them, and spend less energy on blending in.
- Some people can "pass" as non-disabled, while others cannot.
Consider how the character has handled ableism.Almost all disabled people experience mistreatment related to their disability (including before they are diagnosed). Many have difficult childhoods, and get treated differently from their peers.Whether they experience constant ableism or are mostly shielded from it, it will affect them, their coping skills, their ability to ask for help and trust others, and how they handle conflict. Consider your character's past and how it has shaped them. They may have dealt with...
- Bullying, being left out (few or no friends, very little media representation)
- Being talked down to, or talked about as if they weren't there
- Trying and failing to perform to non-disabled standards; seeing adults' disappointment
- False "helpers" who don't listen and get discouraged or angry when the disabled person fails to stop being disabled
- Abusive therapies meant to "cure" deafness or autism symptoms
- This depends on the severity of the disability, the quality of the community, how charismatic the disabled person can act, the family, and other factors.
Avoiding Fiction Stereotypes
This part applies to novels, short stories, poems, and other works that involve fictional characters.
Give your disabled character something to contribute.Many writers portray characters with disabilities as one-dimensional background characters with nothing useful to do. Disabled people aren't helpless.Let your character have meaningful skills and positive points to their personality. Show that the world is better off with them around.
- Even a minor character can contribute something small to the plot: the observant autistic boy who notices that something is wrong, or the sister with cerebral palsy who has incredible computer skills.
- Avoid having characters refer to the disabled character as a burden, tragedy, etc. (unless you wish to show that this character is cruel)
Let the disabled person be a character in their own right.Sometimes writers make the character exist only to reflect upon another character (to show how nice/evil the character is, or to burden them with a poor disabled family member).Or the character may be a Manic Pixie Dream Girl/Boy, who only exists to further the other character's development.
Name the disability.Just as queer-baiting (hinting at homosexuality or bisexuality without outright using it)is frustrating, hinting at but refusing to mention a disability is frustrating to disabled readers. Do them a favor and outright say the name of the disability. Your disabled readers will love it, and your non-disabled readers might learn a thing or two.
- Aliens and fantasy creatures can have the names of human disabilities. The same disability existing in two worlds isn't going to be the least improbable thing in your story.
Avoid making disability evil.Some works have one character with a disability: the villain. The villain might be a brainiac in a wheelchair, or the dangerous psychotic person with a mental illness. Most disabled people are no more evil or threatening than your average person, and also want to imagine themselves as awesome protagonists. Let people with disabilities be heroes for once.
- If you absolutely need a disabled villain, then make several good disabled characters. That way, the villain is the exception and not the rule.
- Otherwise, have no disabled characters at all. No representation is better than bad representation.
Don't make disability be the problem.Too often, books pose the idea that the person's disability is their key barrier, and they need to overcome their disability in order to be happy.This can be alienating to people who will be disabled for life, and suggests that they cannot be happy unless they become someone they are not.
- Instead of showing the person becoming less disabled, show them learning to handle their disability better, and others learning to accommodate them.
Make characters inspiring because of what they do, not who they are.Most disabled people don't consider themselves heroic for walking or rolling down the street. If you wish to show that a character with a disability is strong, then give them non-disability challenges to face. Maybe they won an election, spearheaded a project, or defeated the supervillain. Avoid falling prey to "inspiration porn."
- Disabled people don't exist solely to inspire non-disabled people.
Don't let disability stop romance.A common myth is that all disabled people are aromantic and asexual, like children. It is assumed that they cannot fall in love, kiss, or have sex, or that even if they could, they are not desirable. This is incredibly damaging to disabled people's self-esteem and romantic prospects.
- If your story involves love and romance, then let characters with disabilities be included in that. This helps show that they desirable and worth dating.
- A small portion of disabled peoplearearomantic and/or asexual (just like a small portion of non-disabled people are). If you have an aro/ace disabled character, consider showing other disabled characters who are in love, to make it clear that disability doesn't negate sexuality.
Show that characters with disabilities have adapted.Most disabled people are used to their disabilities, and can function pretty well on a day-to-day basis. (Newly disabled people may still be adjusting.) They have had plenty of time to learn what their body needs and get used to it.
- In most cases, seeking a cure would be a poor use of time. It would be much more efficient to get accommodations (e.g. support at school, a better wheelchair), and focus their time on projects that use their talents and yield actual results.
Research individual disability stereotypes.How do writers often fail when writing disability? How could you succeed in those areas? Look up tropes, and ask disabled people what annoys them most in the media.
- Autistic people are often represented as clinical, unfeeling, cold,and/or intensely super-powered.
- Mentally ill people may be portrayed as intensely creative,or as dangerous people who deserve anything that happens to them.
- Medication doesn't always "cure" ADD; it is still a real disability even after treatment.
Let your character be disabled at the end of the book.Miraculously curing a disability reeks of lazy writing.Too many characters with disabilities end up cured or dead, suggesting that a happy ending and disability are opposite each other. This message is disheartening to people with lifelong disabilities. Instead, let your character be happyanddisabled at the end.
- A happy disability-related ending could be getting the accommodations they need: an awesome power wheelchair, a fun and helpful new therapy, their dad learning sign language, etc.
- Or give them a regular happy ending: acceptance into their dream college, a sweet boyfriend, being elected to the Senate, or a group of awesome friends.
QuestionDo gay characters count as disabled characters?Top AnswererNo. Sexual orientation and disability are two completely different things. Being gay is not a disability.Thanks!
QuestionI'm writing a female protagonist who has bipolar disorder (type I) and is also a bully. Is it possible to write a good villain protagonist who just happened to be disabled without being a stereotype?Top AnswererIt can be done, but it's important to be careful. If done poorly, your story may imply that bipolar disorder causes bullying/villainy, and thus that these people are bad. I'd recommend including another bipolar character who is portrayed positively, and perhaps getting a bipolar editor who can help you regarding accuracy and sensitivity. If possible, redeeming the character, and showing that it's very possible to be good and bipolar at the same time, would help. You can even have a character remark that bipolar and bullying are different, such as having a character explain why she's like this (e.g. "she was severely bullied and turned into a bully to make it stop; it's unrelated to her bipolar disorder"). Disabled villains are much harder than disabled heroes, especially because you need to avoid reinforcing the pervasive idea that disabled people are bad. Having at least one good disabled character will help balance it, but you'll need to tread carefully.Thanks!
QuestionHow can I write an autistic character as smart?Top AnswererChoose one or two areas of expertise that the character will excel in. Let the character be an expert, providing any needed background explanation and working on problem-solving as the plot demands. General intelligence can also manifest as quick thinking, problem-solving, constant curiosity, enjoyment of learning, and creativity in the face of a dilemma.Thanks!
QuestionI want to write a story about a girl who is paralyzed from the waist down. Should I have her disabled in the beginning, or include the development of her disability in the story?Top AnswererIt depends on how much you want to explore her disability story. If it's just a fact of life to her, then you should write her as having been disabled for years because then she'll be more used to it. Becoming/discovering that you're disabled means adjusting to the fact that your life won't be the way you expected, that you have limitations that your peers don't, and that you have internalized ableism. It can be a very rough journey. Often it takes discovering the disabled community to realize that life can still have hope (because there aren't many media role models). If she's already disabled, she'll have had more time to adjust; if not, it'll be very emotional and difficult for her.Thanks!
QuestionHey, I'm writing a fanfiction where a guy has to live with many people—all who have mental disorders. Is there any unique/rare disorders that I can use to mix it up?Top AnswererQuality is much better than anomaly. Focus on understanding a few disabilities very, very well. Read a lot about what people with those disabilities have to say. Look up lesser-known symptoms. Maybe the autistic girl is super sensitive to pain, altruistic, sweet but clueless, and so bad at caring for her hair that she cut it off to be done with it. These are all real traits of some autistic people. Make your characters memorable by really developing them, from their quirks to their deepest fears (e.g. "am I a burden?"). Remember your disabled readers; many may have shaky self esteem, and you have the power to help them feel good about themselves by writing lovable, awesome characters.Thanks!
QuestionIs it still harmful for a character to have a disability "fixed", either partially or completely, if technology advanced enough to do so exists in the story world, such as in fantasy or sci fi?Top AnswererAvoid changing the person's brain or body in ways that the real world can't do. For example, magically erasing someone's autism, or growing them a new leg, is a bad idea. Autistic and amputee readers would read that and likely feel sad, either because they feel that no one wants them as they already are, or because this can't happen in real life. I'd recommend showing how the sci fi setting accommodates the disabilities, instead of getting rid of them. Awesome robotic limbs, earbuds that automatically adjust to block loud sound, seeing-eye robots, robots that do your housework, etc., are all cool things that would make disabled readers feel like they'd have a place in your world.Thanks!
QuestionI am autistic, but I'm still oddly paranoid about incorrectly writing an autistic character. I know this paranoia is silly. How can I overcome it?Olivia H.Community AnswerSome of the best ways to learn to write disabled characters is to research. Research the disability and how people act and react with this disability. Research how it can affect them socially and how they act differently as compared to someone without the disability. Knowing the real facts about the disability has always helped me become confident when writing about it. You can also feel free to use elements of your own self when writing an autistic character. It can't be wrong if it's part of a real autistic person's experience.Thanks!
QuestionMy character Alice (who can't move her legs because the nerves in her feet are numb) got into a new school and lives a happy life in Alabama. Is that a good ending?Top AnswererIt could be. To make it satisfying to readers, make sure that you've tied up any loose ends for her and made her character arc clear (if she has one).Thanks!
QuestionHow do you write about disabilities for kids?Top AnswererKeep things light in tone and kid-friendly. Portray disabilities not as scary, but as normal and easy to accommodate. This helps reassure disabled kids that they aren't burdens. Show non-disabled children and adults accepting the disabled person/people and treating them as equals. If there is bullying, show it as clearly wrong, and 100% the fault of the bully. Portray the disabled person/people as awesome and fun to be with. This encourages non-disabled kids to befriend and include disabled kids, and disabled kids to feel good about themselves. Write the type of story that would make a disabled child feel good about themselves.Thanks!
QuestionMy story has an autistic tomboy teen. How can I make her interesting?Top AnswererThe same way you would with a non-autistic character: give her a lot of depth, hidden layers, and nuance. Ask yourself what causes pain in her life (e.g. ableist peers, a mean mom, perfectionism, poverty, etc.) and how she deals with this pain. How does she cope? How does she flourish? How does she interact with people around her? What makes her strong? What about her is admirable? What does she not want other people to know about her? Tease out the answers to these, and it'll go a long way. Also check out Create an Interesting Character and search "how to write interesting character" on the Internet for more advice.Thanks!
- Not everyone recognizes right away that they are disabled. This can be especially true for mental illness,alexithymia, and autism. Sometimes disabilities are not diagnosed until months, years, or decades after they develop.
- Remember that disabilities can also be physical. For a medical condition to be considered a disability, it usually affects aspects of daily life. Examples are epilepsy and diabetes.
Video: Avatar: The Last Airbender/Legend of Korra - Writing Disability
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