If you’re reading this post, you are probably a writer who wants to know how to write disabled characters, and write them correctly and believably. Super! You’ve come to the right place! As a disabled author myself, I’m going to share some tips with you in this post.
In a previous post I explained why I typically write disabled characters in my stories. The short version of that post is that I’m fed up with the lack of disabled representation – or worse, negative representation – of disabled people in the media. This includes, but is not limited to, the literary world.
Now, without further ado, let’s get down to business. First, let me give you some pointers on what to avoid when writing disabled characters.
How not to write disabled characters
- No token characters. If you’re only including a disabled character because it’s the “woke” thing to do, please don’t bother. We’re not here to make you feel better about yourself.
- Don’t turn us into deeply tragic characters because of our disability. If you really have to turn us into tragic character, do it for a good reason. Disability is no more of a tragedy than being born.
- Don’t kill us off because of our disability. Sure, kill us off if you’re so inclined, but come up with something better than our disability. Have some bastard throw us off a cliff. Make us a terror victim. Kill us in a traffic accident. But don’t make us take our own lives because of our disability. It’s reinforcing the false belief that all disability is tragic. So tragic we hate our lives and can’t wait for death to take us.
- No magic cures – again, it boils down to the same thing. Disability is not a tragedy and does not need to be cured. Many of us don’t even want to be cured because our disability gave us a better appreciation of our lives and the things we can still do.
How to write us well
- Write real people – this is the most important “rule” here. We are not all that different from others. We share the same basic human emotions and the same basic physical needs. Food and drink, sleep, protection from the elements, love, and – gasp! – sex. Yes. Let me repeat that: sex. We’re no robots, but warm-blooded human beings.
- Give us agency. Those of us who are in full possession of their mental faculties (most of us!) are strong, capable people. Don’t be like the waiter who only speaks to your girlfriend and hands her the bill, despite the fact that you were the one who asked for that bill. That’s demeaning.
- Make us arse-kicking heroes. Many of us are strong, physically active people who have learnt how to transform our disability into our super-power. (I practiced aikido. In my wheelchair. I can jump curbs, navigate grass, packed earth, narrow forest paths with tree roots obstructing my way. I had a lot of fun on obstacle courses… Needless to say I also had my fair share of falls, but I simply got back up – chair and all – and tried again.)
- Walk a mile in our shoes. Under the old adage “write what you know”, try living for a while with the disability you intend to give your character. A month or two should suffice. And no, I’m NOT kidding. Are you writing a blind character? Put on a good blindfold and don’t take it off for a couple of weeks. (You may need several blindfolds, so you can wash them regularly.) If you’re putting your character in a wheelchair, borrow or hire a wheelchair for a couple of months. Tie your legs together so you can’t accidentally use them. Experience what it’s like to not be able to stand up and pee.
Last but not least. Read my novel “Night’s Reign” to see how I write my disabled characters.