I'm going to make an assumption here. I'm assuming you as a writer, whether you have a disability or not, want to write pedal-to-the-metal, amazing plots with characters that grab readers by the throat and don't let go until they cough up cash for your next book.
Or something like that.
So this is not a whiny post about all the bad, prejudiced books out there that treat disability issues poorly. This is an Advanced Writing Tips post to help you avoid pitfalls that distract, lose and piss off readers. I happen to be legally blind, but I'm a writer first and I have to think things through when I write about characters with disabilities just like anyone else.
We want our writing to be fresh and original. That goes without saying. We don't want to rehash the same stuff people have been doing for decades. That's boring. We also want our characters to be emotionally realistic (i.e. relatable for readers). When it comes to writing about characters with disabilities it is all too easy to get sucked into cliched tropes that not only drag the story into old ruts but also make the characters more annoying than relatable.
And in many cases, even when the writing is good, tired tropes simply piss off readers with disabilities, who are at least 15 percent of the reading population and thus a hefty chunk of your market. An even heftier chunk if you count their close family members, who will likely be just as pissed off by annoying tropes.
One of the sticky problems of disability tropes is that avoiding one cliche too vigorously can make you stumble into another by accident. The most important thing to keep in mind when writing about a character with a disability is that people with disabilities are much more like abled people than they are different.
So if your character has a disability, that probably isn’t their main characteristic. It’s something of side importance most of the time, even if the story centers on something related to it. Your character has many interests that aren’t what you would expect from that sort of disabled person.
For example, I am legally blind but I’m pretty good at graphic design because I happen to have a brain wired for visual thinking. Bad combo but I didn’t get to pick. I’ll never be great at graphic design, which I might have been if my eyes weren’t screwed up. I am, on the other hand, terrible at music, which is often a stereotypical interest for blind characters. I do like music and I tried hard to play the flute for five years as a child but I was never very good. It was way harder to memorize all that music than it seems when blind musicians do it.
Other than that, here are the most common story pitfalls to avoid when dealing with a disabled character:
- Bounce-back magicians: Characters who become disabled and immediately (within months, weeks or even days) are able to function in amazing top form, handling everything without help and having better developed other senses or muscles. (Yes, people with disabilities find other ways of accomplishing things and can function fast and happily in almost every situation a abled person can but it takes years to learn the specialized skills, to develop different muscles and to learn to read other senses to compensate for a sensory loss. It takes years and often specialized training and education. There are already way too many stories and movies out there about a disabled character's miraculous recovery and given the propensity of fiction to speed up medical miracles, we come across characters who adapt unrealistically quickly. This is not only old and boring, it is also highly annoying to people actually struggling with these issues. There are very few stories or movies that portray a realistic struggle and show the grit of real people with disabilities. Possibly a good plot line or six there.)
- Superheroes in non-magical stories: Characters with super powers or super sensitive senses where they don't belong. (I am legally blind and I can throw pebbles across a ditch to tell how far I have to jump by sound, I can often sense obstacles by echolocation and I can almost flawlessly tell what my young children are up to in the other room by hearing. But I am sick to death of the cliched character who is a martial arts master and totally blind, who can hear how their opponent is swinging a sword so precisely that they always win easily. Yes, blind people sometimes appear to have super hearing to sighted people but controlled hearing tests show that we have no better technical hearing ability than anyone else. What is true is that people who have lived without a particular sense for a long time (think decades) learn to pay much more attention to their remaining senses and interpret meaning from things others would ignore. People with various disabilities have adapted skills that abled people have because they are not forced to practice such specific skills minute by minute for years. But this is about skill and muscle, not super powers. Despite my abilities in interpreting sounds, I'm still pretty tone deaf and have a terrible ear for recognizing voices. There are things you can train and things you can't. Keeping this realistic and ensuring that your disabled character has had years to adapt to their disability, if you want them to be really skilled, are essential to making characters relatable.)
- Gracious suicides: Disabled characters who nobly commit suicide to escape their unbearable existence and reduce the burdens on abled characters. (This is another type of trope entirely and it is the kind that will get your book or movie thrown across many rooms with enough force to break the binding. The movie success of "Me Before You" has made this trope famous recently but it has been around for decades, probably centuries. If you have any confusion on this, here's the crux. Being disabled is not an unbearable existence and portraying people with disabilities as a burden whose best shot at heroism is to commit suicide to lift their burden from others is wrong in so many ways. But from the writer's perspective it is just cliched, overdone and old hat. It is also maudlin and melodramatic, and it relegates a major character to a paper cutout prop for other characters. Just don't do it. Euthanasia can be explored in much more realistic and mature ways.)
- Inspiro-porn stars: Characters whose primary purpose is to inspire others through their stoic courage despite suffering. (There’s a term for this. It’s called “inspiration porn.” It’s like porn because it is designed to generate a strong, involuntary emotional response in the reader/viewer and it makes the reader/viewer feel good and almost euphoric for a short time at the expense of reducing another person or character to a prop for the edification of others. People with disabilities are not any more stoic than other people and they shouldn't be expected to be. Disabled characters should be allowed to become overwhelmed and emotional about difficult things in their lives, related to disability or not, just like any other characters. Certainly, if you are writing about a hardened detective or other James-Bond type hero who happens to have a disability and he/she is stoic and doesn't complain when their arm is severed in a fight because that's just what kind of individual he/she is, that's a different matter. But it is not “courageous” to simply live with a disability and not go kill yourself (see trope #3). Most people with disabilities live pretty happy lives where their struggles are often not related to their disability. It can be irritating to deal with a society that isn’t ready to include our differences, but it isn’t like we lie in bed in the morning and muster the courage to live. We muster the patience to deal with ableist barriers and weird social reactions but that’s more patience than courage. It can take a lot of mental struggle for people who are newly disabled to see that their new situation is livable but people handle it in various ways due to temperament and all of those ways are normal and acceptable. Here too there are several good potential plot lines that have rarely, if ever, been explored.)
- The crip in distress: The dependent invalid or the one who must be saved. (This is less common today but it used to be a big trope. It is still very tired. No one really wants to read stories where a secondary character is a disabled child or other who the hero is going to save from their terrible fate. I'm not going to belabor the point. Just avoid doing this. When you need a hero to save someone in order to be heroic, it is always better to make the person being saved a three-dimensional character as well. What would be a cliched "rescue plot" can gain immense punch with more careful characterization.)
- Last-minute cures: The plot arch in which the cure of the disability is the solution to the plot problem. (This is a huge one today,, which has kind of taken over the 19th and early 20th century trope number 5. I see stories far too often today where the plot revolves around a character wrestling with the psychological and physical effects of a disability. Sometimes the character is a mess and has to learn the courage and stoic fortitude in trope number 4 or the adaptations in trope 1 and toward the end of the story he or she does adapt and things look okay, tolerable and the disability is mastered. But the author betrays their internal belief that disability is still too terrible and the disability is cured in the end. So the character finds that they could live well with such a disability and then they are rewarded with a cure that takes the disability away so they don’t have to. This isn’t impossible in terms of a realistic event narrative but it has been done and done and done and it is far from the norm of disability. It displays an underlying assumption in society and on the part of the author that no adaptation or psychological resolution is actually good enough and the only positive outcome is to get rid of disability altogether.)
- Pre-adventure cures: The disabled character who is magically cured at the beginning of the story so that they can go on an adventure or be a hero. (This is a minor but highly annoying fantasy trope. Sometimes my pulse will quicken as I read the blurb on a new fantasy book that says the main character is disabled, only to find that the initial plot point is that the disability is magically cured, so that now the formerly sedentary protagonist can now go off on an adventure or become a hero. That's what happened in The Last Words of Will Wolfkin by Steven Knight. The message in stories like this is all too clear. People with disabilities are seen as helpless and useless. They can only be victims or people to be rescued, never a hero in their own right. This is a problem and the whole premise of the disability being cured in the first chapter is just weak and disappointing as a plot spur in any case.)
- Fakers and manipulators (This is one that will send me and many others into vicious bad review mode faster than any other. In fact, I’ll give a bad example right here as a bad review. Yes, I’m naming names. The Netflix series "The Good Wife" would be a fairly decent dramatic lawyer show except that it uses this trope several times. The one disabled major character in the show is a lawyer who slyly and manipulatively uses a tardive dyskinesia disability to derail arguments, manipulate judges, plead for sympathy from juries and so on and on and on. It is really all his character ever does. He is the only major disabled character and here this is finally a show with a disabled lawyer as a character. Another minor character is the son of a rival politician who has leukemia. The child is used as a media gimmick to gain public sympathy for an otherwise unsympathetic politician. The fact that this show uses both these "faker" stereotypes without including other people with chronic illness or disability points to some serious bigotry somewhere in the production chain. Abled people are likely to protest that “Well, this happens in real life!” In fact, it almost does not happen. It is exceedingly rare for people to fake a disability in public to gain sympathy and it is impossible to fake a disability medically given medical technologies today. People with real disabilities do not fake or exaggerate their difficulties to get attention or sympathy. Yes, I know some beggars pretend to be missing a limb or to be blind to get sympathy and donations. These people are rare anomalies who you see relatively often because they place themselves in highly frequented areas. They are a tiny fraction of reality. The trope in fiction and the stereotype in real life that some non-disabled people fake a disability and some disabled people exaggerate their difficulties to get attention, sympathy or advantages is so tired that the dead horse has decomposed. Furthering this trope is unforgivable today in a society where everyone should know better. Works that promote it actively harm people with disabilities and cause us to be accosted and accused of faking at random moments in public. Every time an book or movie portrays such a stereotype, real events result in which disabled children and adults are mocked and dismissed. Do not do it. It's like portraying a black person as a monkey. Sure, some black children eat bananas and jump up and down pretending to be a monkey, just like some white children do. It happens. But we don't do it in fiction for very good reasons. The same goes for fictional portrayals of people faking disability. Disabilities are extremely varied and you won’t always understand why a mother with a white cane on the train who uses a disability transport card is reading a printed book to her children (that would be me). But it is just the way optics work and no one is faking.)
- Charity applause: Disabled protagonists who are good "for a disabled person." (This is a particularly tired one but it still comes up sometimes in children's literature. Much may be made of a character's accomplishments because they are pretty good at something "for a disabled person." There is a legitimately difficult line to walk for writers here. It is natural to write about the accomplishments of someone against the odds. We all know that it is an achievement for a wheelchair user to play wheelchair basketball. And a sports story about a kid's dream to be a star in wheelchair basketball is fair game. But it isn't attractive or interesting if the point of the story is that everyone claps for little Jimmy who tries to play with the abled kids but he's really very bad at it and the climax of the story is the one time he makes a basket. He was so good, considering he's disabled, but really he was awful by any other standard. Boring.)
- Automatic no-threat sign: A character's disability used to show that they are not a threat in competition. (Sometimes a secondary character in a story has all the hallmarks of a good, positive disabled character. It's often the best friend or sidekick of the main character. The thing is that the secondary character is disabled, and the assumption is made clear in the story that this means the disabled character will always be the follower and is never a competitor for top jobs. This character is a great confidante when it comes to love interests because he/she is "obviously" not in the running for romance. This is overused and obviously annoying. It's also very boring.)
- Prince or princess Not Sexy: The disabled hero who wins everything except love. (This is a special little trope that crops up every now and then. The most famous example is probably "The Hunchback of Notre Dame" Disney musical. The hunchback did all the things most Disney princes do and won but instead of getting a beautiful princess and everlasting happiness in the end, his great prize is that he is tolerated in public. Causing your readers/viewers to gag on vomit during what is supposed to be the heartwarming end is usually not part of the plan. Don't do this.)
- Gimpiness as the evil trope: The villain who is obviously a villain because of a disability. (I am personally simply perplexed by this one. There are so many villains in modern culture who are disabled. They far outnumber the number of disabled protagonists. If any racial group was so universally portrayed as "the bad guys" it would be a topic of anti-discrimination activism. But today disability has replaced the dark visage as the quick and easy way to show who the villain is. They walk with a cane, breathe with a machine, need magic to keep their body together or whatever. There are theories about how this is related to a hard-wired human fear of deformity and disease. The first zombie movies were about AIDs victims and I am sure the cheap play on people's fears has something to do with it. But quick and easy or not, it is just as problematic as having all your villains be dark-looking. At the very least, we need to balance the number and major positioning of disabled protagonists.)
I know this list might feel overwhelming. And contradictory. You shouldn't portray people with disabilities as too good but you can't make them villains either. You can't make your disabled characters too strong and resilient without risking them having "super powers" but you shouldn't let them become weak two-dimensional props in need of rescue either.
It often seems like it would be a lot easier to just not include characters with disabilities at all... which is what most writers have done for ages. The worst trope of all isn't actually on the list, because the worst message about disability that we can promote in our writing is voiceless obscurity. When we don't give a character here or there a disability we contribute to a society in which people with disabilities are ignored, dismissed and isolated.
It may be hard to avoid the pitfalls, but it is worth it. Including a character with a disability in your story, even without making the story about that disability, opens up a large and hungry market for your work. When there is too little of something in books, readers want it. Write well about characters with disabilities and you'll get a boost in reader loyalty and discoverability.
So do write about characters with disabilities. Just do it smart.