I am most definitely a disabled book nerd – One of my most favourite things to do is read and write poetry and stories. My older sister is a book blogger and has managed over the years to drag me down into her crazy, wonderful world of literary obsession. Even though it can often take me longer to finish books due to my difficulty turning pages, I rarely go anywhere without one in hand and love reading everything from classics to YA. In the spirit of my love for books, and in honour of many of my followers who I know are book fans too, I thought I’d post my 5 tips to authors who write disabled characters.
Before I start with the list, I’d like to point out how proud I am of the literary world when it comes to the representation of disabled characters. People with disabilities are the world’s biggest minority with around one billion people in the world being disabled. Yet, we are the minority that receives some of the least representation in media. We are everywhere, literally everywhere, but modern media repeatedly refuses to acknowledge the fact that we exist. However, even though there is still a lot more work to be done, I feel as if the modern book community is leaps and bounds ahead of the Film and TV one when it comes to representation.
It was the world of books which introduced me to disabled representations in the first place and I’ve thoroughly enjoyed reading about own-voices disabled characters, high school disabled characters and even disabled characters in fantasy like A Curse so Dark and Lonely by Brigid Kemmerer (a fantasy re-telling of Beauty and the Beast where the protagonist has Cerebral Palsy). It might not be a lot yet, but I’d like to thank the book community for at least starting to take the first real steps towards disabled inclusion which TV and Film have been too scared to take for decades.
Most views on disabled representations are that they’re ‘not enough’ or any progression is ‘too little too late’ but I wanted to take a quick moment to be slightly more positive about the work that has already been done to represent us more. If every progression is ‘too little too late’ then how will a proper movement to represent us more ever really start?
Without further ado, here is the list:
1. Consider Us
This is more a tip to all authors: Consider disabled characters while you write your story. Even if you are making a futuristic sci-fi world or a medieval fantasy one, always consider the possibility of how a disabled person would survive there. You don’t have to include that character in your story, but it helps with your world-building. A perfect fantasy world is one where you can imagine how everything works within it: how people get rid of their rubbish (garbage), how the currency works and… how a character in a wheelchair would live their life there.
I’ve always wondered what it would be like for someone who is genetically disabled and in an electric wheelchair to be in the FAYZ or Harry Potter’s Wizarding World. How cool would a wizard in a wheelchair be? (they would have to be genetically disabled because I know it is possible to heal physical wounds. By the way, Murphy McNully doesn’t count – He’s not actually in the book series and is only available with the Harry Potter mobile game.)
But in case you do decide to use those characters: The inclusion of disabled characters is great for representation and will make your story seem more realistic because it is a reality for a lot of people. We are rarely included in media because we don’t fit their perfect mould and they’d rather just forget about us, but including these characters in your story reflects real life and not a utopian world where we don’t exist.
2. Consult Us
If you do plan on writing a disabled character, you might want to do some research or get some advice from a disabled person about your representation. Find out about wheelchairs or whatever else people with that disability may need to help them out in their daily life, find out people’s main reaction towards them and the sort of things they’ve gotten used to as well as the terminology they may use for certain things – The inclusion of which will make your story seem more realistic and your representation more authentic.
My advice would be to have an existing condition or reason (like an accident) that they are in a wheelchair in mind when you write the character, even if you don’t ever mention it in the story. Or if you plan on making up your own condition which is world-appropriate to your story, base it on an existing one. Who knows? If you talk to someone with the disability that yours is based on, you may be able to include the tiny details of life with their condition – Ones that you might not have thought about on your own which can add more depth to your character.
3. Make Sure We’re People
This is an issue that you mostly see come up in classic literature. Back then, disabilities were seen as nothing more than an extravagant stylistic device. Disabled characters were often symbols that represented deeper meanings within the text or they were simply a plot device or a means to an end – Even if that end was just to make the audience feel pity or inspired and optimistic. Readers often use Tiny Tim from A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens as an example of this.
This is why you see a lot of disabled villains in classic literature – Because some authors used the idea that an injured body represents an injured mind. Villains often had scars, facial deformities, limbs missing or disabilities to represent their own scarred and deformed minds and pasts. This doesn’t mean that you can’t make us villains, just make sure that if you do have a disabled villain that it’s for the right reason; Because of the character’s personality, not their body. Your character shouldn’t just be a symbol or made to evoke one simple emotion, make them a complex character which feels and express a multitude of emotions – Make them a person.
4. Let Us Be Anyone
Villains, heroes, bullies, popular girls at school, fantasy dragon riders – We could be anything. This includes side characters, main characters (not depicted as helpless or struggling with their disability) or supporting main characters (part of the main character’s ‘crew’ or best friends). I’m working on a novel right now where the popular, hot girl at school who has most of the boys chasing after her is in a wheelchair – A role you don’t usually see disabled characters in. Her disability is never mentioned either, she just is the way she is.
Often, a disabled character’s personality trait is simply DISABILITY, as if they are defined by their condition. But don’t feel the need to explain the character’s disability or even mention it if they’re only a side character. If everyone around them just accepts the fact that they’re in a wheelchair without having to bring it up in a conversation, it shows that disabilities are just a normal, natural part of life and not something that always needs to be explained or discussed. So let us be anyone, not just ‘saint’, ‘inspiration’ or ‘DISABLED’. And don’t let the character’s disability define them by constantly showing them struggling with it or making it all they ever talk about.
5. Don’t ‘Cure’ Us
A lot of books which include disabled characters end with the character being cured of their disability. Why? Because characters are supposed to live ‘happily ever after’ at the end of a story and how could you live ‘happily’ if you’re still in a wheelchair? At least that is the message that these types of books send. Trust me, your character can still live a great life if they’re disabled (I do 🙂 ). It’s also not very realistic to magically cure us by the ending because many of us aren’t that lucky in real life.
This ‘curing’ also includes elements that may get rid of a character’s disability through means other than literal physical healing. For instance, those with missing limbs may receive cyborg limbs which cause them to be able to do everything they could do if they hadn’t lost their limb in the first place, maybe even better, or a blind character whose other senses are enhanced to a ridiculous level so that they’re actually able to ‘see’ things better than others. (Read How to Create Disabled Representation in Sci-Fi and Fantasy – The Wheelchair Teen for more about erasing character’s disabilities)
These sorts of characters are fine, but just don’t present them as disabled because they’re not anymore – Their disabilities have been taken out of the equation, perhaps for convenience to the writer. Disabled characters also often have extremely powerful superpowers or are tremendously intelligent to make up for the fact that they are disabled or to still make them useful and important. But sometimes a disabled character is just… disabled and not Albert Einstein or Superman.
That’s all for the list. I’d love to hear about your favourite disabled representation in literature or whether or not you agreed with my list. Have fun writing!