How to Create Disabled Representation in Sci-Fi and Fantasy

It’s time for my first Disabled Representation Tip! This tip is going to be about creating (physical) disabled representation for science-fiction and fantasy worlds. I’m going to do three things: teach you how to make a disabled representation for such a world, tell you some things to watch out for, and then show you some cool examples. Today, I’m focusing mainly on some of the ‘disability superpower’ tropes such as Super Wheelchair and Cyborg Prosthetic Limbs (which are mainly used in sci-fi) and the Blind Seer (which appears a lot in fantasy).

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1. How do you Interweave Disabilities into Sci-Fi and Fantasy Worlds?

One of my favourite places to see disabled representation is in fantasy and sci-fi – I love seeing all of the creative ways authors and screenwriters include disabilities in their worlds. My main advice on how to do this is simply: be creative! But to help you build a strong, realistic, and relatable disabled representation, I created this simple three-step plan. Obviously, it’s not always necessary to follow this plan, but it will help you to know the basics if you have no idea where to start. You can create a mind-map or a list for each step if you’re more of a visual person (like me).

  • Think about the disability that you want to include in your story: think about all of the items that someone of your chosen disability may need to get around, and how that disability would affect their day-to-day life.
  • Now think about the world that you’ve created: think about the parameters, rules, and inventions of your world. Also, consider the society of your world and how different people get treated there.
  • Then put both of these side-by-side: how would this disability look considering the parameters and rules of your world? Take all of the items that someone of your chosen disability may need to get around and think about how the inventions of your world would re-create them. Also consider how elements of their everyday life with their disability would look like if they lived in your world, and think about how people in the society of your world would treat them and why.

Basically, it just takes some imagination, a little research, and some rationalisation. If you view real life with a disability as English, and the fantasy or sci-fi world that you’ve created as another language: then the process of interweaving a disability into a sci-fi or fantasy world is like translating English into a different language – You take everything from an ordinary life with the disability and then ‘translate’ it to fit within the rules of your world.

Don’t forget that creativity is the most important part of this process: think up clever and creative alternatives that will make your representation special. The only reason that I created this three-step plan is because it’s the best way to ensure that your representation is still realistic and relatable, to help you make sure that it’s not problematic, and to help you avoid erasing your character’s disability.

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2. Something to Watch Out For

The most important thing that you should try to avoid when creating this type of disabled representation is accidentally erasing your character’s disability. This is often done by Giving Character’s Powers That Cancel Out Their Disability:

I already talked about this a little bit in My 5 Tips to Authors Who Write Disabled Characters post. Basically, if you give a cyborg arm that works even better than an ordinary arm to a character with a missing limb, or if you give a blind character enhanced senses which makes them able to technically ‘see’ the world better than others, then you run the risk of potentially erasing that character’s disability. This shouldn’t be your goal because characters who have their disabilities cancelled out by technology or superpowers are difficult for disabled readers to relate to (because they no longer experience any of the same things that someone in real life with their disability would experience).

Cyborg

Imagine being disabled and trying to relate to a character like Victor Stone as Cyborg from Teen Titans. How could you? The guy’s practically superhuman. This doesn’t mean that there’s anything wrong with Cyborg or any other character with an erased disability, I just personally wouldn’t count them as examples of disabled representation. Remember, the way that you choose to interweave disabilities into your world shouldn’t be a means to cure them, but merely a means for your world to be able to include them.  

How to Avoid This

Following the plan that I showed you is a good way to avoid erasing a character’s disability. This is why I included the step of considering what the everyday life of someone with the disability that you chose would be like – because their life in your world should still contain many of the same elements.

I once wrote a fantasy story with a character that couldn’t walk. She had magical powers and therefore she simply sat on a small wooden plank and levitated it to get around. However, it took a lot of effort for her to levitate, much more effort than walking (like pushing a manual wheelchair) and she’d often have to stop for breaks if they were walking far so that she could re-charge her powers (like stopping to plug in an electric wheelchair). She also still experienced things that people who sit down all day experience such as pressure sores and leg pains. The story is quite rubbish since I wrote it when I was only thirteen, but I was still already starting to grasp the concept of ‘interweaving’ instead of ‘erasing’ disabilities.

So, if you’re thinking of creating a character with a Super Wheelchair with rocket-power speed and a built-in microwave – that’s awesome! But maybe the wheelchair still can’t go upstairs and needs to be plugged in to charge every day. Maybe instead of a guide dog, your blind character has an IA robot that helps them to navigate their everyday life? Maybe instead of reading lips, your society has futuristic glasses for deaf people that can scan people’s lips and generate subtitles for the user? But the user has to be looking at the lips of the person speaking for them to work. Be creative and realistic – a strong representation will contain a fine balance of both.

A Cool Example

Mimori Togo

Say what you will about the character Mimori Togo from the anime Yuki Yuna is a Hero, but I absolutely love how the creators of the show interweaved her disability into her magical transformation. Mimori has no use of her legs and has to use a wheelchair to get around. Yet, when she transforms into her magical battle form, her legs are still immobile. Instead, her suit uses long tentacles that keep her above the ground and help her to move around and jump without using her legs:  

The tentacles on Mimori’s suit help to keep her off the ground so that she doesn’t have to use her legs

Mimori’s suit helping her to jump and lower herself into shooting position:

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3. Some More Cool Examples for Inspiration

I’m now going to show you some more examples of wheelchairs, prosthetic limbs, and blind characters in sci-fi and fantasy for inspiration. I’m only showing these three because I wanted to stick to the subject of the Super Wheelchair, Enhanced Limbs, and Blind Seer ‘disability superpower’ tropes which I’ve been discussing.

Here are some examples of fantasy and sci-fi wheelchairs:

(Sorry that most of these are animated examples, I’m quite a big fan of animation. Professor X’s hoverchair in X-Men: Days of Future Past and the children’s grandfather’s helicopter chair from Spy Kids are some live-action examples)

These wheelchairs range from old wooden or metal chairs to technologically-advanced ones with rocket boosters. A quick tip: If your fantasy is set in medieval times, I would recommend doing some research on how early wheelchairs looked, or how disabled people in the past used to get around. Avatar: The Last Airbender is a show set in the past, so Teo’s wheelchair is made out of wood in a sort of wheelbarrow style. Mayor John’s wheelchair is also an example of an era-appropriate chair since it is made out of rusty metal and styled in the same way as most of the town’s mechanisms.

I especially like the ingenuity of the character Finnegan: Finnegan comes from a world of monsters and creatures. Since he has a mermaid tail, he’s not able to walk around like the rest of his friends and therefore uses a wheelchair. Even though he doesn’t have a real-life disability, he’s often underestimated, and his classmates don’t trust him enough to know the limits of his own abilities. So, they fuss over him and don’t allow him to do the potentially-dangerous extreme wheelchair sports that he loves. Even though Finnegan is not your average example of disabled representation, as a child, I found that I could relate to him and the way that he was treated a lot. He is a good example of both realistic and creative representation.      

Prosthetic Limbs:

There are MANY examples of enhanced limbs from all sorts of media. But I wanted to stay away from cyborg limbs because of what I explained earlier, but also just because it’s something that’s been done so many times before. Instead, I wanted to talk about Hiccup and Amberlily. I wanted to mention Hiccup because he’s another example of an era-appropriate disabled character from fantasy because of his metal prosthetic limb.

On the other hand, Amberlily is from an underwater fantasy world where everyone needs to swim to get around. However, she was born without arms and struggles to swim with just the use of her legs. Therefore, she uses an underwater wheelchair with a propeller to move about. She controls the chair with a joystick that she moves with her left foot. Amberlily is a reminder that cyborg limbs don’t always have to be the only option, and she’s also a creative way to have a wheelchair character in a fantasy underwater world.   

If you’re still rather keen on using cyborg limbs – that’s perfectly fine. Just make sure to think of ways to keep it realistic and relatable. Maybe the user still has to remove them before they go to sleep? Or maybe the limb occasionally runs out of charge and performs like a normal prosthetic until it’s able to be charged again.

Blind Seers:

There are many different ways to do blind characters other than giving them enhanced senses, but I still thought that I’d give you examples of some Blind Seers. Toph (also from Avatar: The Last Airbender) can ‘see’ by feeling the vibrations in the ground with her earth powers, but she can’t use this ability in water or on sand which makes sense of course. Even though Ray Charles from the film Ray isn’t a fantasy character, I think that he’s still a rather accurate description of how real-life blind people use their other senses to navigate the world. He’s a good example of a real-life ‘Blind Seer’ and he even explains the technicalities of how this works in reality. I hope that these examples were able to inspire you.

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That’s it for this tip! I hope that you enjoyed the first post of this series. Please tell me if it was useful or if you have any other questions, suggestions or queries. My next Nugget of Wisdom post will be a review based on your recommendations. I can’t wait until then. Good luck with being creative!

Image Citations: https://www.anime-planet.com/characters/mimori-togohttps://nl.pinterest.com/pin/71283606579933983/https://www.nytimes.com/2016/09/21/arts/television/review-speechless.htmlhttps://www.elle.com.au/culture/isaac-sex-education-george-robinson-22908https://www.hobbydb.com/marketplaces/hobbydb/subjects/toph-characterhttps://dc-and-marvel-megaverse.fandom.com/wiki/Oracle_(DC_Universe)https://www.amazon.com/Hello-Goodbye-Dog-Maria-Gianferrari/dp/1626721777/ref=as_li_ss_il?ie=UTF8&qid=1521682081&sr=8-1&keywords=hello+goodbye+dog&linkCode=li2&tag=booksforlittles-20&linkId=d4f8bd9c15983603de7af7d3e576bccbhttps://www.usajacket.com/product/freddy-freeman-shazam-jacket/, https://www.reddit.com/r/TheLastAirbender/comments/gzca7r/teo_is_one_of_my_favorite_secondary_characters/, https://disney.fandom.com/wiki/Felix_Renton, https://monsterhigh.fandom.com/wiki/Finnegan_Wake, https://rango.fandom.com/wiki/The_Mayor_of_Dirt, https://toarumajutsunoindex.fandom.com/wiki/Kihara_Byouri, https://howtotrainyourdragon.fandom.com/wiki/Hiccup_Horrendous_Haddock_III_(Franchise), https://www.tagesspiegel.de/politik/kuenstliche-intelligenz-wer-seinem-pc-gram-ist-hat-ein-rationalitaetsproblem/23013292-3.html, https://hero.fandom.com/wiki/Cyborg_(Teen_Titans_2003), https://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Main/SuperWheelChair, https://www.dreamstime.com/stock-illustration-comic-book-character-cyborg-ape-creature-original-image46700468, https://in.pinterest.com/pin/618048748847249053/, https://www.shutterstock.com/ko/search/%EC%9E%94%EB%94%94%2B%ED%95%98%EB%8A%98?section=1&image_type=vector&search_source=base_related_searches, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uqryJb7Lh8o, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wmDETun3d8c, https://aminoapps.com/c/anime/page/item/togo-mimori/kvtQ_IrWwB1bvzZDLgr04XRrrlgaL, https://yuyuyu.fandom.com/wiki/Togo_Mimori, https://www.drivethrurpg.com/product/156055/JEStockArt–SciFi–Young-Female-Agent-in-Wheelchair–CNB, https://www.zerochan.net/2601389, https://nl.pinterest.com/?show_error=true

13 thoughts on “How to Create Disabled Representation in Sci-Fi and Fantasy

  1. I love these tips and examples!! Yes, I too don’t like it when so often a character’s disablity gets erased / cancelled out by superpowers or magic or technology. I love that you included the pictures of the animated examples, I haven’t seen some of those shows/animes, and I loved seeing the pictures to see what you meant :).

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks 🙂 I’m glad that you like the animated examples, I had the best time finding all of the pictures to share. Yes, it can be frustrating when a character’s disability gets erased, but at least you’re able to realise when it happens and can make a clear distinction between a genuine representation and an inaccurate one. I think that the reason why it happens so much is because writers struggle with being able to make that distinction.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. This was a great post with comprehensive information. I myself don’t dare tackle this topic for the fear of doing it badly, but your post has given me food for thought, especially since I primarily write sci-fi/fantasy. Thanks for this!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you for the feedback. I think that fear is a reason why most writers tend to stay away from this kind of representation – and I do understand why. It can seem like scary terrain to explore, but I’m glad that this post has at least given you some food for thought. Good luck to you with the rest of your writing! And remember that I’m always available as a ‘disabled ownvoices’ book reviewer to give you feedback on your representation if you ever change your mind.

      Like

  3. I’m going to include this post in my next Tooting Your Trumpet installment…again. LOL. I have a few indie/small pub authors I interact with on Twitter, so it could be useful to them in case they decide to venture into disabled-character-rep.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Oh my goodness, thank you so much. Wow, you’re really the best Roberta ❤ I wrote this post because I genuinely wanted to help, so I hope that they enjoy my advice and, hopefully, decide to venture into disabled-character-rep because of it!

      Like

  4. I love this post of yours!
    I’m actually writing a fantasy book where the female MC is in a wheelchair, and the male MC is autistic (though I never use that word, as it’s not seen as an illness or disorder in my world – just a different way of being), and the female MC’s best friend has a prosthetic leg.
    It’s actually a rather dark story, and definitely aimed at an adult audience, but you (or some of your readers) might be interested.
    I’m posting a link to chapter 6 here, in which I have the three of them together for the first time, at their martial arts training.
    https://elvencurse.wordpress.com/2020/08/05/chapter-6/

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you. Wow, I had no idea that you wrote! I read your chapter and I have to say – I applaud your representation of autism. It’s very realistic and the plot of the story seemed intruiging. You’re right – I often spend my time travelling around in a ‘chunk of metal, perfect for breaking human bones’. Ha, I loved it! Good luck with the rest of the story 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Thank you. I was really bummed when I first realised I needed a wheelchair, because I used to do judo and jiu-jitsu, and felt like now I couldn’t do that anymore. So I started looking for ways. I finally found an aikido teacher willing to have me join his club of otherwise able-bodied aikidokas. So that’s how I got the “chunck of metal perfect for breaking human bones” – it’s my own way of thinking. I wanted to turn my negative into a positive.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. Oh my gosh, that is so cool! I’ve continuined to read your story, but do you also write anywhere about you’re own lifestory? If not, I would definitley reccomend it, your positive way of thinking sounds really interesting – And I don’t think that I’ve ever seen some one doing physical combat in a wheelchair before! I really admire the fact that you still wanted to continue doing the things that you loved once you started using a wheelchair, and your teacher sounds really cool 🙂

        Liked by 1 person

      3. Thank you. I hope you enjoy it. I’m posting a new chapter each week – on Wednesdays – and have currently 23 chapters written, so I won’t run out of material to publish anytime soon.
        I don’t write my own lifestory, but I do use a lot of my own experiences in my fiction. And the experiences of friends and family. I also admit to engaging in “people watching”, which is a good habit for a fiction writer. You learn so much just by watching people.

        Liked by 1 person

  5. Thank you so much for sharing. These tips will hopefully help me to develop realistic disabled characters to appeal to a wide audience. At present in my stories there are a sprinkling of characters who struggle with mental illnesses as I have experience with depression. To make the worlds I create more believable and relatable I shall be making use of your tips about creating characters. 😊

    Liked by 1 person

    1. You’re welcome 🙂 I’m so glad that my tips might come in handy, and I’m happy that you’ve decided to include characters with mental conditions in your writing. Since you’ve actually experienced depression yourself, you are the ideal voice to write such representation since you’ll be able to draw from your own experience. If you ever need any other kind of help, or if you just want someone to speak to about how the writing is getting on, then I’m always here – the world deserves to hear your unique insight and perspective. All the best with your story!

      Liked by 1 person

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