Not a big fan of using the word ‘disorder’, but I was having a lot of trouble figuring out what to use. This is in regards to mental illnesses, mental disabilities, emotional disabilities, disorders, and anything else that isn’t a one-size-fits-all situation. Even many physical disabilities fall into this such as deafness and blindness having different levels or variations. So, why am I bringing this up?
I’ve noticed that a lot of people will jump on the depiction of a disorder and complain that it isn’t how it works. These critics either don’t have the disorder or have a variation of it that doesn’t much with what they see. Yet, they think a single version of the disorder is the only way to show it in fiction. It can get messy because they believe the disorder isn’t like that because it’s not their personal experience. This means that they are right in their own way, but they’re also wrong. So, it’s difficult to get them to see that it could be the other way, which may be a more severe version of it.
The biggest example I can think of is autism. People are very sensitive about how this is portrayed. I’ve seen people get upset about how an autistic character may be screaming for no reason. They think it’s an exaggeration because they only know autistic people who are verbal. I can tell you that some nonverbal people with autism will scream when upset because it’s the only thing they know how to do. Others critique the finnicky and OCD-like behavior portrayed even though I’ve seen that in action. I’ve noted some people complaining about autistic habits being unrealistic when they’re ones that my son has, which is really aggravating. It’s downright insulting too.
As an author, there are several things you can do to make sure you don’t anger too many people, but the point of this post is to say this:
You’re still going to get some heat.
Do all of the research you can and carefully craft your character, but you can still anger somebody who sees the disorder differently. This is because you can’t include EVERYTHING connected to many disorders into one character since a real human would only have some. Even if you did, somebody would accuse you over exaggeration. If you went minimal then somebody would accuse you of minimizing the disorder. So, there isn’t any safe way to play this beyond avoiding the disorder entirely, which means you ignore a specific population that does exist and may want some representation even if it’s not identical to them. You’d be surprised how often a person with such a disorder knows that it isn’t the same for everyone. This is why I mostly see those without the disorder making these complaints or coaxing those with it to stand up for themselves without letting them look into the source material.
Since these things are so varied, you should focus your research on finding a variation that works for your character and story. Make sure the character can still progress and grow through help and their own actions. Show how they are disabled, but also how they are able to continue being the hero of the story. This means demonstrating unique ways to solving problems that a person without such disorders wouldn’t even consider or be capable of. The trick here is that the character is aware of their limitations, so they think in ways to succeed in their own way. It doesn’t happen instantly or quickly, but part of such a story should be them learning to solve problems on their own. Variations in disorders means variations in tactics.
Of course, this is if they can because some disorders can be very severe. A person with crippling anxiety might do poorly under pressure. If you don’t want them to get over their mental illness over the course of the story then they have to find other ways to handle conflict. Yes, the story doesn’t always have to be about erasing a disorder, but more about how to live with it. I remember stories of characters epically ridding themselves of depression and anxiety, which works if it’s just temporary stress. For the actual mental illnesses, it’s not that easy, especially depending on the severity. Again, we see how fiction tends to skew towards more tolerable and less intrusive versions of disorders to make them easier to conquer.
So, just keep in mind when writing and reading that a disorder on the page is just one version of it. The author is working from their own experience and research. They may know someone who is like that while you’ve seen a different variation. Neither of you are wrong until you start thinking you’re the only one who is right. Getting angry and making a public attack could drive people away who have that variation and would benefit from seeing a hero succeed with the same disorders. Perhaps it’s better to do research and see if the fictional representation is correct or even ask the author in private why they went with that version. It can be educational for all parties involved instead of playing gatekeeper when insulting wasn’t the intention.
I almost don’t want to write a character with disorders because of the possible backlash. John Cannon had a slight case of OCD and I was lucky I didn’t hear about it. I know it was authentic cause I have the same condition. Good post, Charles.
It’s a tough call. If you don’t have any characters with a disorder then some people get annoyed at the story lacking that type of diversity. This is why I think touching on stuff a little can help, but it does have a double-edge.
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A great post. I haven’t written a character like this, because it’s so easy to get it wrong and wind up with a caricature, rather than a good representation. So your tips are really helpful.
Glad to help. 😊
Such a wise post. I don’t know that I’d ever go down this path for the very reason you described. I’ve used physical disabilities several times. Some of my characters are pretty outlandish and could be diagnosed with some kind of disorder, but I’m not diagnosing them on the page. Clovis kills people without a shred of remorse. No deep dive taken.
Diagnoses on the page is where things go screwy. It might be easier to just have the character act without labeling them. Let audiences decide for themselves.
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