Writing characters with handicaps isn’t easy. Some people may think it is, but those fall into two categories. They either have the disability themselves or they’re about to make several mistakes. Ideally, an author would want to know what they’re doing when tackling a disability. It is a sensitive topic as well as one that can open the door to many interesting story events. So, what are some things to keep in mind?
- RESEARCH!!! Unless you have the disability, you won’t really understand. The closest you can get to it is doing a lot of research. Talk to people who have the disability and read up on how it works. Look at helpful tools and adjustments that can be made for a person. Examine the psychological effect. The list keeps going, but the point is to get as close to reality as you can even if it’s fiction.
- Physical disabilities aren’t ‘one size fits all’. A person who is legally blind may be able to see objects to some extent. They don’t always see total darkness. There is a range of ability that falls into a disability. So, go back to your research and decide on the degree that you want your character to have.
- Did the character become disabled later in life or were they born that way? This is an important question. Someone who became paralyzed later in life would have a different mentality than one born that way. They may be bitter or still be adjusting to a loss instead of having adapted already. When it comes to sensory disabilities, it can determine how much a character knows about their surrounding world. The memory of a sight or sound can help them understand situations while one who never had that will not have that extra information.
- The disability needs to have an impact on the character. This requires that you always remember it exists. There are simply some things that they either can’t do or have to accomplish in their own way. So, every challenge, conversation, and event needs to be looked at from this character’s perspective to make sure they are reacting correctly. For example, if you establish that a hero is completely blind, they shouldn’t be reacting to visible flares or blinding lights.
- I know this next one is very tempting for some authors. They think it’s positive and uplifting to do this. What is it? REMOVING THE DISABILITY! This is a very risky plot twist. Some people want to see this happen while others will get more inspiration from a character who succeeds without ‘curing’ themselves. By eliminating the disability, the character no longer has that connection with readers who don’t have that option. Keep in mind that many disabilities are permanent, so it could be seen as a slap in the face if one goes this route.
- Consider the world in general when writing a character with a disability. This connections to the research and how long they have been disabled, but it needs to be mentioned. Societies are typically designed solely for those without disabilities, which means those who have them will run into problems. Not every building will have a elevator or be wheelchair accessible. Brail isn’t always an option. This becomes very true in fantasy when you may use a more medieval setting. Those time periods and worlds don’t even try to accommodate others. So, you have to decide on if the world will be altered for these characters or they will be forced to struggle without any adjustments made by those around them.
- Consider how other characters will react. More on this tomorrow.