Writing Reactions to Disabled Characters

Quasimodo

On the surface, this looks rather easy.  How hard could it be to have one character react to the disability of another?  We all know what we would do, right?  The list isn’t even that long:

  • Ask questions
  • Show sympathy
  • Tell the person they are strong
  • Start helping them at every turn
  • (for conflict) Look at them with disgust
  • Treat them poorly (again for conflict)

Do you notice something about all of the default reactions authors tend to use when a character is revealed to be disabled?  The character is immediately treated either as a ‘freak’ or a broken person.  It doesn’t matter if they’ve already shown themselves to be confident and capable.  As soon as another character notices, the author starts having them fixate on the disability as if that’s the other person’s entire identity.  Unfortunately, that is very common in our world, but fiction can take another route.

First, I want to make it clear that these reactions do have their uses.  The negative ones are especially good for villains or heroes who need to grow.  Having a character learn that a disabled person isn’t a ‘freak’ or helpless can teach real people this lesson.  Readers may recognize their own biases and actions in these characters.  It’s more difficult with the ‘helpful’ ones though because they are hidden behind the concept of giving aid to those ‘in need’.  For that, a person needs to realize that a disabled person can accomplish some tasks.  At the very least, you really should ask before helping.  That’s probably a key factor in this in my opinion.

Stepping away from reality, fiction gives us other options too.  If the story isn’t about the character adapting to having a disability then it means they have already done so or are in the process.  In an action story, they may have learned how to fight, use magic, get around, and bring skills to the adventure.  Having the other characters treat them like a porcelain doll or a liability decimates their role.  Again, it works if the idea is to have them stand up to their peers and get them to understand.  Yet, that has to happen sooner rather than later if that isn’t the key part of the story.  If it’s only one character being a pain then you can draw it out longer, but the more people who treat the disabled hero as lesser, the quicker you need to resolve that and get to the main story.

That’s a big part of this as well.  People tend to expect a disabled character to be treated as a lesser.  So, authors feel obligated to have some kind of big reaction towards the disability instead of immediate acceptance.  You rarely see a character reveal that they are blind and the others go ‘Cool . . . So, about that rampaging dragon?’  It’s like there always has to be drama or a conversation about it, which is something I get.  We want to draw attention to the challenges of living with a disability.  In doing so, we tend to forget that one of those challenges is being treated like a ‘freak’ or an infant.  Maybe we should consider trying to have the characters be accepted and treated like everyone else unless they actually ask for help.

I’m sure everyone has their own opinion on this.  Mine is probably seen as wrong by some people, which is okay.  So, share what you think about other characters reacting to disabled characters in fiction?

About Charles Yallowitz

Charles E. Yallowitz was born, raised, and educated in New York. Then he spent a few years in Florida, realized his fear of alligators, and moved back to the Empire State. When he isn't working hard on his epic fantasy stories, Charles can be found cooking or going on whatever adventure his son has planned for the day. 'Legends of Windemere' is his first series, but it certainly won't be his last.
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17 Responses to Writing Reactions to Disabled Characters

  1. L. Marie says:

    Great thoughts. It’s interesting how people with disabilities are often labeled by them. “The blind man.” “The woman with cerebral palsy.” I’m not pointing fingers at people. I have used these labels, but I’m not proud of that. As for reactions, I can’t help thinking of how people sometimes react to the homeless—as if they are invisible or a nuisance. I’ve seen these reactions while walking to the commuter train. Sometimes people think those with disabilities are “cursed” somehow (though this is not true). I’m reminded of a Carmine Falcone quote from Batman Begins: “You always fear what you don’t understand.” Many reactions are born out of fear or prejudice. So this is a good subject to explore. The hunchback in Notre Dame is a great example of someone persecuted for being different.

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  2. Dickens presents two interesting characters with disabilities, the first is Tiny Tim (perhaps appropriate to think of him at this time of year) who exudes courage and positivity that is not diminished by his disability, a character that Dickens uses as a device to verify Scrooge’s conversion, but Tim is only a superhero in terms of his personal courage and not some fantastic power. The other character who would have been considered disabled when he was written in 1841 is the dwarf, Daniel Quilp, the principal antagonist in The Old Curiosity Shop. The dude is evil! I wonder if an author in the “woke” world of today would have the courage to create a physically disabled character as the villain in a story, but doing so with a clear understanding and application of all of the ramifications that would accrue to character development might provide a significant literary challenge.

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  3. Hard to know what to do these days. Virtue signaling could be a great direction to take it. Someone steps up to help the disabled character, but only for the act of being seen doing it. Some would accuse us of pandering to the woke crowd for including a disabled character at all. I have two disabled veterans in an unpublished book that I’m holding back right now. I also have a dwarf character sheet ready for another project. I think I’ll just write it the way I feel it and let the chips fall where they may.

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    • The weird thing is that disabled characters have been used before. People getting angry about them appearing now kind of ignores that. Yet, I guess that would happen if more of those character types are used and they aren’t just supporting cast. Putting a spotlight on a group that typically isn’t in there can get a lot of negative reactions for various reasons even if intentions are pure.

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      • I suspect there are more disabled veterans in fiction than anything else. So many families have them, that it makes sense. It’s a touchy subject these days, but what isn’t anymore.

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      • That’s probably one of the safest routes to take here. Most people accept that a veteran can be disabled and feel sympathy since it happened in the line of duty. They also had a period of life where they weren’t disabled. Those born with disabilities don’t get the same viewpoint and are written differently because they have always been that way.

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  4. This is making me think of Oracle, from DC Comics. Although they’ve since over-written her story, Barbara Gordon was Batgirl, but the Joker shot and paralyzed her. After her recovery, she became Oracle, who did all sorts of computer wizardry and gave the heroes guidance for their cases. However, she rigorously concealed her identity even from her heroic allies, because she knew they wouldn’t take her as seriously if they knew she was in a wheelchair.

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  5. Victoria Zigler says:

    Both in reality and in fiction I’d love to see more of the, “Cool. So, what about that dragon?” kind of response to a disability, unless the purpose of the story is to show that the other kinds of responses aren’t necessary. I don’t need pity because I’m blind, nor do I need to be treated like I just did something amazing because I walked across a room without falling over or bumping in to anything (or some other such unimpressive task) and I wish there was less of that kind of thing in how people behave towards disabled people in fictional settings too.

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