Storytelling

Four Tips for Depicting Characters With Disabilities

Geordi from Star Trek: TNG at a poker table

Geordi from Star Trek: TNG isn't defined by his disability.

Many storytellers are intimidated by including a diverse cast in their stories, not just because they know little about other groups, but because the stakes are so high. That’s why questions like Sarai’s are common:

In a historical setting, or a world where not much is known about mental illnesses, how would you present a character with emotional or personality disorders without coming across as offensive?

Sarai may be writing in a historical setting with low recognition of many disabilities, but unfortunately, that’s not entirely different from today. Many people mistakenly believe disabilities are obvious to observers; when in reality, a wide array of both physical and mental disabilities are not readily apparent. People who have invisible disabilities often have to explain their limitations to unsympathetic people around them, whereas many people who have visible disabilities are continually underestimated.

Sarai has an extra challenge because she can’t name the disease in her setting, but she can still create a respectful depiction of a character with disabilities. Here are some tips to help; I’ll start with the basics anyone should keep in mind when depicting characters with disabilities.

1. Research the Disability

Tyrion from Game of Throns Tyrion’s depiction shows a deep understanding of the stereotypes and social pressure applied to little people.

Any time you are depicting characters from a group that is less privileged than yourself, start by listening to their voices. Get some magazines by and for them, and read blog posts and biographies where they describe their experiencesWatch videos where they explain how their disability works and what living with it is like.

This can provide valuable information:

  • How they perceive and describe their disability. You can use that to communicate it to your audience, regardless of whether your setting has a name for it.
  • The terminology they use, which is especially important for contemporary settings.
  • How they’ve adapted to their disability and what kind of assistive technologies or techniques they use.
  • The ways other people misinterpret or react to the disability. In some cases, you may want to use this for character interactions, but it can also tell you what misunderstandings your audience might have about the disability.

Every group you depict will have stereotypes and other harmful tropes you must avoid at all costs. These are traits the groups have seen applied over and over again to the characters who represent them. Seeing these trends from you, even in a story where it makes perfect sense, will be hurtful.

Start with researching broader stereotypes about people with disabilities in general, then look for harmful tropes applied specifically to mental or physical disabilities, and then focus on the specific disabilities your character has. Reading reviews by disability advocates is a good place to start your research on stereotypes.

2. Don’t Make Your Story About Their Disability

Furiosa from Mad Max: Fury Road Mad Max: Fury Road is about Furiosa’s quest for redemption, not about her disability.

People with one or more disabilities don’t like being called “disabled” because it suggests their impairment defines their existence. They’re normal people who just happen to have a disability. Most people with disabilities have adapted to the challenges and are living great lives; they are not a living tragedy or a charity case.

Yet far too often, characters with disabilities are completely defined by them. That’s why you should avoid making your story focus on any of these things:

  • The character’s struggle to adapt to or cope with their disability
  • Their quest to cure their disability
  • Proving they are capable despite their disability
  • Conflicts they have with negligent or overbearing caregivers

Sometimes these stories are valuable, but they should be left to people with direct experience. The responsibility of able-bodied people is to include people who have disabilities in our stories, not to tell their stories for them.

People want to watch someone they identify with slay dragons or save the world, and someone with a disability is no different. They don’t want story after story dwelling on things they have to deal with in real life.

3. Don’t Erase Their Disability

Toph From Avatar: The Last Airbender Toph uses her Earthbending as an adaptive technique, but she’s still blind.

While your story shouldn’t be about their disability, it should still include it in some fashion. If everything about your story would be the same if the character’s disability was removed, then you aren’t being inclusive of people with disabilities. You’re contributing to their dismissal, which would be the same as depicting a bi character that only had romances with the opposite sex.*

That doesn’t mean you can’t give people a superpower that assists with some of the challenges inherent to their disability. It means that even with that superpower, there must be some difference between them and someone without that disability. For instance, Toph from Avatar: The Last Airbender is a blind character who is super sensitive to vibrations in the ground. She can feel where people are walking and how heavy they are, but she can’t read a poster or sense someone floating in the air.

If it suits your story, you can occasionally use their disability to increase the conflict. It can provide them with extra challenges during a couple scenes in a novel or a couple episodes in a TV series. In Star Trek: The Next Generation, Geordi’s visor malfunctions in rare instances, hindering his ability to get out of tight situations. However, go easy on conflicts like these. Your goal is to normalize disabilities; continually singling out a character with a disability is like making every interaction with a character center around their red hair.

While their disability should make some difference to them without incapacitating them, don’t glorify it. Don’t spread the myth that blind people have super hearing. Don’t suggest that schizophrenic hallucinations are really psychic visions.

4. Make Their Disability Crystal Clear

Mrs. Everdeen From the Hunger Games Mrs. Everdeen explains her invisible illness without naming it.

If storytellers depict characters with invisible disabilities without making their disability clear, they don’t risk as much if they get it wrong. However, doing this doesn’t add real diversity to your story. For instance, many readers didn’t like how angsty Harry Potter was in book five. I have a friend who has suffered from severe depression that thought the book was a spot-on depiction of what depression is like. But an accurate depiction of depression that allows readers to interpret it as a character flaw isn’t helping to dispel the myths surrounding the disease or representing the people who have it well.

Regardless of whether your society has a name for the disability your character has, you can convey that it’s a disability to your audience. The most important part is to make sure your character understands that they have an impairment, even if they don’t know what to call it. You can use their thoughts or dialogue to convey that understanding.

  • When appropriate, let you character think back on what their life was like before they had their disability. This can help your audience understand that it’s not a problem with their personality.
  • Illustrate what your character does to accommodate or adapt to their disability. Keep it casual or in passing. In Mad Max: Fury Road, Furiosa uses Max’s shoulder to keep her gun steady. They don’t have an extended conversation about it; she just does it.
  • Make sure your audience knows that your character can’t erase their disability with enough willpower. Your character might consider pushing their limits and then remember the consequences they endured the last time they did that. Don’t let your hero be like the main character of the movie A Beautiful Mind, who recovers by ignoring the hallucinations caused by schizophrenia.
  • Consider some careful dialogue where they explain their disability. In the Hunger Games, Katniss Everdeen still resents her mother for leaving her and her sister to fend for themselves. Mrs. Everdeen tells Katniss that she was ill, not uncaring or negligent, and she didn’t have the medicine she needed.

Your character should never exaggerate their condition. For instance, in the Netflix TV series Daredevil, the titular character pretends he needs a cane, then throws it aside every time there’s a fight. Even if this act gave the character an advantage instead of making people suspicious of him, it would be a poor choice. It reinforces the harmful notion that disabilities aren’t real.

Know the limits of what you can take on. Consider how important your character is, and how difficult it will be to illustrate their disability. For instance, a minor character may not have enough screen time for you to clarify that they have borderline personality disorder. However, you could probably illustrate that they suffer from chronic pain.


Sometimes it’s scary to write diverse stories for fear of doing it wrong. But to be a storyteller is to put yourself out there. If you weren’t brave, you wouldn’t spell a single word. If you receive criticism about your depiction, do your best to listen and consider it. If it helps, ask a friend to review the criticism and paraphrase. Then, use anything you learned in your next story.

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Comments

  1. Aloysius

    Great article, Chris! I think this is really good advice for for non-disabled folks and even writers with disabilities who wish to depict disabilities other than their own. As a mentally ill person who has studied disability activism myself, I have a little advice of my own. (Two sorries: 1 for accidentally writing an essay and 2 in case the links don’t work, but you can copy past them to your url bar if that’s the case).

    First, anyone who wants to write characters with disabilities should really look up the social model of disability, which will have HUGE implications on worldbuilding. Most people believe in the medical model, which says that disability is a problem with a person’s body or mind that leads to a limited access of the world and lower quality of life. Many disability advocates push for the social model, which distinguishes between impairments and disabilities. I am near-sighted and wear glasses, so I have an impairment, but because I can easily access glasses in this society I am not considered disabled by my near-sightedness. According to the social model, disabilities are caused by society not accomodating impairments. I like this page’s explanation of the different models:
    http://www.copower.org/leadership/models-of-disability

    If you plan on writing something about a person with mental disabilities, I suggest looking up the neurodiversity paradigm and movement. Neurodiversity is the idea that there are many different types of brains which are important to the natural diversity of humans, and a brain that diverges from the norm (neurodivergent) isn’t necessarily wrong or unhealthy. It relates back to the social model because, though many neurodivergences may come with impairments, neurodivergent people are generally disabled by society. Here are some general definitions:
    http://neurocosmopolitanism.com/neurodiversity-some-basic-terms-definitions/

    When writing characters with disabilities, using the spoon theory could come in handy for understanding the character’s limits. It is a metaphor for the limited amount of energy people with disabilities have for tasks throughout the day. Here is an explanation:
    http://www.butyoudontlooksick.com/articles/written-by-christine/the-spoon-theory/

    Now a little note about language. In the first paragraph of point 2 of this article, Chris says to never use “disabled person” but to use “person with disabilities.” “Person with x-disability” is called person-first language and is generally good advice, but there is also identity-first language and certain communities, like Deaf and Autistic people, usually prefer that to “people with deafness” or “people with autism.” It varies depending on the individual and the disability, so I suggest when writing characters with disabilities definitely look up and use language that the community who has that disability prefers. Though of course if you know someone with a disability in real life go with their personal preference when talking about them specifically. Here’s a more in-depth look that talks about identity-first language around autism in particular:
    http://autisticadvocacy.org/home/about-asan/identity-first-language/

    One more thing you should consider when it comes to language is to cut out ableist language from your writing all together. Many disability advocates have identified words and sayings that stigmatize certain disabilities. Some of these are obvious in the case of slurs, but others are more pervasive. I personally try to avoid ableist language in my writing and everyday speech, though many argue that it is “too PC.” I don’t think so, but I don’t pick fights with people who use it (unless it’s a slur being used hurtfully, then I would call someone out). Here is a link about what these words are and why you should avoid them:
    http://www.autistichoya.com/p/ableist-words-and-terms-to-avoid.html

    Thanks for anyone who read all this, and thanks again Chris for a great article!

    • Tyson Adams

      This is a great point, Aloysius, one that far too few understand:
      “Many disability advocates push for the social model, which distinguishes between impairments and disabilities. I am near-sighted and wear glasses, so I have an impairment, but because I can easily access glasses in this society I am not considered disabled by my near-sightedness.”

      There are some interesting TED talks by amputees discussing just this issue. E.g. some people with leg amputations have advantages over “able-bodied” people.

    • Chris Winkle

      Thank you Aloysius for all the info; I look forward to looking through your links!

  2. Tyson Adams

    Some good tips, Chris.

    For a WIP I found myself thinking how to deal with disabled and minority characters. Acceptance and warts & all seemed the best path. Although an early draft made the mistake of having the disabled, homosexual minority all in one character. All I needed was a troubled childhood, drug addiction, and crippling mental illness to round that one out as the ultimate tokenism.

  3. Sarai

    Thanks again, Chris! Most of writing sensitive topics deals with basic common sense, but it’s still extremely helpful to see it all laid out. I see multiple things from my story that I’ll need to fix off the top of my head, but I’m sure I’ll find more as I look closer.
    In regards to not making the story about how a character adapts to a disability, would you advise against permanently injuring a minor character mid-story?

    • Chris Winkle

      Giving a character an injury with lasting effects can be a good way to create consequences for failure without killing anyone off, don’t take that out of your tool box. What’s important in that situation is how you treat it. It will be natural for them to go through an adjustment period, but avoid suggesting that their life as they knew it is over or that they need to be fixed. Let them regain their equilibrium without too much drama.

  4. Liz

    I’m not sure Daredevil deserves that criticism. Matt Murdoch has been living his two lives for so long that they are like separate people, starting from when he was a child and was afraid to tell people about his ability. I think I would do exactly the same thing if I were him. It’s a rational choice that someone might make, and just because a character has a disability like blindness, it doesn’t mean you have to make them the archetype for blind characters, I.e. making Daredevil pretend to be just partly blind or something like that. It’s a perfectly valid character choice.

    • Chris Winkle

      Unfortunately it doesn’t matter how much it makes sense for the character or the story, bad tropes and stereotypes are still hurtful. Having a hero that fakes a disability sends a harmful message about people with disabilities. Now, if we had lots of blind characters in our stories, the burden wouldn’t be on Murdoch to represent blind people, but since we don’t, he’s a blind character archetype whether we like it or not.

      And to be clear, this take on Murdoch isn’t just my personal opinion. I attended a panel at a convention that was put on by a disability advocate who is blind, and the focus was portrayal of blind characters and Daredevil specifically. After consideration you may still disagree with me and this advocate about his portrayal, but please do a search and read what blind people have to say before making conclusions.

  5. Richard

    As an example of an “invisible disability”, may I suggest epilepsy (as depicted here, with what I hope is reasonable accuracy: http://www.metacafe.com/watch/an-dVVXt77nuhY24/the_andromeda_strain_1971_epilepsy/ )

    One that may or may not be a “disability” in the usually understood sense of the word is color blindness. In humans, it’s genetically linked, and far more prevalent than suspected (no, I’m not color blind). When considering alien or non-human beings that evolved under a different sky and sun, why should they have the exact same color sensitivity as humans? Especially when different terrestrial creatures already have different color sensitivities (e.g. bees)?

  6. John

    You know, I personally believe that with some disabilities, people do legitimately do what they can to both sympathize and/or relate to the issue.

    But, as far as other disabilities, especially mental conditions, go, there’s a lot that needs to be done. To me, it feels like mental problems are still looked at a source of ridicule, considering that there are several examples of fictionalized usage of autism. Examples include “Glee”, which went out of their way to promote anti-bullying & gay acceptance but had a character feign Asperger’s as an excuse for being untalented, “Rain Man”, where people essentially refer to those who share Dustin Hoffman’s character’s traits as “Rain Man guy” (which, isn’t even autism), and “The Big Bang Theory” where Sheldon Cooper is played as a guy with Asperger’s but seems to be more of an asshole than he is an eccentric.

    But, great article, and great website.

    • Dragonborn

      Personally, I found Glee both preachy and intolerant which is a pretty ugly mix (Kurt was there to promote tolerant of non-heterosexuality but was a walking, biphobic stereotype, more biphobia in the form of later series! Santana, and don’t get started on Mary Su- Rachael).

      And I’m relieved someone else knows that the real guy from that stupid movie didn’t even have Autism. Doesn’t help that Hoffman’s character exists for the character development of the broken nosed neurotypical protagonist. Despite my disdain for the usage of a certain ableist slur, I have a great appreciation for Kirk Lazarus’ words about “Inspirationally Disadvantaged” type movies in Tropic Thunder.

      As someone with Aspergers, I think the X-Men films did far more justice to portraying what Autistic people experience than those three examples in media ever did and it’s about superheroes who are occasionally blue!

  7. Bronze Dog

    I had one of my potential Changeling players come up with a character concept I thought was good. He’s an “arbitrarily old” turtle-like Wizened who needs a wheelchair. He can walk very slowly with a cane, but he put a lot of his skills into Weaponry. So, basically, we had an old man who was a surprisingly formidable melee combatant, but might need help with stairs and rough terrain.

    One thing I need to look into: What small people have to deal with. Ziggy, one of my major NPCs, returned from Arcadia much shorter than when he was abducted, and thus has the small-framed merit.

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