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 disabled characters. Here are some tips to help; I’ll start with the basics anyone should keep in mind when depicting disabled characters.
Update: This post has been edited to use identity first language.
1. Research the Disability
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 experiences. Watch 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 disabled people 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
A person’s disability does not define their entire existence. They’re a person with quirks, wants, and dreams just like anyone else. Most disabled folks have adapted to the challenges and are living great lives; they are not a living tragedy or a charity case
Yet far too often, disabled characters 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 disabled person 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
Edit: This section has been updated to avoid biphobic language.
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 disabled people. You’re contributing to their dismissal, which would be the same as implying character is bi or pan but never committing to it.*
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 disabled characters 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
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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