Q&A

How Can I Make a Villain With a Disability Work?

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So another question for Fay Onyx. With villainous characters like Darth Vader & the Joker it seems like the best thing for the disability community is to focus on a single flawed element of the villain rather then an entire condition. But what if the villain is a new take on an old archetype? Would a more modern take improve things or would it better to narrow the focus to a single element (fear of losing a war, trouble focusing in combat, or some kind of relatable phobia) of the character instead?

-Bryan

Bryan,

Thanks for the question! Creating disabled villains that portray disability respectfully is definitely challenging. There are a lot of different things to think about here. For me, a lot of this comes down to the disability that is being represented and how the villain functions in the story. Disability can be represented in speculative fiction in three main ways. The approach that is used shapes the requirements for creating a respectful portrayal of disability.

The first option is to portray a real-world disability. In this case, there is an ethical responsibility to represent real-world disabilities realistically because inaccurate representations spread misinformation and stereotypes. Most often this means doing research and putting a lot of effort into portraying the full nuance of the disability. In addition, the more the disability is connected to the plot, the more work will be needed to create an accurate portrayal.

The second option is portraying a fictional disability that comes out of magic, technology, or other speculative fiction elements. Because this isn’t a real disability, there is more flexibility in how it can be portrayed. For example, one of the things that I like to do is to take one specific symptom and make a fictional disability that is just that symptom explored in detail. However, when doing this approach, it is still important to be aware of both general stereotypes about disability and stereotypes about any real-world disabilities that are similar to the fictional one. For example, if you have a fictional disability where the souls of two people are trapped in one body, you will want to do some research on stereotypes of dissociative identity disorder so that you can avoid reinforcing them.

The third option is to represent disability by portraying multiple sapient species with different access needs. This approach is often used to emphasize the ways in which the physical and social environment shape experiences of disability. For example, human cities are not designed for the physical needs of merpeople, so an ablebodied merperson might need to use a mobility device, like a wheelchair, to get around. Even though the characters in these scenarios are typically ablebodied and neurotypical for their species, they still represent experiences of disability, so it is important to be aware of any relevant stereotypes.

Different approaches are going work best for different situations. A lot of this is based on context. In regard to villains specifically, there are a few additional things to be aware of. Most villains need to be threatening, especially if they are the main villain, and this can bring a lot of complications. Far too often, disabilities are used to make a villain more threatening, which reinforces harmful stereotypes. This means that it is important for a villain’s disability to be separate from their villainy. The article Five Common Harmful Representations of Disability discusses this in detail.

One of the other challenging aspects of villains is that some of the techniques for making them threatening can be counterproductive to creating a nuanced representation of disability. For example, keeping a villain mysterious is a key technique that is often used for making a villain threatening, but it greatly reduces the depth and nuance possible for disability representation. This means that the disability chosen for a character needs to be carefully matched with how they function as a villain. For example, if you want to portray a villain who struggles with depression, a sympathetic side villain that the audience gets to know in detail would be a much better fit than a mysterious main villain that is only ever glimpsed at a distance.

Finally, there are some disabilities, such as schizophrenia, that are regularly stereotyped as violent. Because these stereotypes are so damaging, it’s generally a good rule to avoid having villains with these disabilities, especially if you don’t have any personal experience with a specific disability.

I really hope that this answers your question, and I wish you the best of luck with your storytelling project!

Fay from Writing Alchemy

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Comments

  1. Jeppsson

    In my new book, I have a mentor type who’s mostly helpful to the heroine, but also somewhat immoral and heartless, and comes across as threatening a couple of times. They’re non-binary and in a wheelchair. The reason I think it’s fine:
    1. The heroine in this book is a trans woman, and there are a couple of small side characters who’s non-binary and nice.
    2. The heroine’s dad is in a wheelchair with half his body paralyzed and suffers from narcolepsy, and he’s a really nice guy.
    3. Overall, both wheelchairs and exoskeletons are pretty common in this setting, for in-universe reasons.
    4. The reason the mentor can come across as threatening is solely because they’re tightly connected to the (pretty authoritarian) government.

    • Axolotl

      Because being afraid to make villains diverse doesn’t work either.

      I think the best way to overcome this fear and portray villains with disability/minority traits is to do what you did and make EVERYONE diverse in some way. And to make sure their disability/minority trait isn’t connected to their villainy – which you’ve done as well!

      Please comment when your book is finished – I’d love to read it

      • Jeppsson

        Thanks!

      • Tony

        “Because being afraid to make villains diverse doesn’t work either.” Yep! It’s the same reason that a lot of women love well-written female villains, and that many Indians (especially Sikhs) were salty that Star Trek: Into Darkness whitewashed Khan.

        • Cay Reet

          I was salty that Into Darkness whitewashed Khan and I’m a white woman who likes Benedict Cumberbatch.

          Yes, I love well-written female villains, but then, I love well-written villains as a such.

  2. Humanmale

    I was curious about option 3 – could this be reversed so that a human character is effectively disabled in an environment designed for non-humans. Say needing an assistive device to climb stairs in a city designed for 12-foot tall humanoids?

    Turnabout is fair play, etc.

    • Dave L

      It can certainly provide some interesting world-building, but I doubt the human would consider themself “disabled” so much as “out-of-place”. At least at first

      Of course, that depends on the character

      • Humanmale

        … But what would the non-humans think?

        • Dave L

          That would depend on the non-human race, culture, etc. and on specific non-humans

          My first thought is that given how small humans are, and the specific difficulties, giants might treat us like children, and expect us to act like children

          But non-human thought could go anywhere, from respect for making the effort, to being “inspired” by us, to contempt, to not caring one way or the other. And, of course, humans may be expecting one reaction, even if a specific giant has a different one

          Probably best to have the non-humans have a range of reactions, though based on their culture, to avoid “Planet of Hats”, especially if there are a lot of major non-human characters

          • Erynus

            Larry Niven, in his Known Space saga, made Jinx a high gravity planet. When humans visit it, they need an “automated bed” (sort of a palanquin) that protects them from being crushed by their own weight. On the other hand, Jinxians enjoy to visit human buildings with Earth gravity, because they can bounce on the walls and find humans cute as children.

    • Tony

      It reminds me a bit of the Harry Potter series’s Squibs: essentially Muggles born to magical parents. The wizarding world considers them disabled even though they’d be perfectly normal among Muggles.

  3. Dave L

    While there are numerous examples of disabled villains, are there any examples that one would consider “positive”? If that word can be applied to a villain, that is…

    • Bryan

      “Old” Captain Hook definitely qualifies. Even though he’s missing one hand (the one with the hook), he has such a rich rivalry with Peter Pan that he becomes a sort of autobiographical expert on the stories of the titular figure. He only becomes foolish in the Disney version because the wanted to push a “kids smarter then grownups” narrative. He also almost catches Peter’s Shadow (which in barie’s book would make him both flightless & mortal, because fantasy) thus proving that he’s actually smart enough to use the hook to his advantage! (Oh, and the story bit is about how to modernize some of the things Disney never ported over.)

    • Bryan

      I have another friend that’s into literature and he’s rereading the classic peter pan books to come up with a way to port it into the modern day (although you could probably port the fairy tale elements to a different genre if you wanted to).

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