I have a group of kids who can transform into monsters. Think Animorphs meets Godzilla.
One of the kids uses a wheelchair. Long-time user, adjusted physically and emotionally. Their monster form is able-bodied. The transformation is temporary and the monster form can’t fit in a typical building or otherwise function in normal society.
Is this a “magic cure” or “super compensation”? Any advice for this area?
– Dave L
Animorphs meets Godzilla is a great premise! However, you are right to be concerned about this specific dynamic. While transforming into an able-bodied monster isn’t exactly the disability compensation or magical cure tropes, it is similar. This is a disability-negating superpower, which is a representation problem that is most common for physically disabled characters in superhero stories. There are many examples, like Freddy Freeman transforming into Captain Marvel Junior and Donald Blake transforming into Thor. For more examples, check out the TV Tropes list.
As a general rule, transformations shouldn’t remove a character’s marginalized traits. Having a physically disabled character transform into an able-bodied superhero sends the message that the character can’t do heroic things while they are disabled. Even though your characters are transforming into monsters, the pattern is the same; the disabled character only becomes super powerful by becoming able-bodied.
While being a giant monster may have some unique challenges and access needs that are worth exploring, these are distinct from the access needs of a wheelchair user. Transformations into other species are a great way to explore diverse access needs, which can represent some important aspects of disabled experience, but this is not the same as being disabled.
In order for a disabled hero to be a positive representation, they need to be disabled while being super powerful and doing heroic things. In addition, the character’s disability should affect them. As Ava Jae says in The Problem with Superpowered Disabled Characters:
“But I also want to see them struggle with their disability. I want to see them get frustrated, and deal with ableism, and have bad days and good days. I want to see them take medication, and if their condition is degenerative I want to see them get worse, and be uncertain about the future, and not have a good answer for what life will be like in five, ten years. I want them to deal with their disability in real, tangible ways. I want it to affect their everyday lives, I want their disability to be visible and invisible, and I want it to matter.”
The solution is clear: have the character continue to be disabled in monster form. Positive disability representation is about having the disability affect the character while they are being heroic and powerful. The character should have moments where ableism or their disability creates challenges, and they should be able to accomplish great things. Both need to happen in monster form, as well as human form. In addition, not all of the challenges the character faces should be about their disability.
Without knowing more about your story, it is hard to give specific advice about what a disabled monster might be like in your setting. My initial thought is to have their wheelchair transform with them, becoming giant-sized and extra sturdy. Of course, that is just one option. If you are having trouble figuring out how to make a disabled monster work, I highly recommend hiring a consultant who has the same disability as your character and who is comfortable with the fantastical elements of speculative fiction.
One final thing to keep in mind is that many depictions of monsters are ableist. I discuss this in detail in Ridding Your Monsters of Ableism:
“People create monsters that reflect the fears of their society, including fears about disability. Because of this, ableism has been incorporated into our depictions of monsters. In some cases, disability is used to make monsters seem dangerous, unsettling, or unpredictable. Other times, it’s used to give monsters weaknesses that heroes can exploit.”
However, there is nothing wrong with having disabled monsters, as long as it is done respectfully and avoids ableist patterns. In fact, having a disabled monster hero that is represented well could be a refreshing change from these negative patterns.
I hope that this helps. Good luck with your storytelling project. It sounds fun!
–Fay Onyx from Writing Alchemy
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Comments on How Should I Depict a Character in a Wheelchair That Transforms Into a Monster?
The monster could just pull themself around by arm strength, I guess? If their arms are really powerful, even powerful relative to their huge mass, and if their belly is sufficiently hard and durable (perhaps smooth as well, allowing them to glide on it), they might be able to get around quickly like that. They could swiftly alternate between using their arms for transportation and for hitting stuff.
After reading Faye’s reply I had actually of something like that. That’s probably the way I’ll go
I would assume this has an ensemble cast, each with their own superpowered monster forms. If this is the case, would it really send a bad message if the able bodied characters also need to transform to do their superheroing? It’s clear that it’s not the disability preventing them from heroing, it’s being a tiny squishy human, like the rest of the cast. Perhaps you could reinforce it by having them do smaller-scale heroics in human form?
I guess the main thing I worry about when it comes to keeping the monster form disabled is that it would risk having the character become identified by their disability.
Do you mean losing the secret identity? Not really an issue in this particular story
Or do you mean that the disabled character has no dimension or personality beyond the disability? That IS a concern. I will have to make certain that the character is a PERSON, that there’s more to them than just the wheelchair
You mean have the disabled person do smaller-scale heroics?
Thank you, Faye
You have addressed my concerns and given me a few directions to investigate, particularly the links you mentioned
BTW, Captain Marvel JR. was my favorite superhero when I was a kid. I never realized the inherent ableism
TL: DR; Turn them into a Bird or Snake.
I suffer from a degenerative motoric disability and have talked with people either born into their wheelchairs and aging into them. Our consensus always came down to this:
EVERY superhero story is ‘Super’-abelist and gaining ‘Flight’ for a walking person is effectively as gaining ‘Walk’ for someone lacking that ability since birth.
If you want to avoid your character being tagged as ‘disability-monster’ by your readers, choose a ‘monster’ form that lacks any features you feel uncomfortable writing about all together. (it will taint your writing in any event).
Turning them into a bird (weak stance and crawl on ground), serpent (no limbs and digits but dexterity) or wyrm/wyvernesque like creature (keeping two limbs) comes with its own native ‘disabilities’ your character needs to overcome AND abilities they need to learn without negating any disability of their human form. This way switching between forms is enabling without being abolishing.
This is a very good suggestion
Making some assumptions around the story, I can think of 3 workarounds to this:
a) Give the character a serpent-like body in this monster form, so in that way is not walking on 2 legs and it is gliding instead. That also put some limitations to the monster that they need to work around.
b) Assuming other characters also gain some ability or superpower while in monster form, get this character to be able to float once they transform, but legs cannot be used. Maybe this consumes energy, so turning into a monster needs to be planned for this character more than the rest of the cast.
c) They turn into an aquatic monster, so no walking is possible even in monster form. Places a number of other limitations that maybe the rest of the team does not have.
If it’s the wheelchair that’s transforming into a monster, the character should probably be depicted as absolutely terrified!
I imagine it as a tale of Lovecraftian horror – the protagonist trapped in a wheelchair that’s slowly beginning to exhibit a mind of it’s own, unable to get anyone to believe them, and unable to escape, having to rely on their own limited abilities to overcome whatever the ‘wheelchair’ actually is…
(No disrespect meant to a serious question – sometimes my mind just works in strange ways).
No, it’s the wheelchair user who transforms
While your suggestion is VERY clever, as someone who is (mostly) physically able-bodied, I’d be EXCEEDINGLY nervous about writing that story. If I did, I’d probably want to involve a sensitivity reader closely in every single stage
>sometimes my mind just works in strange ways
So does mine. I consider that a great advantage for a writer
The term “confined to a wheelchair” or “wheelchair bound” is ableist. Ableism perceives wheelchairs as confining.
In reality, wheelchairs are mobility devices. As Lydia X Z Brown so eloquently said, “many wheelchair-users experience wheelchairs, and other mobility aids, as liberating, since they enable freedom of movement, rather than confining or restrictive.”
For this reason, portraying a wheelchair as a trap or monster would be promoting an ableist perception of mobility devices.
I’m not sure I would agree that the disability “should” transfer over to the monster form from the information given in the question. The scale of the transformation removes it quite dramatically from just getting superpowers that easily allow a character to “compensate” from their disability.
If the kids are turning into giant monsters to fight other giant monsters, then their human forms are equally useless. You could be the strongest, healthiest, most able-bodied human on earth and Godzilla is not going to feel you punching it. I imagine that something along those lines is going to be the conceit of the story—conventional weapons don’t work, etc etc.
So from that point of view it actually feels *more* ableist to demand the kid in the wheelchair’s transformation physically aligns with his human body. Like, we wouldn’t say that the transformed monster version of a young woman ought to have breasts because otherwise we’re declaring that flat chests are superior.
I think the effect the disability should have (if any) is going to be connected to how you explain whatever McGuffin enables the transformation, which is going to be connected to what kind of story you want to tell. E.g. if it’s just meant to be a fun read for actual kids I’d come up with a way for the monster forms to represent their individual characterisations. Which hopefully they actually have, especially the disabled character. From there you can think about how you might incorporate the disability in a better way than “wheelchair also become giant”.
My idea would be that you can bring the spacial awareness up as a useful trait in the monster form somehow. Especially if there are battles in cities with buildings I’d like to see someone, anyone, involved trying to move the monster and fight OUT to someplace less populated.
Think of it as the streets being almost like aisles in a store. With their big monster forms suddenly all the kids are facing a similar challenge to navigating the aisles without causing chaos, and some narrow streets will be downright un-navigable. Worse, if one LOOKS wide enough but narrows, they could get trapped. But guess which character has relevant experience with this that no one else does? That’s not disability superpower, that’s actually subverting the idea of whose experiences matter.
Transformations shouldn’t remove a character’s marginalized traits. Removing a character’s marginalized traits changes who the character is and prevents them from being a positive representation for that marginalized group.
Girls shouldn’t have to transform into male monsters in order to fight. That’s sexist and we know that is unnecessary. We know that there can be powerful female monsters.
For the same reason, disabled kids shouldn’t have to transform into an able-bodied monsters to fight. Why not have a disabled monster? What makes that seem less powerful or less desirable? The point is that it is ableist and unnecessary for disabled characters to become able-bodied in order to fight. People need to see that disabled monsters can be powerful.
Note that this doesn’t mean that we have to reduce the character to their marginalized identities. Complex characters are good and marginalized identities are not personalities. However, marginalized identities should be present in character’s lives, just as they are present in the lives or real people.
Your comment about girls not having to transform into male monsters is exactly my point. They could transform into a giant monster blob with no physical sex or organs but as characters they are still female.
I don’t see why this same logic shouldn’t apply to physically disabled characters, with some caveats. Primarily I’m assuming the character(s) spend just as much if not far more time in their human forms, because otherwise I agree it would fundamentally be erasing most of the representation.
I think the best way to explain my thinking would be to use mecha, because really aesthetics aside they’re basically the same idea. Kaiju show up, time for the kids to get in the goddamn robots. Which is preferable:
a) the mecha are designed only or primarily for the completely able-bodied, meaning the disabled character cannot use certain functions easily or at all
b) the mecha controls are individualised/customisable, meaning the disabled character does not have to struggle unnecessarily
Of course a) is the most representative of accessibility struggles in the “real world”. But I think if a piece of media wrote something like that this site would be the first to ask why the controls couldn’t be adapted like in b). In my opinion giant monster transformations for the purpose of kaiju fighting are far more like this situation than general superpowers.
It’s not like the character in the wheelchair can decide to transform to get past some inaccessible stairs in everyday life. That’s where I imagine the representation comes in, since a large part of such stories involve kids having to escape from school or home to meet up and do their secret city/world-saving.
This reminds me so much of Zzzap from Ex-Heroes. Zzzap has the power to turn into a ball of light. Human!Zzzap is disabled and uses a wheelchair. Light!Zzzap can fly, but vaporizes anything he touches, is very small, and staying in Light form drains his energy. So throughout the book he switches between two very different sets of limitations: being in a wheelchair and being a ball of floating light. I think your character could be similar. Try making the transformation limited-use, costly, or in some other way detrimental. Maybe the monster has other limitations such as being too big to fit under doors.