This article first appeared in Write: The Magazine of The Writers’ Union of Canada, and is reproduced here with kind permission of the author.
How do you create strong disabled characters?
The question goads me. Where disability’s concerned, there’s so much banal, shitty writing out there. Countless authors have resorted to clichés and stereotypes when creating disabled characters, and as a disabled person myself — I have a hearing impairment in both ears — such writing frustrates and even angers me. Whenever I come across a Tiny Tim- or Quasimodo-type character — that is, a pitiful or depressingly tragic figure — I tend to throw the book across the room. There are too many books out there for me to waste my time on lazy writing.
So, to prevent any more of these clichéd characters from coming to life, I’ve come up with five rules for creating disabled characters (Elmore Leonard, eat your heart out). These rules grew out of both my reading and my desire to explore disability as a narrative subject. Writers looking to diversify their characters will find these rules useful.
1. Choose different disabilities, not old standards.
I can name several stories off the top of my head that feature characters with Alzheimer’s. There are other ways people lose their memories! Choose something different and interesting, not what’s convenient.
2. Use your research well.
It’s not enough to research disability; you have to find an effective way to incorporate the information into your narrative. When I was reading about Charcot-Marie-Tooth disease for my novel ‘Mantis Dreams‘, I saw pictures of CMT patients’ feet. They looked a little like claws because of dramatically raised arches. That image of claw-like feet informed the way I constructed Dexter Ripley’s character and led to the novel’s most prominent motif.
3. Explore what could be positive about your character’s disability.
Many people assume that having a disability is a tragedy … probably because writers keep depicting it that way. It’s not a tragedy. Read Frances Itani’s ‘Deafening‘ or Guy Vanderhaeghe’s ‘The Englishman’s Boy‘. They show just how dynamic disability can be.
4. Don’t give a character a disability simply because it’s convenient for the plot.
Rohinton Mistry is a particularly consistent sinner in this regard in my opinion. His fiction’s stuffed with characters whose disabilities serve only to underscore their tragic circumstances. The narrative must fit the disability, not the other way around.
5. Make your character more than a disability.
This is probably the most important rule because it brings together the first four. Disabled people are often thought of as objects rather than human beings, and writers tend to perpetuate such thinking. Never forget that disabled people have desires and ambitions and frustrations and loves and joys the way any other person does.
One last thing: vibrant and engaging depictions of disability separate good writers from shitty writers. That’s because good writers extend their empathy and imagination to all corners of humanity, not just the people who are like them. Many of our best writers, from Timothy Findley to Ann-Marie MacDonald, have provided us with nuanced portrayals of disability. They do their homework. They recognize that disabled people are just as beautifully fucked up as the rest of us. They’re the ones worth reading.
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