Writing Realistic Disabled Characters

Throughout my live, I’ve known and befriended a number of people who were physically, mentally, or psychologically disabled, so it makes sense that I’ve written a few disabled characters into my novels. The disabilities I’m most familiar with- schizophrenia, autism, and mental retardation, are featured prominently within some of my main and supporting characters. Because I personally don’t have these disabilities, and I write realistic fiction, I’ve been especially mindful of how I portray these afflictions in my novels. I’ve come up with my own guidelines to writing realistic disabled characters:

1. Research the facts of the disability- but not too much. Disabled people are people, not books. Research as much as you need show the relevance and accuracy of the impairment.

2. Interact with disabled people. Interact just like you would with a non-disabled person. Those who aren’t disabled and don’t have a friend or close family member who is disabled often “look the other way” when given the opportunity to smile or say hello to someone with a significant mental or physical impairment. Befriending a disabled person will give you as much potential story information as befriending a non-disabled person.

3. Watch movies and read (or re-read) novels that feature disabled characters in a non-comedy genre. See how other actors and writers portray disabled people. Consider what seems realistic and what doesn’t. Often a disability is shown but not named, and this adds to the immediacy and integration of the disability in the story. Some movies I recommend: Rear Window (1998 version); Sling Blade; and What’s Eating Gilbert Grape. Some novels I recommend: Meeting Rozzy Halfway, by Caroline Leavitt; One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, by Ken Kesey; and Of Mice and Men, by John Steinbeck. Note that some of the novels have excellent movie counterparts and vice versa.

4. Write your disabled characters “as is.” Avoid exaggerating daily struggles in an effort to portray a sympathetic character. Depending on the type and severity of the disability, many disabled people are able to live reasonably normal lives that aren’t that much different from the lives of non-disabled people. On the flip side, avoid glossing over daily struggles in an effort to portray an admirable character. Everybody, regardless of ability, must work through obstacles and overcome crisis. If your disabled characters face major obstacles or crises directly related to their disabilities, it makes sense to accurately describe those specific struggles in your novel. (See #1)

Have you written a major character with a significant mental, psychological, or physical disability? What worked for you?

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10 Comments

  1. Those are really good pieces of advice! Thank you!
    I’ll admit I have never written more than temporary physical disability, but mental disabilities I have. I think what helps is not to think of them as disabilities. They’re just part of whoever I’m writing. – I think this fits in with your pieces of advice to show and not name the disability and to show it “as is”. 🙂

    Reply
    • Thank you and you’re welcome! 🙂 I agree, I try to construct a multi-dimensional character, one of the dimensions being the disability. Hopefully the result is a seamless integration of the disability. The disability is important, but it shouldn’t attract attention away from the rest of the story elements.

      Reply
      • There must be some general thing here. The seamless integration and something being important without taking focus off all other elements, I mean. I think it’s true for most elements. 🙂

  2. Exactly. I think if more disabled people were more “visible”- or if people in general chose to view disabled people on a spectrum instead of in a category, the “seamless integration” of the disability would be easier to do.

    Reply
  3. jesswords10

     /  January 25, 2011

    Thank you for writing this post. I can always count on you to write posts that include diversity and you don’t “PC” it up, but you bring important and real qualities to issues and characters that will help anyone who may be including these aspects in their characters.

    Side story to share, I worked in a diversity education group during college and befriended several students in wheelchairs. One of my able bodied friends was leaning on the arm of a friend’s wheelchair, and he spoke up, “Can you please lean on me, and not my chair.” She was so impacted by that comment in a good way, and we’ve shared that story many times because it’s a simple statement that teaches so much about putting the person before the disability. Thank you!

    Reply
  4. As someone who has a disabling chronic illness, I get really frustrated when people write disabilities or mental illnesses incorrectly, namely if the character gets “Cured” or there are random moments where it just doesn’t effect them. Like…If I was a fictional character, you couldn’t write me looking something up on the computer when you just said, two pages ago, I was in the middle of the migraine. Or having them use the stairs without falling/Fainting. It just doesn’t work.

    Another pet peeve I have is when people exaggerate the effects as well. Like…In general, people with disabilities are not completely helpless. We have difficulties, yes, but it’s not something we think about all the time, it’s the little things like always taking the elevator, or having a couple pill bottles in your purse.

    I could go on, but I think you guys get the point.

    Reply
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