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?