How to write disabled characters

How to write disabled characters

A hopeful current trend in fiction is the press for diverse characters. I’ve mostly seen this call for inclusiveness aimed at diversity in sexual or racial identity, but we need to open up the kind of characters we read and write even further. If we want to write inclusive books, we need to include disabled characters.

On June 27, my publisher, Inspired Quill, will release The Wysman, a sequel to The Wind ReaderThe Wind Readerfeatured a group of three street kids: Doniver, Jarka, and Dilly, with Doniver as its point of view character. At the end of that book, the three friends split up. Doniver and Dilly go home, while Jarka stays in Rin City, training to be a Wysman, i.e. an advisor to the king. The Wysman has Jarka as its point of view.

One of the interesting things about working with Jarka is that he was born with a club foot and uses a crutch.

Frankly, I don’t remember why I first decided Jarka was disabled, mostly because my earliest drafts of this book were written ten years ago. When I thought about it, however, some of my favorite SFF characters are disabled. Megan Whalen Turner’s Eugenides struggles to function with only one hand. Lois McMaster Bujold’s Miles Vorkosigan is injured in the womb by a poisoned gas attack and is dwarfed and has fragile bones. Maybe my admiration for these wonderfully engaging characters was what led me to put that crutch in Jarka’s hand.

But writing about a disabled character has occasionally made me cautious. Here’s some of the advice I’d offer other writers.

Focus on the character, not the disability

Focus on the character. The disability is part of the character but not the whole. Focusing on the disability would be the equivalent of focusing on a character’s beauty. It’s reductive and wears thin. Miles Vorkosigan and Eugenides are rounded, complex characters. I tried to think about that when I wrote Jarka.
Jarka was thrown out of the house by the new husband of the cousin he’s lived with since his mother died. He longs for family.

He grew up poor and lived as a street kid for a while. Now he lives in the completely different world of the palace. He’s not at home in either one.

Those things define him as much as his disability does.

Don’t ignore the disability

On the other hand, don’t ignore the disability. It’s part of the person. Unlike most central character in battle, Miles relies on cleverness rather than strength or agility. He does it because he has to, but it’s part of what shapes him as a person. Eugenides can’t cut his own food or take off his signet ring without help. Everyday life frustrates him in multiple ways.

Jarka is 17, an age when body image is important as people think about attracting partners. He can’t help but wonder if the girl he likes is put off by his crutch.

Ask how the culture views the disability, especially is it’s a culture you created

Disability is to some degree culturally defined. Farsightedness may be a disability in world that values reading, but not one dependant on hunting. Disabilities can weigh more heavily in impoverished world where people struggle to survive. For instance, Miles Vorkosigan’s world historically abandons disabled babies. Even in its more enlightened form, it’s militarized and values physical prowess. That affects the way others perceive him and even the way he perceives himself.

In Jarka’s world, old religious beliefs say the gods never take something away without giving something back. So a handicap can be a sign of some compensating gift. (I borrowed that one from Miles. His mother always said his handicap was a gift for him to explore.)

Consider how their disability plays into their goal

Characters have (or should have) goals. A disability can make it harder to reach that goal. Even minor, temporary aspects of the goal can be affected. Jarka tries to protect street children targeted by an unknown assailant. At one point, he needs to move a child out of danger’s way, but he can’t carry her while using his crutch.

Interestingly, sometimes a character can use a disability to forward their goal. For instance, troublemakers underestimate Eugenides because he has only one hand. That helps him thwart them thoroughly, and readers take glee in watching him do it.

Writing disabled characters needs to be done sensitively, but including them can widen our sense of the world for our readers and for ourselves.

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