Anonymous shares a detailed guide on how to depict characters with disabilities better in writing.
Hi! Before you start reading this, I would like to make a few disclaimers. I AM NOT a professional on this topic, but I am writing based on real life experiences, as well as some research done on this topic. This is all to be taken as advice, not fact. I mean to present this in a respectful way, and I really hope it helps shed some light on writing disabled characters.
Now that the air is clear, let’s get started. If you’re writing fanfiction, it can be easy to say you want to write certain aspects better than the official books may have. One example of this is writing disabled characters. But how exactly do you do that without making similar mistakes? Here’s a few tips:
They’re Still Individuals
First and foremost, remember that these characters are still individuals. Their disability is not their personality. It may have some effect on their personality (i.e. how others treat them, if they were born with the disability or if they were afflicted later in life), but it should never be their whole character. One common mistake is putting too much emphasis on the disability and not enough on the character’s actual personality. A disabled character’s personality can be just as unique as any other.
A good way to avoid making a disability the core part of a character is to stray away from explaining why they do certain things differently. Doing this puts more focus on the character themself and less on their disability (not that the disability should be ignored, just that, like I said, it shouldn’t be their whole character). The readers should know early on that a character is disabled and therefore will be able to easily infer why they may do something differently. Saying “Peachmist limped alongside the others because she had a weak leg,” isn’t nearly as good as, “Peachmist limped alongside the others, cheerfully telling a story about her apprentice days.” The second example tells us more about Peachmist’s personality, without ignoring the fact that she has a weak leg. The reader should, in theory, already know about her weak leg, so therefore the limping makes sense, and thus does not need that to be hammered into their brain until all they think of when they see her is, “The character with the weak leg.” By writing like the second example, readers will think of Peachmist as “The friendly character who likes to tell stories.” They will recognize her for her individual personality, not just a physical attribute. The same can be said for any character, regardless of if they have a disability (instead of “The strong character,” a character may be “The character that’s an awesome older sibling” who also happens to be physically strong). Overall, this will make your disabled character more three-dimensional.
Depicting Your Character
One problem in writing is when disabled characters are depicted as weak and helpless. How do you avoid this? Well, remembering their individuality, which I discussed above, is important. In addition, most disabled people don’t feel miserable about their existence. Don’t make a character who fishes for pity from other characters and the readers. It is not only annoying when any character acts like this, but it is also a negative and unrealistic portrayal of a disabled character.
However, you must also keep in mind that the character is not a supercat. Having a disablity does not equate to having superpowers to make up for it. This may be done in good will, but it implies that disabled people cannot be independent and succeed unless they have an extraordinary ability to make up for their deficit. It also diminishes their challenges — what makes a disabled character inspiring is not that fact that they have a disability. The inspiring thing about them is that they overcome difficult challenges. Truly, any character who overcomes a challenge can be an inspiration.
So what is the middle ground? Your character can be independent while still experiencing challenges because of their disability. Some of their challenges will be different from an able character, but in the end both will need to overcome those challenges with help from their friends/family, even if the help they need is different. They show true strength by persevering through the problems that stand in their way. A cat with three legs obviously will not be able to fight exactly the same as one with four, but this doesn’t necessarily mean they can’t fight at all. They may have to develop methods that take more practice and overcome physical challenges — which boils down to my next point on accommodations.
How Do I Accommodate My Character?
If you remember nothing else, remember this: accommodating the character isn’t changing them to suit the environment by giving them superpowers or enhanced abilities — it’s being resourceful and creative with the environment to make it better suited to the character.
Don’t look at it as “What can this character do to make up for or eliminate their disability?” Instead, see it as this: “What can others do to help this character overcome the challenges posed to them?” It is okay to give disabled characters help — needing help doesn’t mean you’re not independent or strong, it means you’re human (or cat in this case). Disabled characters shouldn’t be coddled — there are things they can do just fine on their own. But there are some things that are harder for them because of their disability, and it’s not weak for them to accept help or to do things differently. (In fact, this can lead to interesting character arcs, such as a disabled character learning that accepting help is okay, or an able character realizing that their previous misconceptions about disabled Clanmates were wrong).
For example, in my own fanfiction, there is an apprentice who gets easily overwhelmed in environments that are loud to the senses. Instead of trying to change her, her brother volunteered to be a buddy who stays by her side to soothe her when she’s feeling overwhelmed. Another example is a tom missing his front paw. He fights back-to-back with another cat so that he can rear up without losing balance and swipe at attackers. Brightheart is a great example for this as well — she has fighting moves specifically made to accommodate her missing eye.
Accommodating disabilities is case by case, and each individual character will react differently to certain scenarios. (In my first example, a prideful character may have a harder time accepting help from a buddy, and a character arc about learning to self-advocate might make for an interesting story). Some characters like Briarlight may not be able to be a warrior in the same way that others are, simply because they’re feral cats and they don’t have the same resources that we do. But don’t shy away from giving them helpful roles or making new ones.
Finally, I advise you to study the disability you want to use in both cats and humans so that you can learn what works best for your character.
Overall, writing a good disabled character can be a difficult but rewarding task. In the end they still experience challenges both similar and different to able characters, and still find themselves receiving and giving help. These characters can be just as unique, inspiring, and memorable as any other. Thank you for taking the time to read this — I hope it was helpful!