Thursday 19 June 2014

Creating A Disabled Fictional Character

#WeNeedDiverseBooks is a hashtag that sprang to prominence a couple of months ago after a bunch of authors noticed the flagship author panel for a major book industry conference was rather monotonously white. It picked up a lot of attention, from both authors and readers, who pointed out that our world isn't just white, it's a rainbow of people of colour, and people who are LGBT, and disabled people. Yet open any random book from your bookshelves, and there's probably a greater than 95% chance that the protagonist and the hero (whether one and the same or separate people) are white, straight and emphatically non-disabled. If there is a character from a diverse background, then they're usually the faithful sidekick - Tonto to the hero's Lone Ranger.

There are the odd best-sellers which feature diverse characters as the lead, for instance James Patterson's Alex Cross series, or Lois McMaster Bujold's Miles Vorkosigan novels, but they are few and far between. In general books that openly feature diverse characters in lead roles seem to end up relegated to the mid-list (the books expected by their publishers to do okay, but nothing more). One interesting (and disturbing) facet of #WeNeedDiverseBooks was several authors mentioning that they had been sneaking diverse characters through the publishers by never actually specifying they were Latina, or African American, or gay, but dropping the odd hint that the careful reader would pick up. An industry where you need to hide the ethnicity or sexual orientation of your characters to optimise your chances of being published is clearly one with problems that need addressing. And that needs not just the publishers to set their editorial and marketing houses in order, but also writers to produce books with diverse characters.

As a disabled person and writer, #WeNeedDiverseBooks struck a chord. When it comes to writing I'm in the fairly serious amateur category; one novel completed years ago, another that's sitting at the 70% stage, and a bunch of shorter fiction, one of which sold professionally (but never actually appeared). Disability features in most of my fiction to greater or lesser extent, there's a wheelchair-using major character in the completed novel (though she's an oddity in being mobility impaired, but not technically disabled), while the work-in-progress novel is one-third narrated by a wheelchair-user (point of view rotates among the leads) and another of the leads is almost certainly neurodiverse. While I am mobility-impaired (and neurodiverse), I'm not a wheelchair user, I've used crutches for the past couple of decades, and I've always had a desire at the back of my mind to create a protagonist who uses crutches, so the rest of this article takes the process of creating that character as a basis for a discussion of how to create a convincing disabled character and factors that may need to be considered in writing about them.

Origin Stories: Character or Plot Driven?

Deliberately creating a disabled (or otherwise diverse) character is different from the normal character creation process, we're settling on one physical or mental facet of the character and building inwards from there, rather than letting the character form around their actual character as a person and building outwards towards their physical nature, and different again from having character be driven by the needs of the plot. That difference is simply a reflection of having disability/diversity as the principle driver, the internal characterisation and the external plot factors are still there, they're just playing second fiddle for once.

Just like a superhero, every disabled character needs an origin story. While a superhero's origin story tells you how they gained their powers, a disabled character's origin story tells you what their disability is, and how it came about. Disability etiquette holds that you shouldn't grill someone on the details of their disability and how they became disabled, but for disabled fictional characters, such niceties may not be possible, and this brings us to the first question: is the plot character-driven, or is the character plot-driven. To illustrate this, if the plot requires that a wheelchair-using disabled character stands up at some point (most wheelchair-users can stand to some degree), then, just like Chekhov's gun, I need to establish that they can, and ensure that their disability is compatible with that need, before they ever need to take advantage of that (this was precisely the situation I needed in one of my short stories, the protagonist had to brain the villain at the climax - served him right for assuming a wheelchair user was helpless). On the other hand, if the story is character-driven, then the actions they undertake within the plot need to be compatible with their disability. Generally I prefer the second style of character creation, because that's pretty much how we experience life as disabled people. I can't magically change my disability to suit whatever access issue is currently causing a problem.

Edited to add: I think I need to expand a bit on the need for an origin story: as the author, you need to develop the disabled character's origin story, because so much of their background and characterisation will evolve from it. But whether the reader needs to know that origin story is a separate issue. It's entirely possible to write a book with a disabled protagonist and never to get into the origin story in the published text, or it may be so integral to the character that the plot revolves around its ramifications (c.f. Lois McMaster Bujold's Miles Vorkosigan, whose disability results from and is intimately tied to his family's political position), making it absolutely essential that it is discussed in detail.

Born? Or Acquired?

The next question to answer is when did the character become disabled, because that goes a long way towards defining the character's lived experience. Many disabled people are born with congenital or neonatal disabilities, so there may be issues of growing up disabled to address. How did the family react? How bad was the school system? Were they bullied over their disability? And so on. For acquired disability, the character may have had to deal with significant physical and/or mental trauma, they may have had to revise their career goals, their family life may have been fundamentally changed. I fall in the less well known middle ground, with congenital disabilities that were there from birth, but which no one actually identified, or in some cases noticed, until I was an adult and they worsened to the point they couldn't be ignored, so it's not simply a binary choice, many people will have experienced a progression in their disability, not simply a sudden acquisition.

That middle ground also helps illustrate that the experience of disability isn't divided into two separate poles, it's actually a spectrum of reactions. The clichéd afternoon movie holds that someone who acquires disability is going to go through a significant grieving process, if not become notably bitter, then fight their way back to full fitness (yeah, right); whereas someone born disabled will serenely accept everything that comes their way. But those are simply two potential reactions of many, my own reaction to suddenly acquiring significant disability was more in the 'okay, this is weird, and sort of technically interesting (I'm an engineer), and £$)@ing painful!' range. Most of my disabled friends, whatever their origin, fall into the 'I'm disabled, get over it' camp. Reactions vary, and to healthily reflect the diversity of disability, so should the portrayal of how people react to their disability.

You Pays Your Money and Takes Your Choice

With those two questions settled, we need to settle on an actual disability. It can be something that the plot mandates, it can be something that interests you for personal reasons, that fits other elements of characterisation, or it can simply be something that seems like an interesting challenge to write around. And there can be wider factors at work, you may want to educate people about disability, whether in general or for a specific disability, you can want to make political points around the way society reacts to disability. They're all valid reasons that can influence the disability you pick for the story you want to tell.

A Crutch to Lean On

Turning to my own character creation process, I've wanted to create a character who uses crutches for a long time, because, as #WeNeedDiverseBooks picked up on, we would all like to see characters who reflect our own personal minority, and using crutches both comes with interesting mobility complications, I never have a hand free when I'm moving around, and falls in an interesting middle ground between walkies and wheelies that is rarely explored. Outside of Long John Silver and an Arthur C Clarke juvenile I can't think of any novels with a protagonist who uses crutches, and I'm frustrated by the societal meme that says relying on a crutch is a negative - not for anyone who actually needs one it isn't!

Giving a character my own personal mix of disabilities wasn't going to work, it's too complex and ill-defined for a good story, so I needed to pick another disability, which meant considering reasons people end up as long-term crutch-users. For many people, crutches are a step in a transition between able-bodied and wheelchair-user, but I decided that for reasons of potential long term character development, plus the whole specifically wanting a crutch-user thing, that I didn't want a progressive disability. This largely ruled out neurological disorders such as MS, plus joint-related disabilities like rheumatoid arthritis. I also ruled out spinal injuries for political/educational reasons; society is stuck on the idea of walking as the one valid goal for a person with a spinal injury, while the reality is that a chair is almost inevitably more efficient and liberating for a para, so the last thing I want to do is reinforce the 'walking good, wheeling bad' meme; and of course I already have a para character in my work in progress. Around about last autumn I started seriously looking at the idea of an amputee character. For her (for various reasons my protagonists are usually female) to be a primarily crutch-using amputee I'd need to complicate the situation, because most amputees get by with prosthetics, but I've read enough orthopaedic stuff over the years, in the course of researching my own situation, to know that very high amputees - hip-level and through the pelvis - often find prosthetics of limited utility, meaning some either use crutches near exclusively, or switch between crutches, prosthetic and wheelchair according to the task at hand, which could work for what I had in mind (and I can write about hip and pelvic pain 'til the cows come home). In fact that second option of mixed mobility modes depending on immediate need works even better for my secondary goal of educating people that disability isn't the absolute situation they usually think it is. That decision also acted as a strong driver towards cancer as the reason behind the disability, physical trauma can cause amputation at those levels, but it's rare and usually very traumatic. Simultaneous with that character concept I realised my disabled protagonist would need a strong female friend/partner to bounce her issues off.

With a character concept, I now needed a plot for the character to inhabit (yes, many people would argue this is back to front, but it works for me). My initial concept was a Young Adult Urban Fantasy story, set in small-town America in Washington's Olympic Peninsula - YA as it's a genre I've not explored before (and bone cancer typically hits in the 10-20 age range), America to maximise marketability, Washington state because I've gathered a lot of useful research writing the work in progress, which is set in Seattle (and ultimately because during my engineering career I was once nearly seconded to Seattle, a missed opportunity I've always regretted). Then #WeNeedDiverseBooks came along and kicked my thinking into higher gear, and a few weeks ago I happened to stumble over my earlier efforts to create a crutch-using character while looking for something else entirely, and realised that even if I wasn't satisfied with the disability background for those - four different story starts, four different disabilities - the character, and her background, former helicopter pilot, former officer, engineering troubleshooter, in a lesbian relationship (that one surprised me, I didn't think I'd become comfortable with LGBT issues that early in my writing, but it tied in with the strong female companion idea I already had), would actually mesh perfectly with the crutch-using amputee concept to give me a character I could build a mystery novel around - so bye-bye YA Urban Fantasy novel, and back to the rain-soaked streets of Seattle, where a hard rain's gonna sweep away the fripperies of our character's life and focus her on the things she truly values (Seattle was an enforced choice given I was plotting this without internet access and needed a city I was reasonably familiar with, but there are other elements that make it a good choice, such as the aero-engineering degree offered by University of Washington, which was exactly the one my character would have aimed for, and having the regional cancer centre close at hand).

I had a five hour train journey the next day, and by the time I got off at the other end, Emma Shannon had taken form, and started talking to me, and I knew that the story I needed to write first was her origin story, about how she made the switch from being Emma Shannon, aero-engineering student at UDub and prospective Army helicopter pilot, to Emma Shannon, amputee and cancer-survivor, and magnet for trouble. Ten days later I had 30,000 words in the main story, 10,000 words of plot outline for a sequel, and a hell of a lot of research for myself once I got back in range of a working internet link.

Doing the Research

One advantage of being a diverse author writing about your own area of diversity is that you've grown up with much the research, but that doesn't mean you're granted a complete pass, and if you aren't writing about a group you're a member of, then you have an awful lot of research to look forward to. So, having drafted my plot while in the land of bugger-all-connectivity, I've spent the past fortnight reading up on stuff like orthopaedic oncology, and listening to people on YouTube describing their experience of cancer. I need to do a bunch more research before I can move forward on the next section of the novel, reading up on the appropriate chemo protocols for someone with that precise cancer, side-effects, other areas of treatment (egg harvesting, central lines, and so on). Maybe you could skate over that level of detail, but maybe that level of detail will take your story to new depths. If you don't do the research, you'll never know.

Kill or Cure, Privilege-Check Yourself

A friend of mine noted that "When non-disabled writers do disability; they'd always rather be dead." Unfortunately the reality is that non-disabled people's understanding of living life as a disabled person is both very limited and very clichéd. How often have you heard someone say something like 'I'd rather be dead than in a wheelchair'? I use a wheelchair occasionally, my reaction is more 'damn, this is liberating!' Equally you see people talking about rather dying than being dependent on carers/personal assistants - all my carer-using friends see them as just another aid to independence (though one capable of holding a rather more animated conversation than your average wheelchair), not as something/someone who somehow denies them their independence. Disability may bring change, but so does non-disabled life, you adapt and then it becomes your new normal, and not worthy of comment - this is going to be a big theme in Emma's story.

And then there's the whole cure thing. Non-disabled people tend to assume all of us disabled types really, really want to be cured. Erm, no, my neurodiversity makes me who I am, while my mobility impairment really doesn't matter to me either way, I can live the life I want with the limitations it imposes quite comfortably, thank you. The only thing I'd really want rid of are my pain levels, but even those are largely tolerable nowadays (though I've seen non-disabled people conclude I'm lying when I describe them as they can't imagine functioning with that level of ongoing pain - it's another example of non-disabled imagination failing to understand disabled reality). Nor am I in any way unusual in not wanting to be cured, it's true for many of the disabled people I know, and in certain communities of disabled people, particularly Deaf and neurodiverse, it's effectively the dominant position. 

There are groups of disabled people who do want a cure, it tends to be common in people with newly acquired disabilities, particularly spinal cord injuries, because that's the truth beaten into people by society long before they actually have the accident that disables them: that if someone has an SCI then the only valid response is wanting to walk, anything else is 'giving up'. And sometimes the consequences of that programming are downright tragic. Some people become so focused on getting back to where they were before they were disabled, rather than moving forward with their life as a disabled person, that it becomes their only reason for existence, and if a cure isn't feasible, then that never ends well.

Marieke Nijkamp has a good discussion of the whole cure debate here : The Trope of Curing Disability and DiversifYA has a discussion looking at disability issues and writing here.

There are similar divides around assisted suicide/euthanasia, many disabled people see a need and are in favour, many others see the need, but are opposed, because they also see it as a step back down the slippery slope towards Eugenics and are convinced it will ultimately lead to more suffering for disabled people than it prevents (I'm in the opposed camp). That the opposed camp finds it more difficult to have their voices heard in the media than the pro-camp is perhaps a demonstration of how people can assign views to disabled people based on preconceived perceptions, not what we actually think.

That non-disabled people so often advocate either curing us or killing us as reasonable responses to disability may be one of the strongest lessons you can internalise in trying to write from a disabled character's viewpoint. Ultimately, if you aren't disabled, don't assume disabled people will think the way you do, disability is strange to you, but not to us, so you really do need to run your assumptions past someone who'll know if they are appropriate or not (a fundamental truth for writing any kind of diverse character).

Privilege-Check Your Other Characters

What goes for you the author also goes for the other characters in your novel. Unless they are family or close friends of a disabled person, they will have the typical uninformed normie background ('normie' is slang for a non-disabled person, and reflects their assumption that we aren't normal). Some people are so blind to disability that they don't see anything wrong with advising a disabled person that they would kill themselves in the disabled person's situation, or worse, advising the disabled person themselves to seek euthanasia. Others are eager to 'help', so eager to 'help' that they will do things that you have asked them not to, and be affronted if you are not grateful. I once had a colleague hurl himself across a stairwell in order to open a door for me. I didn't need help, he endangered me in doing it, he insisted that he would keep doing it when asked not to, because he insisted he had been taught that that was the polite thing to do for disabled people. Apparently my views as an actual disabled person didn't count. (And I'm definitely recycling this story into Emma's experiences!) The proper etiquette around these things is to ask the disabled person if they need a hand, and then let them tell you what needs doing. And there are those who will attack disabled people, whether physically, verbally, or managerially (I've faced all three), because there is some deep, twisted element of xenophobia in their character. Obviously not all characters will be so negative, but elements of these behaviours and beliefs are very widespread, with, for example, a large part of the UK population convinced disability benefit fraud is rampant and that we are all scroungers - it's actually the lowest fraud rate of any benefit, but try convincing Joe Public that. Introducing a disabled person into your cast of characters should force you to examine the attitude to disability of every character who interacts significantly with them.

Being Disabled is a Political State of Being

A consequence of normie attitudes towards disability is that disabled people have often had to become politicised through sheer self-defence. Pretty much a universal truth is that disabled people are still working through their own liberation struggle, trying to move towards society treating us as equal in just the same way that non-White, non-Christian and non-straight people have all had to seize their equality and force it on an unwilling world. Unfortunately we're probably 20 years behind the other liberation movements, and in many areas we're going backwards. The political climate towards disabled people is very negative in the UK, with the dominant narrative being that we're benefit scroungers, if not fakes and frauds, and from news reports I've seen it seems to be turning that way in Australia and perhaps the US (though complicated there by a wider and more entrenched antipathy towards social benefits). Your story and your character's experiences don't have to address that, there are many disabled people who never realise there is an active political movement out there, and disabled children who haven't grown into political activity yet, but it is out there, and so are the political drivers that have made us rise up against them.

It's also worth noting that the language of disability varies depending on country. As a British crip (a label we only allow amongst ourselves, that isn't universally accepted and that generally points towards a politically active viewpoint), I call myself a disabled person and talk about disablist discrimination, if I were American, then I would call myself a person with disabilities and talk about ableist discrimination. The differences aren't because we Brits missed out on the whole person-first language thing, it is because of widespread adoption by UK disabled activists of the Social Model of Disability, which defines disability as the discrimination we experience because of society's failure to adapt to our needs, which means when I declare myself as a disabled person, I'm doing so as a comment on my position in society. Other English-speaking countries vary in usage depending on whether the US or UK disability movements have had most influence, or use both depending on the individual.

Looking at the most generic disability terms, disability/disabled is acceptable anywhere, handicap/handicapped is acceptable in the US but not the UK, old-fashioned terms such as crippled and lame are heavily disliked, retard/retarded is universally loathed as a term of abuse and the cutesy differently abled, handicapable and the like generally have disabled people rolling their eyes in sheer disbelief at the cluelessness of people claiming to advocate for us.

Does He Take Sugar?

The meme which assumes disabled people are incapable of answering for themselves is so entrenched among the non-disabled that it was adopted as the title of one of the UK's early disability programmes. Even today I still see disabled people, particularly wheelchair users, regularly reporting instances in which the person, waitress, store clerk or whoever they are dealing with instead addresses themselves to a family member, a carer/personal assistant, or even a random passing stranger. That in many cases the disabled person is far more highly educated than the person they are dealing with just puts the assumption that disabled=mentally incapable into even harsher contrast. There's a variation on this in which the disabled person is addressed, but is offered completely inappropriate help. Deaf people being offered restaurant menus in braille, blind people being offered a wheelchair in airports, and wheelchair users being asked if they're really sure they can't walk up a couple of steps happen so often they've practically become clichés of disabled/non-disabled interactions.

How Am I? Ask Again in Five Minutes

Non-disabled people have a bizarre presumption that disability is unchanging, which is unfortunate as it often leads to them accusing disabled people of being fakes (about the worst thing you can say to a disabled person) when the disabled person does something today that they said they couldn't do yesterday. The reality is that even disabilities you would imagine are unchangeable may have distinct variations on a frequent basis, and for some of us our disabilities can vary from one moment to the next. If we take my hypermobility issues (a connective tissue disorder), minor sprains, even partial dislocations, are a normal part of moving around - I've got quite a mild case, for many of my bendy friends full-on dislocations of major joints are a daily occurrence - so my mobility can actually change between one step and the next. The same thing goes for pain levels, which can also vary in longer cycles of days, weeks, months at a time. Even an amputee, someone most people will see as having an unchanging disability, will need to deal with fluctuations in the precise size and shape of their stump as their weight and fitness varies, and both amputees and people with paralysis will need to be aware of, and deal with, potential skin-breakdown issues.

Inspiration Porn, It's Not Exactly Inspiring

Inspiration-Porn is disabled peoples' term for the kind of poster that shows someone with a very visible disability and then says 'What's your excuse?' or the like. It's not normally seen as a negative for disabled people by the non-disabled, but it undermines our equality in two distinct and opposite ways. The first praises us as outstanding and exceeding all reasonable expectations simply for getting out of bed in the morning, undermining any real achievements we might have made. I was once patted on the head by a local politician, I was 30+, working on cutting-edge aerospace projects, yet add a wheelchair to the equation and he thought it was appropriate to pat me on the head as though I was a child for being out with a friend on a Saturday. The second form is even more insidious, it raises disabled people like Paralympians up on a pedestal, and then uses them as a club to beat other disabled people with for not achieving as much. 

If you want to write a novel about disability for either of these reasons, please stop now. On the other hand, they're something that a disabled character may have to address, especially if they find someone trying to put them on a pedestal - that's something I have planned for Emma Shannon.

Disability is Expensive

Even with a relatively stable disability, disabled people will often face expenses that are significantly higher than non-disabled people imagine. High-end prosthetics can cost $50,000 and more, and need replacing every few years (much more frequently for growing kids). If the state does provide prosthetics as part of the medical system, then often that won't extend to the modern computer-controlled 'bionic' types that get all the TV coverage nowadays. Some disabled people have annual medication costs that might comfortably buy a small house. A powered wheelchair can easily exceed the sticker price of a small or even medium-sized car if it needs any sort of customisation, and an individually-fitted manual chair (essential for most full-time wheelies) will be dearer than many second-hand cars. Equally car adaptions can be very expensive - the only disability-specific adaption my car has is a steering knob, which only cost me a few pounds, but my driving license restricts me to automatics only, which generally rules out the smallest model in any manufacturer's range, and often enough the cheaper options of their next size up - needing an automatic added around 50% to the cost of the smallest practical car that addressed my needs. Add the need to carry and load a large wheelchair or other mobility equipment, and costs can shoot through the roof. Add specialist controls and you're talking thousands more. Similarly I don't have any physical adaptions to my house, but my heating is on year round, because anything under about 21C and my joints seize up, so my heating bills are significantly higher than would be expected and fuel poverty and needing to choose between heating and eating are far more common discussions than disabled people would like, or non-disabled people would imagine. 

For someone without a medically-stable disability, disability-related medical costs can quickly mount, even in countries where direct healthcare costs are taken care of. I know people who have to spend hundreds of pounds at a time in travel costs for hospital visits, because the specialist they need isn't local and their disability complicates their travel arrangements. If you consider that my record for hospital visits in one year is in the high twenties (even with a stable situation I've had ten so far this year), then the potential costs soon become apparent. If you aren't in a country where direct healthcare costs are borne by the state, then becoming disabled can be a short-cut to bankruptcy, and that's a reality your character will have to deal with, it's certainly a reality Emma will be facing in my story.

Striking a Balance

There is a balance to be drawn between illustrating how disability means differences in a character's life and prurient detail. For instance, Laura, the paraplegic protagonist in Graveyard Shift, my work-in-progress, is inevitably going to be using a catheter and other continence control techniques, and she even spends several scenes in the bathroom having major discussions with her BFF and fellow protagonist, but there's no need for me to detail precisely how she manages her continence, just as I wouldn't discuss the details of a non-disabled character using the toilet in a similar situation, unless it becomes significant to the plot (or I'm trying to do some audience education). There probably is a point in the story at which Laura has to temporarily switch from intermittent to indwelling catheterisation, but seeing as the physical incapacitation that would drive that is more than adequately discussed in other ways, that change in toileting isn't something I actually need to detail. Again this is somewhere that the input of an actual disabled person may be valuable.

Other Worlds, Other Times

Disability isn't simply a phenomenon of 20th Century Earth, it existed in the past, it will exist in the future, it will exist in alternate, secondary worlds. If you are writing in our own past, then you need to look at the historical record of how society has reacted to disability, and it is a rarely pretty tale. Our situation today, flawed though it may be, is many times better than it has been through most of history. The Spartans and many other civilizations exposed disabled infants on the hillsides, the Victorians locked us away in asylums, and we're still trying to close down the last vestiges of that phenomenon, while the Nazis tried to obliterate us in Aktion T4, the precursor to the Holocaust. But even the Nazi implementation of Eugenics was only the tip of an iceberg, Eugenics gained traction all over the developed world, with compulsory sterilization of disabled people happening from the USA (the Supreme Court famously ruling in Buck vs Bell that "Three generations of imbeciles are enough") to Sweden to Australia, and cases still crop up today.

The future raises further questions. Has disability liberation progressed? Has medical and prosthetic technology progressed? And has that progression led to societal pressures to accept a cure? One of the most famous SF works with a disability theme is Anne McCaffrey's The Ship Who Sang, in which a disabled baby, Helva, is locked away in a 'shell' and trained to become the living core of a spaceship. The novel was written in the '60s, so essentially predates the disability liberation movement, but for modern disabled people the portrayal of disability is deeply disturbing. For a start only the brightest disabled children get this treatment, for the rest it's implied they'll be killed; then there's the infantilisation, Helva's physical development is deliberately stunted to keep her at a convenient size, and last of all it's a literal embodiment of the disabled person being locked away in the attic, with Helva not just locked away in the shell, but then locked away a second time behind the control console of the spaceship she becomes. As an example of how not to do a disabled character in the future, The Ship Who Sang is difficult to beat.

A more recent example shows a similar tone-deafness towards the feelings of disabled people, in David Weber's Honor Harrington books the major plot arc that's been developing for nearly 20 books suddenly turns on the different ways that two civilizations approach medical ethics. The bad guys kill an autistic child (a clichéd idiot savant), because while her maths skills were up to scratch her autistic traits were too much of a nuisance, and then, to show how much better the good guys are, one of their leaders remarks how they had 'cured' autism centuries ago - cue the entire population of neurodiverse geeks beating their head against a wall at the sheer cluelessness of imposing a 'cure' on our fundamental self-identity.

For secondary worlds, worlds which are not ours, there is a freedom to develop how their societies interact with disability, but those interactions will have grown out of physical, social and economic drivers. In a subsistence economy, someone who isn't physically able to farm will be in a problematic situation, in a warlike society, someone who can't fight may find it difficult to gain respect, and so on. The freedom is there to shape reactions to disability all of your own, but they need to be believable within the society as a whole.

Pulling It All Together

Creating a disabled protagonist is much like creating any other character, but the reality of disabled life means that there is a much higher risk of scoring a critical failure on your audience's suspension of disbelief if you haven't done the right research and thought through the essential issues. Ultimately, the interaction of plot, world and character may be much more tightly coupled than in a work with a non-disabled protagonist. I hope this won't stop people from trying, we really do need diverse books in which realistic disabled characters take centre stage, especially books by disabled authors, but we also need those characters to reflect our reality as disabled people, not the reality non-disabled people imagine for us.

Closing Note

I'd like this to be a useful resource for anyone trying to create a disabled character, so if you can think of anything I haven't covered, and that isn't specific to a particular disability, or if you think I'm approaching something in the wrong way, then let me know in the comments and I'll see what I can do.


  1. (Just making a few notes for a planned update).
    This is weak outside of physical disability.
    It needs to reference the Point Balancing Model of Disability, and emphasise that, unlike Role Playing Games, we do not get an advantage for every disadvantage

  2. And credit Point Balancing Model of Disability to @emmcoy_writer

  3. Great post. A good timing for me to read it, when i have just started my blog a couple of days before. Keep sharing the tips :)
    Fighter C Wheelchair
    Keep Posting:)