Walking the tightrope: writing a disabled Main Character

Why don’t Main Characters have disabilities in most fiction?

There’s a reason disabled characters are used mostly in fiction as narrators, sidekicks, mentors, angels, wise men or women – anything except the Main Character.

Even the Antagonist can be disabled. This is often used to provide a ‘reason’ or a rationale for why the Antagonist is mean, evil, vicious, or difficult: he or she has had a hard life due to a physical or mental disability, and has become surly and mean as a result of this treatment. Or the Antagonist can have a distorted sense of entitlement because of the reaction of other people to the disability or damage.

The Main Character’s role in the story: identification

A Main Character has a lot of roles to fulfill in a novel, among which are reader identification and reader empathy.

The MC usually has more scenes from her point of view, so the MC is telling the story. The MC often executes the most important actions – jumping from a building holding a baby, or shooting the Antagonist.

The MC is a representative of ‘right’ and is the proponent of the author’s beliefs about morality, beauty, honor, and destiny. The MC is usually the winner in the story – or possibly a bittersweet loser: if the MC doesn’t win, the story is a tragedy.

Everyone wants to be either the MC or the MC’s love interest (rarely a character with a disability either) – that is the easiest way to create reader identification.

If the MC is not someone the reader wants to be, it had better be someone the reader is fascinated by, because they will spend a lot of the book with the Main Character and his thoughts and actions.

All of these MC roles are easier for an Everyman to embody: the careful author doesn’t define the character too well, so that the reader can put on the mantle, have the adventure, win the prize. In this, books are better than movies, because in a movie it’s pretty clear that if the hero looks like Harrison Ford, he doesn’t look like Joe Average.

Then why choose a non-standard Main Character?

Most people (thank God!) are not disabled; choosing to write an MC who IS disabled is a peculiar burden for the writer to assume – unless the story is basically ABOUT the disability and the brave person who has it. And possibly, how that person’s parents and family, friends and teachers, is affected by/deals with the disability.

If a sidekick appears in a few scenes, then all the details associated with the sidekick’s disability become the equivalent of ‘stage business’: things the actor does to reinforce the role. A prime example of this is characters such as the black youngster in the wheelchair, Malcolm’s classmate and friend Stevie, on Malcolm in the Middle: his habit of having to wait for the spaces in which his air is renewed to send out each string of words is characteristic. Too many scenes with this character, and too many pauses in his speech, and the viewer/reader gets tired of the effort.

If an MC is disabled, then the writer has to be extremely careful not to let the disability take over center stage – the disability can’t become the main reason for the story (unless that is the intent), nor can it be brought up so often that it seems that way.

Limitations

The disability can’t vanish when it is convenient for the MC not to have it – it can’t be so minor that it isn’t any more important than the light-sensitivity of an albino’s or a vampire’s eyes, easily fixable by wraparound polarized sunglasses.

The disability has to play a role in the story, or it seems gratuitous. But unless you’re writing a story where the disability somehow confers magical powers on the character, it has to be just a part of the MC, not the totality of the character.

It is a tough line to follow, balancing what the reader sees or hears about the MC’s disabilities with not letting the disability take over or with making it no more important than eye color: there has to be a reason to write this character, a reason for choosing THIS disability, and a light hand with portraying it: most disabilities have a huge range, from barely affecting the person who has them, to making that person’s life a complete full-time occupation.

Steering clear of ‘inspiration porn’

I choose to avoid all implications of what we people with disabilities refer to as ‘inspiration porn’: valuing something a person with a disability does just because the person has the disability. It carries connotations of lowering standards, and makes people feel they are being looked up to to make the viewer feel good – without it leading to anything worthwhile for the population with that or any other disability.

Fully realized characters

Every detail has to be right – for some person with that disability. Most people think of, say, cerebral palsy of being a single thing – kid in wheelchair – but the reality is that some kids have a slight hitch in their speech or walk, while some others are incapable of feeding themselves. Each fits differently into life and family. And becomes a different kind of adult.

A character with a disability has the same range of options that have to be considered for any character – everything from birth story to family of origin to education, work history, and mobility; each character with a disability has to be a fully realized person (especially the Main Character), and every piece of the character has to be weighed and measured to fit the story.

Writers don’t write enough Main Characters with disabilities: it’s not an easy task.

But it is an important one, because otherwise those stories don’t get told: real people have disabilities, real people are readers, real people have dreams and aspirations and have to fight for them.

And for a writer, characters based on these real people have as much right to be written as any others – or possibly more because they are so underrepresented already.

Your perspectives matter

If you are a writer, do you have disabled characters in your stories? And if so, what roles do they play?

If you are a reader, do you read stories with characters with disabilities – and what are your parameters for them?

Thoughts?

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5 thoughts on “Walking the tightrope: writing a disabled Main Character

  1. acflory

    I’ve never thought of main characters in this way, certainly not MCs with disabilities. In fact the only MC I can think of who fits the bill is the MC from the movie My Left Foot. Great, thought provoking post. Thank you.

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    1. Alicia Butcher Ehrhardt Post author

      Sad, isn’t it? When fiction that has the ability to make the world more understandable doesn’t get written.

      We HAVE to become more inclusive. The world has problems – but we need ALL our people to solve them. You can’t leave out women, or minorities, or children, or people with intellectual or physical disabilities, or people who are sick – and just write for the ‘well’ or the ‘normal’!

      It’s like advertising clothes only for ‘normal’ (size 0) people – it’s wrong and shortsighted.

      Done properly, there’s nothing wrong with a beautiful actress being the love interest in a movie. But in totality, if there are NEVER any actresses with disabilities or portraying people with disabilities, we are missing something important.

      Hollywood, etc., have started to be a bit more inclusive for people of age (I love Judi Dench – and she has a new movie coming out), and people of color, but each individual movie producer is worried sick his/her movie won’t sell – and sticks with the safest choices. DH and I just watched the French movie ‘Rust and Bone,’ about a Frenchwoman who worked at a marine animal park and who lost both legs below the knee to a freak accident. It wasn’t perfect – but it was still a good movie that asked and answered a lot of questions about what it means to become disabled.

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      1. acflory

        I think our understanding, and acceptance of difference is improving in some areas and going backwards in others. Even now, disability is something that makes people uncomfortable – maybe because they don’t know how to react, or perhaps because of the ‘there but for the grace of God go I’, type thing. So people with disabilities are often defined by their limitations rather than by /who/ they are and what they /can/ do. So negative.

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        1. Alicia Butcher Ehrhardt Post author

          You said it perfectly: “people with disabilities are often defined by their limitations rather than by /who/ they are.” – and they are defined too often by other people instead of themselves.

          They are defined too often by other people instead of themselves. Just because people who can’t do everything they’d like for themselves, or everything they need, doesn’t give other people the right to make decisions for them, nor decisions against their own choices. ‘Pursuit of happiness’ means everyone. And happiness is a personal choice.

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