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.
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?