Being a Better Writer: Characters with Handicaps

Welcome back readers, to Being a Better Writer! Tuesday edition, because … reasons. It happens.

Anyway, today I’ll be tackling a topic that’s been requested once or twice, but I never got around to addressing until today: How to write a character with a handicap, and write them well.

You ready for this? The short answer is … carefully and with care, but ultimately, like any other character.

But of course, that answer isn’t good enough. Not by a long shot. Though if it is, well … that wasn’t going to stop you from clicking away anyway. For the rest of us, however, let’s hit the jump.

So, you’ve sat down and brainstormed—or maybe you are brainstorming—and you find yourself in a pickle. You’ve got an idea for a cool character, secondary or primary, but they’re not what you normally would have written. Maybe they’re a mage that’s missing an arm. Or maybe they’re the captain of a space vessel that’s suddenly found themselves suffering from hearing loss. Or crud, maybe you just want to write an ordinary piece of fiction revolving around a character that can’t talk.

The reasons, creations, etc, could be myriad. Point is, you’ve decided that you want to create a character with a handicap of some kind and—there’s no getting around this—that is going to make that character different than your other characters.

Yeah yeah, put your pitchforks away and bear with me. Because it will make a character different … but that shouldn’t be considered any different from what authors do anyway. What’s the difference between creating a superhero with the ability to freeze metal with their hands and a mage who’s missing an arm? Both, in some way, are set apart from the everyday, in one way or another.

Crud, we can go even simpler just by creating an example character who wears reading glasses. Say … someone elderly. And suddenly you have a character who comes with additional considerations over what we would normally consider, because they can’t just pick up the killer’s phone and read a text message. Not without their glasses. And while this can be used in blase ways … it can also be used in ways that are clever and new, or open up new avenues that would otherwise be unavailable.

These new avenues are what should be foremost on your mind if you plan on writing a character with a handicap, or at least, in part. Because before you set out to write a character—any character—that a substantial portion of your story will revolve around, there are two questions you should be asking yourself: Why do you want to write this character in this way, and what do you expect it (or them) to bring to your story?

The reason you should ask yourself this question is because … Well—and maybe this is just me—but often characters with handicaps are somewhat misused. Or worse, greatly misused. Sometimes they’re stuck into a story for no other reason than for the creator to be able to say “look how inclusive I am!” Other times—and personally, I think this is worse—they’re played for cheap melodrama, or a sob story. A quick route to the masses’ heartstrings.

To both of those, I say boo. Seriously, they’re not great reasons. Sure, you can add a character with a handicap just to shout “look how inclusive I am.” And then what? You have a character defined by their handicap. Applause for you, but I’m pretty certain that those with handicaps, while fully acknowledging them, aren’t about to let it be the sole definition of who they are. And the second option? No … just no. That’s moving into the whole “oh, let’s pity this person because this is different and bad,” and that’s just crappy writing, as well as a crummy line of thought.

So, do you want to write a character with a handicap? Ask yourself why? Are you throwing them in there to add a little “variety?” Or because you honestly think that it will giver you new avenues of growth and character to explore? What do you plan on doing with them? Are you going to use them to bluntly club your audience with an Aesop? Or are you going to let them exist as a character like any other, only with their own unique challenges and perspective?

How you answer those two questions, why and what, will do a lot to tell you exactly how your story—and the use of this character may turn out. And you may realize that you’d added this idea for no other idea than “Well, it would be neat …” but with little other aim.

And to be fair, there’s a limit to what we can do with every character. If you happen to mention, for example, that a one-off character the reader will never see again, say for example a lawyer, rolls around their desk in a wheelchair, well, that can combine with a few other details to paint a picture in the reader’s mind. And catching that element won’t be a concern as long as it’s not hammered into the audience’s head over and over again, but is something you can put in just fine for a character that’s not going to get more attention than a chapter. So in that vein, the whole “it would be neat” thing can get a nice pass, because the story doesn’t revolve around that character, and neither, hopefully, will their description and brief appearance revolve around that wheelchair. It’s just variety in the side, not for the main premise.

Note here that I’m not saying that it’s just “flavor” of some kind to introduce a background character with a handicap. You can still use a handicap to further explore someone’s character—for example, Jungle, the draft I’m working on now, features a background character named Captain Indiel who has both a cybernetic arm and leg. Which another character ponders on, as it is possible for the limbs to be replaced with organic ones in the Colony universe—except, as an astute reader will realize, and the character does, getting limbs back in that fashion takes a lengthy amount of time in which the Captain would be unable to serve, and in addition she’s an Alpha-class exoskeleton user, which she already uses cybernetics to connect to her suit, making the arm and leg more useful to her than flesh-and-blood. Both facts tell you something about her character and the rational behind her decisions, however minor and background she is.

Right, I think I’ve covered this well enough. You need to have a reason to write a character with a handicap, one that moves past simply being there. And again, I don’t mean a reason like an Aesop or an attention button. A reason that serves to create a good story. Builds a character, or develops them.

Got that? Good. Just don’t forget why and what.

So, let’s say you’ve done that, and you’re still excited. You know why you want to have this character—you’re certain it will offer you an exciting avenue for the plot you have planned—and you know what you’re going to do to with them (we’ll cover this one in greater depth in a bit). So now comes a very important question: What goes into the handicap you’ve chosen?

Look, I’ll be up front: Don’t make stuff up. This is an old byline of mine, but do your research. Say you’re writing a character who’s partially or maybe fully blind. There are books on the subject—memoirs, blogs, interviews and documentaries. This step is no different than writing about chemist or a banker or a hacker. If you don’t know it, or aren’t sure you know it, then do your readers a favor and go find out. Depending on what you’re writing about, you’ll be able to find a wealth of information in either a few clicks or one. It won’t be hard.

Look, if you’re writing a character that has a handicap that’s a large part of their life, do not screw up that large part. Give it the attention and care it deserves. Sands, you can even go talk with people who are in a similar situation with your character. You’ll need to be tactful, of course, but if you explain your reasoning and why you’re interested, you can often gain some great hands-on knowledge (this works for a lot of things, actually, as people are flattered when an author wants to write about “what they do/care about/etc).

Don’t make crap up. After all, think of how annoyed you get anytime you read a book or watch a film where the research was not done (or, equally infuriating, see criticism from someone who also didn’t do the research while the story did) and now place that on something like a handicap. Like anything else, done poorly it’s going to aggravate those who know. So don’t make it up. Before you start writing, do some reading and get the details right.

Now, there’s one last thing that we need to talk about. I touched on it earlier, and then said just a few paragraphs ago that we’d be coming back to it. Don’t forget this: Your character is a character, not the handicap. Or in other words, what I said earlier about what defines them? Their handicap can be part of them, but don’t let it be all of them. It’s a portion. Just like in writing about gender, or giving characters hobbies,  or any number of other attributes, recognize that these are attributes of a character and may be important aspects of who they are, but they are not the total. Don’t define your character solely by their handicap and whatever limitations/advantages it brings to the table. They’re still a person. A character with thoughts, ideas, feelings, quirks, and more. Do not forget this. Despite whatever handicap they live with, recall that they themselves will have more to them than simply their challenges. Let them live, breath, and be more than just one aspect of who they are.

So, wrapping up. First, before you commit to making a character with a handicap, ask yourself why you’re doing it, and what you hope to accomplish and bring to the story. Then, once you’re certain of your reasoning, do some research. Make sure you can bring this element to the story with proper accuracy. And then, last but not least, don’t let this character be defined by their handicap, no more than a character would be their hobby or their gender.

And at the end of it all, if this sounds a bit like writing any other character … well … you’d be right.

Good luck. Now get writing.


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