Special Lesson Characters
Okay, here’s the thing. I will almost never tell you -not- to do something. I’d rather find a creative way to make it work. But, for I think one of the first times ever, I am going to warn you about a common pitfall in the land of characterization. This pitfall is…
The Special Lesson Character.
If you’ve seen a kids’ show ever, you’ve probably been introduced to one. TV Tropes calls them Inspirationally Disadvantaged. They might be blind, D/deaf, in a wheelchair, missing a limb, the list goes on. What they all have in common is that they are there to Teach The Audience An Important Lesson. The lesson is that you should not judge other people or treat them differently- despite whatever disability they have, they are just like other ‘normal’ people. They are cohorts of all the other characters you’ve seen that are introduced as side characters to add to the show’s diversity (double points if they only appear in one episode- this all applies to all those characters, btw, but I’m sticking with this particular branch for this post).
This is not good.
Now, I’m not trying to say that you shouldn’t write your disabled characters as being able to cope or thrive in society. I’m not saying that you shouldn’t write characters who have developed other abilities to help them compensate for/surpass what they lost (there are some really cool skills out there that people cultivate in this way, check them out). I’m not saying that you shouldn’t write your disabled characters as badasses.
Actually, a lot more of that out there would be great. (Though writing about someone who struggles or has difficulty adjusting/coping is fine, if that’s the story you’re doing).
The problem (or advantage) lies in how YOU, the author, portray them.
The basic rule of ‘show don’t tell’ you probably all know of and are sick of by now. However, writers seem to forget this rule when it comes to disabled characters. If your character is well-adapted, -show- the audience. Do not -tell- them. Show them someone who has a disability that does fine in their day-to-day life.
If you are editorializing, Aesop-ing, having a character realize that really, <character> is just the same as us, anything inside that vein, -stop-. Your readers will notice. And I can’t tell you who hates these more, non-disabled or disabled readers.
How to avoid this? Spend your time actually developing your disabled character(s), the same way you would for the rest of the cast. Three-dimensional characters, people (if they’ve got a one-episode cameo, just- don’t). Research. See what special considerations your character would need (ex., You flick lights or tap a deaf person for their attention. You verbally greet blind people. People in wheelchairs will take the elevator), and just show them. Don’t take paragraphs explaining things like a wikipedia article that only shows you googled.
Stop trying to write the ‘inspirational character’ that you’ve seen before. Let me tell you, it’s far more comforting to see someone like yourself show up in your daily media portrayed as human, as a person, than as a lesson.
(End note, as this is basically an opinion post, I’m up for all comments, suggestions, further thoughts, whatever you’ve got for me on this topic.)