By G V Pearce
Little writing details can be amazing. How a character takes their tea, the objects they always carry in their pockets, distinctive ways they respond to stress, whether they nod along to the pop song on the radio or turn it off—these things can give colour to a character and their world without disrupting the narrative.
I’m a big fan of little details, and some of the most enthusiastic feedback I’ve received from readers has been about the details I include. You see, I have a love for writing disabled characters—I’m disabled myself, and I interact with disabled folks everyday. You probably do too, though you might not always notice. Not every disability is visible, but for most of us our conditions still affect our lives even if you can’t see that from the outside.
How many stories have there been where a disability is only brought up when it directly affects the plot, or where it is ‘overcome’ and then never mentioned again? A character is dependent on crutches one moment and then leaping into action the next, a limb is lost and a prosthetic solves the issue within a day or two. It wouldn’t be that way in real-life, so why make it that way in a narrative?
Of course, I understand the urge to lean towards the dramatic, but a few well-placed details can make the difference between a token character and a well-rounded one.
This is true when it comes to temporary injuries too. Once upon a time James Bond would walk away from a fight with a spring in his step, nowadays his scars and bruises linger. There’s a long term cost to being an action hero.
I’ve heard it said that mentioning disability too often can be depressing, but characters who wear glasses frequently have that fact mentioned—they search for their glasses in the morning, the frames get in the way during a first kiss, they have to wipe the rain away. Glasses are no less an aid to disability, they’re just a lot more common.
Is it depressing to be reminded that a character wears glasses, or does it just make your mental image of the character clearer?
If, as a writer, you’re willing to give a few hundred words to the process of a character choosing their clothes before the fancy masquerade ball, what’s the harm in mentioning whether they can easily get out of the low sports car they arrive in? Perhaps they change the car. Perhaps they ask for help. Or maybe they grit their teeth and get through it, confident that no one else noticed, even though the thought process remains. And the narrative becomes that much richer for it.
If you’re not sure how the disability you’ve given your character would affect their life, why not find out? You could hire a sensitivity reader or advisor to help you—these are beta readers from minority groups who can specifically check your work for bias or stereotypes. However, there are also lots of disabled people talking about our experiences online. We would rather people understood how our lives are different than pretend they’re completely the same.
Plus, your readers might notice the things you forget or choose to omit, and that itself can pull them out of the story. A reader might be confused if something doesn’t make sense for a character’s previously established abilities. Or they might forget that a character is disabled if you rarely mention it, and then be surprised if that fact becomes relevant to the plot.
Don’t make your readers stop to wonder how someone got a wheelchair up a flight of stairs, or whether your diabetic character is going to collapse because they haven’t eaten during the last two days they were lost in the forest.
You don’t want the discussion about your story to focus on the incongruity of your hero losing a hand in chapter one, and yet he easily killed the bad guy in the final scene with a two-handed sword he shouldn’t have been able to lift. You want them to talk about how well you wrote the battle.
And yes, those examples are based on things I’ve actually read or watched.
Remember, a detail can just be a detail. You don’t have to make a big deal out of every single mention of a disability.
Just like reminding the reader that a character has blue eyes, it doesn’t need a lot of exposition every time, or a huge amount of emotional dialogue.
Each time I have to rearrange my cane to open a door when my hands are full, I don’t go on a monologue about the situation, I just get on with it. Sometimes I drop the cane. Sometimes I get frustrated. If I were living in a story, those occasions could be an opportunity for a meet-cute, or character development, but most of the time I just open the door. Still, I always know I’m carrying the cane.