Are your characters tragically disabled or magically disabled?
In other words, do we need to make fun of you? (Issue 2)
In Issue 1 of this series on writing and disability, I wrote about—and Tipsy Tullivan podcasted about—how the Association of Writers and Writing Programs (AWP) rejected 100% of all disability-centered panels for their gigantic conference this year.
One consequence of AWP’s institutional failure that Tipsy and I noted was that “writers who do not have disabilities [will] have fewer opportunities to learn about how to effectively represent characters with disabilities in their writing without relying on obnoxious stereotypes.” Watch Tipsy’s video in Issue 1 for some examples of those obnoxious stereotypes.
Here in Issue 2 of our series, Tipsy and I follow up on representations of disability in literature.
Specifically, here are two tropes that get flung at disabled characters over and over again: The “tragically disabled” and the “magically disabled.”
Trope #1. The Tragically Disabled
You know this one. It goes all the way back to when disabilities started being represented in literature. And that’s a long time. Like, ever since there has been literature.
With the trope of the tragically disabled, disability is a stand-in for tragedy, sadness, or sometimes evil—Captain Hook, amirite? He’s basically the One-Armed Man of Neverland. (See what I did there?)
What about suicidal, mad Ophelia. So tragic!
Quasimodo—you can hardly find a character more disabled than a visually impaired, non-verbal person with kyphosis. And THEN he commits suicide alongside the corpse of his true love. Whoa, tragic!
Echo—she couldn’t talk!—following behind Narcissus, her true love. (Ew, but why?) The Greeks (in this instance, Ovid) sure could do tragic right. And JFC, “The Little Mermaid” by H.C. Andersen? A non-verbal girl who had chronic pain in her legs—really? GAH. TRAGIC.
Don’t worry, contemporary stories are filled with tragically disabled characters. The Song of Ice and Fire (i.e., Game of Thrones) series alone has a slew. Jaime Lannister—incestuous child-murderer that he is—undergoes more than a physical transformation on the road to Harrenhal. Once his sword hand comes off, it’s like his heart magically turns to gold along with his prosthetic. He goes from super-villain to tragic hero. Who saw THAT coming? And don’t forget poor Shireen Baratheon, the greyscale princess, the GoT stand-in for leprosy. I don’t want to spoil anything for those who haven’t read that far, but let’s just say: Tragic!
One could even say that if you want to add some tragedy to a character, just give them (or a close family member) a disability.
Actually, ugh, don’t do that.
Here’s our writerly advice: If you find yourself using disability as a stand-in for tragedy, just stop. You can still write characters with disabilities. Just remember that your characters with disabilities are allowed to live exciting, complete, fulfilling lives. If you aren’t sure how to go about writing that, go talk to some real, live people with disabilities.
Trope #2. The Magically Disabled
Moving on to trope #2, the “magically disabled.” This trope is a common one in SF/Fantasy books. Here, a character develops a disability but magically (or scientifically) overcomes the disability to the point where he or she isn’t disabled any more. Yay!
No. That’s terrible.
Elsa Sjunneson-Henry, over on Disability in Kidlit, takes on magically disabled representations of blindness in particular: “Blindness never gets to simply exist in SFF. It’s always painted as something to overcome and/or to reinvent in order to move forward.”
Need an example? Think of the superhero Daredevil, whose superpowers literally negate his visual impairment—he can actually see with his other senses.
There are more examples beyond visual impairments, too. Professor X of the X-Men, whose “mental strength” makes his impaired physicality irrelevant. With few exceptions, despite his use of a wheelchair, he is the strongest person in the room.
Here’s more from Sjunneson-Henry: “When writers give blind characters superpowers to divest them of disability, they aren’t just doing a disservice to their writing but also to the blind people reading or watching their work. This trope is not a ‘cool’ or ‘inventive’ way to look at disability. What would be truly inventive would be to address blindness as it is: without the bells and whistles of magic or science bringing the character closer to the non-disabled norm.”
As we just learned above, with tragically disabled characters, authors use disability as a stand in for tragedy or suffering.
Magically disabled characters do nearly the opposite work for their authors. When writing a magical disability, authors use the disability to boost the characters’ strengths. Daredevil’s strength is amplified because he is blind. Jessica Jones is stronger because she has to overcome PTSD. Professor X can bring Wolverine to his knees—from a wheelchair. The contrast of strength with disability makes the strength seem even larger and more magical.
But why do this? Why can’t a character just, you know, have a disability? Without the “bells and whistles” as Sjunneson-Henry puts it?
A famous recent representation of a magically disabled character—made even more famous because the author actually apologized for the characterization and worked to correct it in later volumes in the series—is Po in Kristin Cashore’s novel Graceling. Po loses his sight but, through magic, overcomes the loss. Cashore, unusually, recognized her use of the magically disabled trope, noted it in the front matter of a later book in the series, AND wrote about it on her blog.
Here’s an excerpt from the front matter of the later book, which she posted on her blog:
“It didn’t occur to me, until it was too late, that I had disabled Po, then given him a magical cure for his disability — thus implying that he couldn’t be a whole person and also be disabled. I now understand that the magical cure trope is all too common in F/SF writing and is disrespectful to people with disabilities. My failings here are all my own.”
If you write SF or Fantasy, consider whether there is room in the universe you are creating for a person with a disability who is simply that: a person with a disability.
Tipsy’s Tips for avoiding these mistakes
Don’t worry, writer friends. Tipsy and I have you covered. Here’s a video tutorial from Tipsy for how to write characters with disabilities even if you have no idea what it’s like to be a person with a disability.
As Tipsy says, “There are a whole lot of writers who didn’t know jack shit about disabilites and they wrote it anyway and their books are really famous.”
Stay tuned for Issue 3 of this series, and keep reading Disability Stories on Medium.