Why I Write Characters with Disabilities
I never intended to write characters with disabilities. My very first book had a regular, abled teenage girl as the protagonist. She enjoyed a pretty sunset by the river, then watched the apocalypse go by while eating chocolate chip cookies in her kitchen. Obviously, the book wasn’t very good, and I hid it so deep in my computer you’d need a hacker to unbury it.
By the time I started working on my second book, which became WHEN PLANETS FALL, I’d realized the migraines I had my entire life, that had gown gradually worse and more frequent, that had evolved into a giant 24/7 migraine when I was 17, that almost prevented me from graduating college and did prevent me from holding any normal job, that kept me trapped on the couch in a years-long Vampire Diaries marathon—didn’t have a cure and wasn’t going away.
You think I would’ve figured this out, I dunno, in college or something, but my family is known for being hard headed and stubborn and obtuse. And I’m one of those super annoying optimists who don’t recognize the boat is sinking until you’re half-drowned.
Anyway, as I was drafting this book, I realized I simply didn’t care about a character whose life didn’t look more like mine. To write a decent story, you have to at least care if your character dies at the end or not. So I found the type of character I was interested in—one who had to physically overcome or work around or work with limitations and the tied-in emotional components to save the world.
I wanted characters with disabilities.
When we think of the word “disability,” our brain immediately jumps to “wheelchair” and there’s not much room for anything else. I’m guilty of this, which is partly why it took me so long to get proper treatment and to even see my illness as a disability. I didn’t know there was room for someone like me.
If we define disability as “any condition that interferes with and impacts our lives” we allow for a much broader and fluid range. Others may disagree with me, but I think we have such a narrow view that we end up negating the voices of so many more people. We forget that culture defines disability. Since I created a brand new culture, I had fun poking at our current definitions.
Currently, every point of view in the Stars Fall Circle series has some sort of disability. Some are more obvious than others, but they all impact the characters’ lives in various ways, whether conscious or not. The obvious ones are Breaker, who has an amputated leg, and Malani, who has a subset of PTSD. Luka has episodic migraines. Technically, with our current definition of migraines, his condition isn’t considered very serious, though you can see how it impacts him.
A new character in the second book has a form of ADHD. In his time, ADHD translates very well to his lifestyle. He has no word for it and would never consider himself as having a disability. If anything, his ADHD is an asset. Yet, in our culture today, what he has could get him kicked out of school. Or, like my husband, forced to stand in front of the class and berated for his behavior. Yes, I have revenge plans for that teacher.
Similarly, another new POV character in book two is nearsighted. We don’t think of near sightedness today as a disability. But in the way past—if you were nearsighted, you wouldn’t be able to see the lion pouncing at you until it was too late. It was a condition that could get you killed.
I also believe including characters with disabilities just makes for better story telling. The root of a good story is conflict. Conflict between the villain and the hero. Conflict about goals. Conflict between love interests. Conflict between the hero and nature. Conflict between the hero and their emotions. Big conflict, micro conflict, conflict conflict conflict.
Yet somehow, we forget to also include conflict between the hero and their body or the hero and their mind. We’ve completely left out an entire layer of potential story telling.
One of my favorite YA heroes is Katniss Everdeen. Listened to the trilogy via audio the first time. Cried all the way through because I got her. Bought the books in hardback. Played that Taylor Swift fire song on repeat. Shoot, I even wore cosplay when the first movie released. But I’d personally find Katniss even more interesting if, say, Katniss had joint pain and yet had to compete in the Hunger Games to save her sister.
Because that’s what I have to do every day. Work with my body, work around my body, push my body, baby my body, read my body. Laundry still has to be done, homework still completed, word counts still written. If I want to accomplish a goal, I usually have to figure out a new, more interesting way to get there or change the game altogether.
And characters who also have to figure out new, more interesting ways to accomplish their goals? Well, I think that’s much better story telling than the same-old tropes.
What are some of your favorite books that include disabilities? One of my top favs is the middle grade Magisterium series.
Abby J. Reed writes young adult science fiction and fantasy novels that ask what if. She has a degree in English Writing and is drawn to characters with physical limitations due to her own neurological disorder called Chronic Migraine. Her debut novel, WHEN PLANETS FALL, was published by Soul Mate Publishing and is the first in a trilogy. The second, WHEN DREAMERS FALL, releases May 2019.
Abby lives in Colorado with her husband and two fluffy pups. If her hands aren’t on the keyboard, they are stained purple and blue with paint. Find her online at www.abbyjreed.com.
Breaker's home is cleaved by blood. The three tribes on the planet Scarlatti, whose only difference is their blood color, each want to exploit Breaker's valley for themselves. The feudal tension has already claimed red-blood Breaker's leg and his older brother. Now all this 18-year old wants is to maintain the tenuous peace in order to keep his little 'stroid of a brother alive. Malani, a red-blood raised blue, is a kidnapped POW and only wants to return to her adoptive home with her dangerous blue secrets. Luka, a red-blood stewing for trouble, wants to right wrongs done to his family and bathe his home in justice. All three intersect when Breaker discovers a wrecked starship and is given seven days by the green-bloods to fix and hand it over as a weapon. Breaker must decide if aiding his enemies is worth the home he knows and his family's life. War is coming. And war respects no boundaries. And war leaves no survivors.