So, you have a protagonist with a prophecy hanging over their head. Or maybe someone they loved got snatched up by a sorcerer. Or they wandered into the wrong part of the forest. Or they were curious and accidentally stumbled through a portal into a secret world. These things do happen.
The call of adventure is irresistible sometimes.
Except, your protagonist isn’t quite like other adventurers. Maybe they have clinical depression, or sensory input issues, or use a wheelchair. You’re worried about them because the cards are already stacked against them, right? How could they possibly venture into the certain dangers ahead with health issues?
Well, fear not. I happen to be fond of unlikely heroes and enjoy sending them on adventures full of dangers and wonder. It takes a little more work, a little more empathy and flexibility, but having a disabled hero isn’t as scary as it sounds.
Here’s my easy step-by-step instructions on how to send your disabled protagonist on their adventure.
Step 1: Forget About the Disability
Yes, that’s right. When you sit down to create your disabled character think about everything but their disability first.
Disability is only a small piece of any person. If you approach this character with pity or awe, you’ve already doomed them. So, for starters, build this character like you would any other. What music do they listen to? What posters do they have on their wall? What’s a guilty pleasure of theirs that they don’t share with just anyone? Why are they going on this ill-advised adventure anyway?
If this story is going to work, your heroic protagonist is going to have to deal with some of their fears, rely on some of their strengths. They might have to be alone in the dark with nothing but their own thoughts. So who are they?
The point is, your protagonist needs to be a full-fledged person with hopes and secrets, fears and demons. They just happen to have a disability.
Does this sound… off to you?
Here’s the thing about disability that people without one sometimes don’t get. Disability becomes normal after a while. Most people with one don’t spend their day wallowing in self-pity, wishing they were different. Sure, there are moments or days of frustration, pain, and misery related to it, but most of the time, we’re just living our lives like everyone else.
And yes, of course, having a disability will influence your protagonist’s viewpoint, experiences, and personal strengths and weaknesses. But we’ll get to that in a few steps. Right now, just create a well-rounded person.
So how does your protagonist fill their day? They need a weird hobby or encyclopedic knowledge about something random if they’re going to be a good adventurer anyway.
Step 2: But Wait! Don’t Forget About the Disability
Okay, this is the step where you stop ignoring your character’s disability. Because it will have an impact on the choices they will make, like what routes they’ll take on this journey and what they’ll pack in their bag. They will already have asked themselves questions like: “What’s the worst disability related thing that can happen on this trip?” Because that’s what disability is, it’s living in a world that’s not quite made for you, where the resources you need are scarce. It means making plans for the worst-case scenarios in everyday life.
It also means dealing with some crappy behavior and assumptions from non-disabled people. Like getting glared at for slowing your adventuring companions down because of something health-related, totally out of your control. Or being told by strangers that you’re an inspiration to them. Or that maybe if you worked harder, you wouldn’t need a cane.
Your protagonist probably already knows that other people are sometimes the biggest obstacles they have to face. They probably already have some tactics, a few sly remarks up their sleeves. Or a community they can exchange stories with.
Your protagonist might not even be the first autistic explorer to make the journey to the underground kingdom. As John Wiswell points out in his essay on BFFs in the Apocalypse, just like any other community, disabled people tend to find each other. Discover solutions together. Or at least notice when their friend has gone radio silent in order to explore that cabin in the woods.
Step 3: Know What You Write
In all fairness, you might not know how to accomplish Step 2 yet. The good news is that’s ok. The bad news is, there’s no avoiding it, you’re going to have to do some research. Even if you have the same disability as your protagonist. Two people might have the same syndrome or condition, but they can manifest differently in each person.
Fortunately, there’s the Internet and many different types of information on it.
When I was researching what it was like to have only one hand for the narrator in The Non-Hero’s Guide to the Road of Monsters, I spent a lot of time watching videos by people with missing hands or arms on how to braid hair and how to cook. I read articles and creative nonfiction pieces from people who lost limbs later in life. I learned a bit about prosthetics and why some people choose to use them while others decide against it.
Basically, if you’re going to go on an adventure with this character, it’s essential to learn what it’s like to be in their shoes. It’s also critical to find your blind spots. For example, it wasn’t until my second or third draft that I noticed that my protagonist in Non-Hero’s Guide was clapping at one point, something that I, as a person with both hands, took for granted.
The most valuable resource though, is sensitivity readers. Unfortunately, there’s no easy list to point you to for this one. If you don’t have a friend or acquaintance you can ask, ask on writing forums, Twitter, Facebook, etc. Word of mouth will be your best friend in this case.
Don’t be afraid to reach out, because the most damaging thing you can do to this character and the community they represent is to make assumptions and get them wrong.
Your protagonist is already on a life-threatening quest, after all. They’re depending on you to tell their story well.
Step 4: Backtrack, Reassess, Rewrite
Now that you’re more knowledgeable about your protagonist and their disability, go back to Step 1 and reassess. Is their inner source of strength what you thought it was? Have any of their favorite bands or personal heroes changed? Disability is only a small piece of any person, but it’s a lens that shifts how we see the world.
Repeat this process for Step 2.
Looking back, you probably got some things wrong. That’s okay. Mistakes are unavoidable. We learn as we go. So, rewrite and try again. And again. Repeat this step as many times as you need to.
There’s no shame in revision because after all, this is art. And we artists rarely get anything right on the first try.
Step 5: Build an Accessible Labyrinth
But what if your protagonist is stuck? Like really stuck. Like at the bottom of a rocky ravine and their wheelchair simply can’t get through? Or they need to shoot a crossbow and hit a mark 100 paces away, but they have terrible nearsightedness?
Well, that’s easy. Give your protagonist the magic they need to find a solution.
This is the beauty of fantasy; unlike real life, you can change the world to meet your hero’s needs. The solution doesn’t have to be literally magic. Because you are not just writing the character, you are creating the world around them. You’ve built the dungeon, locked the doors, but like all protagonists, your hero should have all the pieces to the key they need to escape, to move forward, to go home at the end of this journey. A rocky ravine is nothing for your wheelchair-using hero if they’re legendary with a grapple hook and a damn good rock climber. Nearsightedness is a moot point for your crossbow-wielding explorer because they’ve learned some new tricks on this trip and figured out how to magically guide the bolt.
Seems improbable, right? But then again, the adventurers we write stories about are the ones who succeed against the odds.
Step 6: Make Sure Your Protagonist Is Still A Protagonist
For this step, I’m almost tempted to tell you to forget about the disability again. But we’ve come too far now and well, that would go against the whole point of this essay. What I’m actually trying to say is that as your protagonist is nearing the climactic fight of their adventure, look back and make sure their disability isn’t just something for them to overcome or to die for. Or worse, something that “inspires” other characters to be their best selves. There are some terrible tropes around disabled characters. Tropes like these exist because the writers didn’t bother imagining their disabled characters as people with agendas, goals, and dreams. The writers of these stories never believed that their disabled character was more than a plot device.
It seems like a ridiculous thing to have to explain, but disabled people should not exist in a story for the purpose of making everyone else feel better about themselves.
The critical difference between an inspirational character and a protagonist is agency. It’s your character’s story and they should be the ones driving it forward. So, make sure your adventurer is making choices and making changes, making mistakes and making amends. Make sure they’re facing down this final challenge of their adventure clear-eyed and full of ideas.
They might not know it yet, but they’re going to win.
Step 7: Persist
The thing about obstacles is that no matter how many you conquer or bypass, more will always appear. This is a lesson all heroes and disabled people know well. So whenever your character gets into a situation that seems unlikely for them to handle because of “their condition”, remember the best thing about having a disability is that it teaches you how to adapt. The world makes assumptions, like that every pedestrian can handle high curbs. But that’s not true for someone with tight quadriceps and terrible balance. So we disabled people start getting good at planning ahead, finding solutions on the fly. We learn when to do our research beforehand, when to be stubborn, and when to ask an ally for help.
These also happen to be the most important skills for any adventuring protagonist to have. They’re what allows heroes to survive, adapt, and succeed no matter what obstacles get thrown their way.
Making disabled protagonists the most natural adventurers of all.
That’s it. That’s the seven easy steps, which are admittedly not so easy because nothing about writing is easy. Especially if you’re telling a story that’s both satisfying and watertight. But you now have a map, and your protagonist has a prophecy hanging over their head.
Adventure is calling.
© 2019 A. T. Greenblatt