Writing Fictional Characters with Disorders, Disabilities, & Mental Illnesses

Writing Characters with Disabilities (1)

As I delve deeper into the world of writing, I’ve been thinking more and more about character building, particularly as in regards to characters with disabilities and disorders. Considering that the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke says, “Neurological disorders, which number more than 600, strike an estimated 50 million Americans each year…,” I think it’s safe to say that a good deal of the characters in our books have their own disorders to deal with.

It’s important to remember that these disorder don’t have to be debilitating. Maybe Uncle Jimmy has some nervous tics that surface when he’s extremely agitated, or maybe the neighbor woman taps her spoon on her plate three time before she begins a meal. The older brother might speak manically, or perhaps the mother struggles to pick up on the social signals of those around her. These people might all have symptoms of disorders, but as an author it’s important to remember that these people aren’t going to walk around wearing signs making their disorders obvious.

  • Uncle Jimmy has a mild case of Tourette Syndrome that he can usually keep hidden, but it surfaces when he’s stressed or nervous.
  • The neighbor woman has Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder, and her compulsions are the part of the disorder that are most visible to others.
  • The older brother has Bipolar Disorder and ADHD.
  • The mother has Autism, and her symptoms are mostly visible in the area of struggling to understand social cues and body language.

It’s tempting to write a disorder as if it defines the character’s life. I think some authors really want to be a voice for people with these disorders, and so they want to create a likeable character with their chosen struggle. The problem with this approach is that it can further stereotypes instead of proving them wrong.

As authors, we want to tell the truth, even when we’re writing fictional characters, we need to tell the truth about those characters. In real life, people don’t walk around with signs announcing the struggles their dealing with. I don’t wear a sign that says, “I have mild Tourettes, OCD tendencies, and chronic anxiety.” I do, however, exhibit pieces of all of these disorders. Focusing on a character’s symptoms instead of the character will make the character unrealistic, but it will do something even worse as far as awareness goes.

There are two important truths for authors to remember about characters with disorders, mental illnesses, and disabilities:

  • People have struggles.
  • People are not their struggles.

Creating a character with a disorder must not focus on the disorder; it’s imperative to focus on the character. Even characters that have extreme versions of disabilities, disorders, or mental illnesses are still people first and foremost. They have unique likes, dislikes, childhoods, families, and pastimes. They are still individuals. For example, I have Tourettes; I am not Tourettes.

Most important, I think in writing any struggle such as this, is only writing about a struggle that you know about. Wanting to spread the word about what ADHD is truly like is admirable, but writing out of ignorance will hurt people with ADHD instead of help them. Instead, write about what you know, and if you don’t know it, research, research, research.

As authors, it’s our duty to make our characters real, to tell the truth. As people, we have the privilege and responsibility to use this as a chance to love others.

What caused you anxiety as a new parent? Did you have something that made your tics skyrocket? I’d love to hear your comments and questions, so please post them in the Comment Box below. Also, don’t forget that if you sign up for my weekly newsletter, you’ll get extra resources on neurological disorders, as well as a gift in thanks for signing up. Thanks for reading!

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  • Mary on April 23, 2015 at 10:37 pm said:

    I feel you Brittany. In my latest book, I make sure the girl who is cognitively impaired is really the hero of the situation. I have special needs students and know that while they not be able to do all “regular” kids can do at the same pace, they have their own strengths and I teach to those strengths. At least, I hope that’s what I’m doing.

    • brittanyfichterwrites@gmail.com on May 1, 2015 at 4:18 am said:

      What’s your book’s title? Has it been published yet? I love that you said you like to focus on strengths, and teaching to them. I can’t tell you how many times students I’ve worked with have surprised me with their abilities. Educators just have to be willing to see the improvements, instead of focusing on what these kiddos are missing. Unfortunately, I feel like the testing rigors we often force upon our kiddos today miss that concept completely.

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