At the Missouri SCBWI conference on 9/26, editor Kate Sullivan warned us to avoid creating disabled characters who are trope. A trope is a word, character or phrase used for literary effect. Sullivan warned us about one trope in particular but her warning roused my curiousity so I did a bit of research. These are the disabled character trope seen most often – avoid them at all costs!
- Poor, sad, disabled person. Do not create the pitiful disabled character. Yes, someone who loses an ability due to an accident is likely to be depressed, but do not create a character to be pitied. Do. Not. But that’s not the only pitfal to be avoided. Do not create a poor character who is deserving of help because he is disabled. Do. Not.
- The Super Crip. This is the character type that Sullivan cautioned against. In the Super Crip, the person is seen as a hero because of their disability. Any time another character finds your disabled character to be “inspiring” simply because of the disability, you have created a super crip character. Do. Not. Another Super Crip is the character who loses one ability (sight) and develops his other abilities to an insane level as a way to compensate. Super Hero hearing, for example. Do. Not.
- Disability as a Burden. This person’s life is somehow worth less or seen as a burden on their family or friends. If you have a character who is “so good because he helps” someone else, you’ve created a Burden. Do. Not.
- Disability as a Metaphor. Do not use disability within your book’s society as a metaphor for something else. People who couldn’t hear what others were saying and suddenly lose their hearing? Do. Not.
As we work to create diverse characters for our books and stories, we need to avoid creating disabled characters who fit any of these stereotypes or trope. After all, stereotypes don’t sell. Well rounded characters do.