Many writers forget that disabled characters can take part in adventures. And there are so many opportunities in science fiction and fantasy to include them! Sci-fi offers hope for the future—and that hope doesn’t necessarily mean a cure; it could mean a society that has removed the barriers disabled people face, technologies that improve their quality of life, or the disintegration of ableism. Similarly, fantasy offers secondary or alternate worlds that can embrace disability or reflect our biases back to us through a new lens.
As a chronically ill woman, I love seeing characters that represent a piece of my experience. I want to see disabled characters who take part in the adventure—who have complete personalities, who aren’t perfect angels or useless sidekicks, who kick ass or fail spectacularly or all of the above. Disabled people aren’t a monolith, and disabled characters shouldn’t be either.
Here are some suggestions on how to include disabled characters in your story, with examples from sci-fi and fantasy media.
1. Give them agency.
Contrary to popular belief, disabled people can do stuff. Please don’t make them helpless victims who are only there for the hero to save, feel sorry for, or be nice to.
One of my favourite examples of a disabled character with agency is Raven Reyes from TV show The 100. She’s the spunkiest, cleverest, and most creative character among a group of teenagers attempting to survive on post-apocalyptic Earth. She lets nothing stop her—rules, she’ll break ‘em; mechanical problems, she’ll solve ‘em; friends’ deaths, she’ll grieve and carry on. Until she’s shot in the spine, that is. After surgery, Raven has to live with chronic pain due to nerve damage, and it almost destroys her.
Anyone who lives with chronic pain knows the toll it takes on your mind and body. It’s exhausting. It’s frustrating. And when there’s no end in sight, it’s difficult to find hope or purpose in life.
In Season Three, Raven refuses to slow down or admit she can’t do all the things she used to. She feels like accepting her condition would admit weakness and resists that—until she’s presented with a chip she can swallow that will supposedly take away her pain. At first, she scorns this “miracle cure,” but then she gives in because she just wants the pain to stop. And who can blame her?
Many shows would end her character arc here, with a cure, and let her go on with a “normal,” healthy life where she can run around stabbing enemies in the face like the rest of the characters. But The 100 doesn’t do that. The chip works—sort of. It removes Raven’s pain, but at the cost of her memories and agency. In the end, she rejects the chip and accepts that her disability is a part of her, that she has purpose and hope even with her limitations. She defeats the season’s villain by using her technological brilliance—disability and all.
I love her arc, because those of us with disabilities and chronic pain don’t get miracle cures, either. If you think people like me can’t contribute to the exciting adventures in a science fiction or fantasy novel, you’re wrong! Raven proves that.
2. Let their disability exist.
In sci-fi and fantasy, it’s tempting to erase a disability by giving a character magic, technology, or a superpower that completely negates it. He’s blind? We’ll give him “radar sense” that allows him to perceive objects around him just like actual sight (Daredevil). He’s in a wheelchair? We’ll permanently put his consciousness into another body (Avatar). He lost a hand? We’ll give him a robotic replacement that looks so human, no one will notice (Star Wars).
This erasure pushes the character to become more “normal” by conquering their disability. The implication here is that disabilities are obstacles to be overcome, not realities that people live with.
You can still give your disabled characters superpowers, but those abilities should not completely negate their disability. Avatar: The Last Airbender is a great example of how to do this with nuance. In the show, Toph Beifong is blind. She’s also an earthbender, so she can use her bare feet to sense her surroundings. This magical ability helps her “see,” but she can’t perceive colour or detail, and her power has limitations. The show makes a point of demonstrating that she is still blind. There are times when her feet are burnt or she has to wear shoes and can’t sense her surroundings anymore. In one scene, a character tosses something to her and it smacks her in the face, because she couldn’t see it coming. In another, she’s sad because she can’t see what her friend’s face looks like and doesn’t even know what she, herself, looks like. Even with her superpower, she experiences physical and emotional difficulties because of her disability.
Toph’s superpower functions like an accessibility aid, such as a wheelchair or a cane in our world. Aids are incredibly useful and help us navigate worlds that aren’t built for our disabilities, but they do not negate the disability. Magic and technology can help your disabled character, but they are still disabled.
In a similar vein, think before you kill or cure your disabled character. Writers may be tempted to solve the “problem” of disability in these ways, but this can contribute to the stigma that disabled lives aren’t worth living.
3. Give them complex personalities and backstories.
A disability isn’t a personality trait. A disability is a part of someone’s identity and impacts the way they see the world, but every disabled person is different.
Historically, authors have used disabled characters as objects of pity or to inspire a protagonist. Consider Tiny Tim from Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol; his only narrative purpose is to teach and inspire an able-bodied man. Writing one-dimensional characters like this can happen when the author wants to show how heroic their protagonist is (look how great they are, saving that little old lady with a cane!). Or when a writer wants people to think a certain way about a character (they’re disabled, so they must also be shy, inspiring, and/or helpless). Or when a writer wants to give motivation to a character (they have chronic pain and they’re mad about it).
An example of a well-rounded character is Kaz Brekker from Six of Crows by Leigh Bardugo. I recently re-read the novel after watching the TV show based on Bardugo’s world, Shadow and Bone. I had forgotten how the show toned down Kaz’s character, because he is just a terrible person; he manipulates, lies, cheats, hurts, and tortures to achieve his goals. He also uses a cane and has a limp—this affects his maneuverability and his usefulness in the many fights his crew gets into. He is incredibly smart, talks his way out of situations if he can, and his backup plans have backup plans. His backstory involves his brother’s death at the hands of a gang leader, which explains his desire for revenge. All these things make Kaz who is, not just his limp.
When writing your own story, go beyond straight, white, cisgender disabled characters; common stereotypes include white male autists, white men in wheelchairs, old white ladies with canes, and so many more. There is a distinct lack of disabled characters of colour or queer characters with disabilities in all fiction, sci-fi and fantasy included.
4. Decide how society treats disability.
When writing sci-fi or fantasy, you have the option of creating a world that looks very different from ours. Many conditions are only disabling because of the inaccessible structures and practices our society has put in place. If every building had a ramp, elevators, and accessible rooms, wheelchair-users wouldn’t have such a difficult time navigating when they leave the house; if everyone could custom-order meals from a food printer, restrictive dietary requirements wouldn’t be an issue when eating out; if everyone had the option to work from home in careers that do not require being physically present, more disabled people would find employment.
As someone with a chronic illness and chronic pain, I’m less impeded by the physical accessibility of my world, but there are other things society could improve on to help me, such as free medication, pain management options, financial support when I’m unable to work, and less stigma.
Exploring what a more accessible world looks like can encourage readers to think about disability in ways they, perhaps, haven’t before. Alternatively, you can take the opposite approach; mimicking our society’s prejudice can be cathartic for both disabled writers and readers.
Ada Hoffmann takes both approaches in their novel The Outside. In their futuristic world, the employers of the protagonist, Yasira, accommodate her autism more than companies in our real-life society would. The space station she works on has warm, unflickering lights because there are people on board with sensory quirks, her boss tosses her a stress ball when she’s frustrated, and co-workers usually respect her personal space. However, she’s also forced to attend a public ceremony that overwhelms her; her girlfriend makes a remark that suggests people often forget to be accommodating: “How many times do we have to remind them? You don’t crowd up around autistic people. Everyone’s supposed to know that.”
One of the novel’s antagonists, also an autist, experienced abuse that is eerily similar to autistic children in the real world forced to undergo “therapy” to behave in neurotypical ways. So Hoffmann’s society may have taken a few steps forward, but they obviously have a long way to go (especially considering they are ruled by oppressive A.I. gods, but that’s a whole other topic).
5. Give heroes chronic conditions, too.
Disabled villains, often disfigured so they look scarier, are a common trope in sci-fi and fantasy. Heroes with disabilities are not given the same treatment. Consider how Anakin and Luke Skywalker from Star Wars end up after being disabled—Anakin gets a giant, black bodysuit that amplifies his rasping breath, while Luke receives a robotic hand that looks human.
Villains get hooks for hands, intimidating facial scars, and mental illnesses that turn them into murderers, while heroes are only wounded for a moment before getting healed. The message this type of treatment sends: physically-apparent disability is terrifying and makes you evil.
You can absolutely give your villains disabilities, but try not to use those conditions just to make the character look scary, and give your heroes disabilities too. Heroes can have scars, missing limbs, and mental illnesses and still be good. They can look scary and be kind. They can struggle with their condition while trying to do the right thing.
In the TV show My Hero Academia, All Might is the world’s Number One Hero and a symbol of peace. He’s also sick because of a damaged respiratory system and can only keep up his hero form for three hours a day. The tall, muscular image that the public knows is actually a scrawny, bleary-eyed guy most of the day. The time he can spend in his hero state decreases as the show goes on and All Might stretches himself too thin.
It’s cathartic watching All Might try to take on more than he can handle, because I do this all the time. He experiences the same frustrations I do—wanting to do all the things but learning he has to make time to rest. He pushes himself too hard and his body punishes him for it, just like mine does. Watching All Might was one of the first times I’d seen myself, chronic illness and all, in a superhero.
If you want to include disabled characters in your sci-fi or fantasy story, I encourage you to do it! If you don’t have a disability or illness and are afraid of getting it wrong, try hiring a sensitivity reader with that condition to look over your draft when you’re finished. Creating complex, realistic societies means including all sorts of people, those with disabilities included, and that representation can make a difference in readers’ lives and how they see the world.
Allison Alexander is a writer and editor specializing in sci-fi, fantasy, and nerdy nonfiction. You can find her playing D&D, chasing otter penguins off the Normandy, or co-hosting The Worldbuilder’s Tavern, a podcast for speculative fiction writers.