January 28, 2014

Writing About: A Character with a Disease or Disability

When you have to write about a character with a disease or disability, there is a lot you have to know and cover in your story. Here is a list of tips that can help you to write about a character with a disease/disability:

1.    Do research

If you don’t have the disease or disability that one of your characters has, you will have to do a lot of research to understand it. What are the symptoms? How is someone diagnosed with it? How is it treated? How does the disease/disability affect those who have it physically and emotionally?

Research is so important because you want to get it right!

2.    Use others for inspiration, or use your own experiences.

If you have the disease/disability, you can use your own experiences, or if you know someone who has it, you can use their experiences. Ask them if they are willing to answer questions. Then absorb everything they say.

3.    Bring out the emotion

Being diagnosed with a disease/disability of any kind is always emotional. When a character is getting tests done, reveal their fears and let your readers in on their prayers. When they are diagnosed, show their denial, grief, anger, and finally how they cope with the diagnosis.

In one of my stories, a woman goes into shock after she learns she has breast cancer, and she has a hard time comprehending what the doctor is saying to her. Moments later, when she’s at home, she thinks her breasts betrayed her. Then she realizes her breasts are victims too.

When a character is learning how to walk with a prosthetic limb for the first time describe their frustrations and struggles so the readers can take those steps with him/her.

Photo by Chrys Fey

4.    What would you do?

If you don’t have experience with the disease or disability that your character has, look deep within and ask yourself how you would cope. What you would do if you found out you were going blind? What would you miss seeing the most if your eyesight failed?

5.    Be real!

One of the most important things you can do while writing about a character with a disability or disease is to be real. Do not sugar-coat what they are going through. Write about your character vomiting in the toilet after receiving a dose of chemo. Write about nurses changing his/her ventilator. Write about a wheelchair-bound character being helped into the bathtub. Write about the infection that is eating away at their body. In other words, write the “ugly” stuff! You don’t have to do it all the time, but doing it every once in a while to show what real people go through is a must!

6.    Inform your readers.

Try to give your readers information they don’t know about the disease or disability that your character has. How can it be detected? What are the statistics for how many people are diagnosed with it every year? Use facts, use tidbits from real stories, use the truth.

7.    Don’t pity your character.

People with cancer, or who are in a wheelchair, don’t want to be pitied. They want to be treated normal! Treat your character like a normal person too, even if other characters in your book don’t. When you show their weaknesses, also show their strengths. Balance their hardships with successes.

A character with a disease/disability can be exactly like any other character. Make them tough, witty, bossy, sarcastic, humorous, and even bitchy if you want. Let them love, let them cry, let them fight! 

8.    If your character is to be believed as real, everything they go through also has to be real.

Describe their MRI’s, their chemotherapy sessions and other things they have to go through, as a romance writer will describe every love scene. Sex is normal and natural. So yes, even describe their love scenes! 

9.    Look closely at the minor characters around them.
In real life, everyone is affected when someone they know and love is diagnosed with a disease or disability. Show how the minor characters react and cope too.

10.     View your story as a way to help others.

Looking at your story as a way to empower others will motivate you and help you to write the best that you can so that those who have the same disease/disability can relate, grow a positive outlook, and even get the courage to tell their own stories.

For my short story “Light in Total Darkness” soon to be published by the National Federation of Blind Writers, I created a blind character named Aurora, who she was inspired by Christine Ha, the winner of the third season of MasterChef. To write this story, I paid close attention to how she touched items to identify what they were. 

ADDITION: Instead of writing a story from the point-of-view of the character with a disease/disability, you can write from the perspective of a caregiver. (Or both!) Make sure to delve into the details of what they have to do every day for their job, how they cope with what they see and do, and what their lives are like when they are at home. Don't forget to mention the compassion they have for their patient/family member, as well as the stress they can feel. 

Thank you for your comment, David!

QUESTION: Have you written a story about a character with a disease or disability? How did you do it? What helped and inspired you?

SHARE: If there is anything you think I should add to this post, please tell me in my comments. There is only so much I can think of (I don’t pretend to be an expert) and I may have forgotten something. Thank you!


  1. My son has Autism, and my wife has severe Lupus.
    My son is high functioning so he does well on his meds, My wife has had Chemo, and high doses of steroids to control her Lupus. This leaves her to spend a lot of time in a wheel chair.
    I don't talk much of my wife's illness, on account that she is easily embarrassed by my ramblings. The reason I am sharing this with you is to let you know the caregiver side of things are important in real life, as well as in your writing. I have suffered from caregiver burnout several times and needed assistance mentally and physically. I blog and write to relieve stress. Sorry for the long comment.

    1. Don't ever be sorry for a long comment, David. Thank you for sharing that with me. I look up to you for what you have to deal with as a caregiver. It's not easy. I wish you, your son, and your wife all the best.

      But you did raise a great point, a writer could also write from the caregiver's point-of-view. I'll add a note to the end of my post. Thank you!

    2. Thanks for understanding Chrys.

  2. I love when the disability comes across as part of the character that we accept and not the focus in the story. I think then, it's done really well.

    1. So do I, Kelly. Disabilities are a part of people, but a small part and not even the most important. One example is "The Cuckoo's Calling". Strike, the MC, lost half of his leg, and while we know about his struggles, and what he has to go through with prosthetic, it's not the main focus of the story. The murder case he is trying to solve is.

      Thank you for your comment!

  3. Good information! My latest novel deals with three girls who are kidnapped and subjected to horrendous conditions and their descent into post traumatic stress syndrome. I did a lot of research!

    1. Your novel sounds really good, Kim! Best of luck with writing it! Last year I also blogged about kidnappings and torture. Maybe those can give you some ideas too. :)

      Kidnapping: http://writewithfey.blogspot.com/2013/01/writing-about-kidnapping.html

      Torture: http://writewithfey.blogspot.com/2013/04/writing-about-torture.html

  4. Awesome tips, Chrys! I look forward to the upcoming post about characters with psychological disorders. My character is wrongly admitted for mental issues she actually doesn't have. It takes place in a time period where this was quite common (early 1930's). I love your tip #10!

    1. Thank you, Kim! Your novel sounds really good, too! Obviously since I write blogs about these topics, because of my stories, I am deeply interested in any book with these themes. :)

  5. These tips were so interesting to read. I haven't written a character with a disability yet but these are great ideas to keep in mind, and food for thought on how to treat people with disabilities in "real life" too. I think never pitying people is a good thing to keep in mind. I have friends with various disabilities and they don't want to be pitied, they want to be treated like anyone else. I think pitying can turn into patronizing very quickly, in spite of the best intentions.

    Thanks for sharing this, Chrys.

    1. I'm so glad my post gave you food for thought and inspired such a great comment. I agree with you. No one wants to be pitied. We want to be understood and treated normal despite the things that make us different.

      Thank you for your comment. Julie!

  6. I haven't written a story about a disease /disability, but I'm a caregiver, and it was very interesting for me recently to read two books about people who had conditions similar to my mother's. In one book, the story was told from the perspective of the person who was sick, and I was very frustrated with the medical information. The author did some research, but not enough, and in certain situations, all I could think was,"that's misinformation!" The second book was written from the perspective of the caregiver, and I felt like, "that's my story! that's me!" She was so spot-on on the medical information, but also on the impact of the illness on loved ones. I loved that book. Interestingly, I did not choose the books because of the similarity of our situations. I liked the authors' work previously and it was normal for me to grab their books. Now I view the one author's work with suspicion because I wonder what else they get wrong that i wouldn't know about because it doesn't apply directly to my life. How to lose a reader:-)

    1. That is a way to lose a reader. It is very important to research and research thoroughly for any subject matter that you're not familiar with or have experience with. Every little thing has to be accurate, especially if it's medical.

      Thank you so much for your comment, Damaria!

  7. For me, the point 'Be Real' is the critical part. There is no need to sugar-coat the process.

    1. I agree, Claudine! Thank you for stopping by. :)

  8. I really like your tips! It's very helpfull! I had an idea about a character that would have some issues with he's health (like he always gets sick because his immune system or antibody is not well). The main problem is, I don't know any disease in this world that have this kind of symptoms. I would really like your assistance. Thank you!

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