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!