Writing Characters Unlike Me

I’m working on a game in which the protagonist has a disability.

Writing this protagonist is scary to me. I’m able-bodied, so as I write this game, I’m trying to help my players empathize with life experiences that I have not personally had.

I’ve seen able-bodied people mess up writing people with disabilities before – just like I’ve seen men write women badly, and cis/het people write QUILTBAG people badly, and white people write non-white people badly. The results are sometimes laughable, sometimes grotesquely offensive, and sometimes outright harmful.

Here’s my plan for writing someone unlike me, and getting it right.

Do the research

As with any other topic – when the Internet is full of information, it’s rude to ask other people to google on my behalf. Since my character has a disability, there are three types of research in my queue:

1) Scientific research. In this case, I need to understand the medical causes and ramifications of the specific disability in question. Wikipedia is a good starting place.

2) Personal research. I need to understand how people with this disability are affected on a day-to-day level. I’ll look for blogs by people with this specific disability, and I’ll also take a broader view and spend time reading general disability blogs.

3) Media research. How have characters with disabilities have been handled in game dev and other mediums, and how have those characters have been received? For example, Jill Pantozzi, who is a wheelchair user, wrote an incredibly poignant essay on Barbara Gordon as Oracle.

Write people as people

“Write all characters as human beings in all their glorious complexity and contradiction.”

– Kate Elliot, “Writing Women Characters as Human Beings”

My fiancee likes Leverage and Linux and pina coladas. She’s been paid for modelling and deck repair and software architecture. She rides motorcycles, flies small planes, and develops experimental electronics. She helps our landlord with anything related to wiring or ripping out drywall. She zigzags between being a social butterfly and being a hermit. She trained our dog to roll over on command, to tolerate having his claws trimmed, and to jump into her arms when she comes home.

All of these things are important, but none of them define her.

Also, she’s trans. That doesn’t define her, either – but it certainly affects her life.

Similarly, having a disability will affect my protagonist’s life, but it will not define my protagonist. I will write my protagonist first and foremost as a human being.

Get input from people with first-hand knowledge

It’s not enough to just do the research, because what I read will be filtered through my own perspective and understanding. Similarly, it’s also not enough to only get the opinions of other people who only have second-hand knowledge.

I need to talk to people who have first-hand knowledge, because those people are most qualified to tell me if I’ve screwed up. I need to show them my game and ask for their feedback. And I need to ask for that feedback at an early enough stage that I can make changes as necessary to fix any screwups.

In this specific case – AbleGamers is an excellent nexus for learning about how to make games accessible. They have a vibrant and active social community, and I’m hoping that I’ll be able to find a few playtesters there.

Write in a fashion appropriate to my experience

If this game were about disability, I wouldn’t be the right person to write it. I don’t have a firsthand look at the experience of being disabled, and as an able-bodied person, my voice on the subject of disability is not as important as first-hand voices are.

But the game isn’t about disability. Instead, it’s about growing up, gaining confidence, and learning how to question authority. It’s about the bravery of acting rather than reacting, and the power of taking a stand. It’s about the joy of understanding that you can change the world, and the horror of understanding that you must change it.

The core of this game involves universal human experiences, not disability-specific experiences. That’s why I feel confident writing it.

Everybody feels that they are special
everybody knows their day will come
everybody thinks they’ll find their fortune
when we know it’s only some
everyone believes in a beauty
that only they can see
and that’s how I know that everybody
is just like me.

– Jim’s Big Ego, “Just Like Me”

Steal this plan!

We all know what the standard video game protagonist looks like. There’s no reason to keep cloning him into every game, and there’s every reason to satisfy the huge demand for greater diversity.

So please, if you’re also a game dev – or a writer, or a filmmaker, or active in any other character-focused medium – steal this plan. Write characters that are unlike you. Write them with all the depth and empathy and compassion you can, and then hand your work to people who will tell you if you got it wrong, and try again.

We will all be better off for it.

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  1. Thanks for sharing your thoughts. In my still-unfinished novel, I happen to have a character who spends a lot of time in a wheelchair. Not exactly a major character, but one who has important scenes in the book. And while I don’t have any first-hand experience with wheelchair-bound people, I spent a lot of time assisting my father after a head injury left him unable to stand or walk by himself except with great difficulty. So hopefully I’m being accurate enough.

    Ultimately, writing people as people may be the most important technique to use, because we all are people first and foremost.

  2. The thing I’m having trouble with at the moment is how to do this in pickup tabletop RPGs. In that situation, pretty much by definition, you don’t have the time to do research or contact representatives of the people you’re representing, and all you have left is Play Them As Human – but this can leave plenty to be desired. I find it particularly tricky with characters from other races/cultures, where cultural information forms a big component.

    • Play Them As Human is good. Also, while you can’t get specific advance feedback under these circumstances, you can still do advance research – maybe not for a specific game (depending on how pickup your pickup games are) but for “hey, I would like to be able to run [minority] NPCs without sticking my foot in it, I’d better read up and talk to some appropriate people.”

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