Writing a Character with a Disability

ACFWAdvice, Authors and writing, Characters, Friends of ACFW, tips, writing 4 Comments

by Kathy Maresca @so_tweet

Lieutenant Dan. Would Forrest Gump have become an iconic movie without this fictional character? Because I am a rehabilitation counselor and a veteran, it is easy for me to understand why Lieutenant Dan has resonated with millions. Including a character who has a disability might make our novels even more relatable.

When one out of five people in our population has a disability, most of us have an awareness that medical issues can complicate life. External conflicts exist in environmental barriers. A fire breaks out, causing elevators to be down. Stairs are the only exit, and no one stops to help the person who uses a wheelchair. An intruder enters the home of someone who has a visual impairment, someone who is alone. Social isolation can be prevalent, exclusion from groups because of special needs. Lack of financial resources or appropriate medical care might also affect a character. The types of conflict that arise from disability issues are endless, and they are in addition to the “everyday” problems that everyone else faces.

We all know that every story presents a problem that needs to be resolved. By writing captivating conflict, the author has a chance to connect with a reader’s heart and mind. Approximately twenty percent of individuals in the United States have a disability, our largest minority group. In our society, medical conditions and injuries are not uncommon, and people who have disabilities often have even more challenges than those who do not.

How writing a character who has a disability can make your novel more relatable. @so_tweet #ACFW #writing #writingcommunity Click To Tweet

The challenge for writers is to display realistic conflict and barriers caused by disabilities. If we look closely at Lieutenant Dan, we will see how the movie treats the character in an authentic rather than gratuitous manner. Audience members become acutely aware of the details of Lieutenant Dan’s struggle. We learn how others see him and how he sees himself. The evolution of his character has a significant impact on the movie’s plot.

We meet Lieutenant Dan as a healthy individual. A leader. He’s confident and determined, a young man who wants to fulfill his role as a military officer. Then he loses. He loses his legs, his mobility, his career, and his self-respect.

How does a profane, disheveled, self-pitying, and angry character manage to move the hearts of real Viet Nam veterans? Actor Gary Sinise, who plays Lieutenant Dan, became a hero among those who survived the war. And the fictional character changed the actor, too. Sinise gained a profound respect for veterans. The actor also opened his heart to Jesus.

Let’s take a look at why people feel empathy for this fictional character. Loss is a part of life, and no one escapes it. Lieutenant Dan’s self-doubts, fears, and inadequacies are on display. We all have self-doubts and fears. Main characters who possess these qualities carry universal appeal, making a connection with readers.

When Lieutenant Dan falls onto the floor while defending his friend Forrest, we begin to root enthusiastically for this loyal character. Not only does Lieutenant Dan refuse help into his wheelchair, but he also manages to pull himself up into it. Lieutenant Dan keeps his promises, showing up to help Forrest on the shrimp boat. He makes peace with God, himself, and his disability.

In his quest for hope, Lieutenant Dan encourages others to find it, too. Although Forrest Gump is almost thirty years old, Lieutenant Dan finds new ways of touching people. Gary Sinise formed a band that carries the character’s name, performing for United States troops all over the world.

Perhaps we can all relate to a character who transforms disability into believability. And that character just might transform a good novel into a great one.

After working as an editor and a teacher, Kathy Maresca earned a master’s degree in rehabilitation counselor. In addition to helping people who have disabilities, Kathy has been a Guardian ad Litem and a volunteer for a prison ministry. She lives in North Carolina with her husband, Keith. They enjoy traveling, gardening, and spending time with their dogs. Visit Kathy on her website or Fiction Finder.

Comments 4

  1. Hi Kathy, I grew up with a parent with a disability. Your article really resonated with me. She was so much more than her health challenges! Thank you so much– loved reading this! 💕

    1. Kathy, thanks for letting me know. I agree with you; I believe people who have disabilities understand more than healthy people can imagine. Navigating through life can be more complicated, but can give a person insight and wisdom. Sounds as though your mom had both of those qualities.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *