Last month, when we talked about disability, I touched briefly on writing characters with disfigurements (don’t make them your villains!), but the topic of physical disfigurement and other kinds of bodily difference really deserves its own post.
Once again, this is something where Own Voices is always going to be paramount. Someone with an abled body is never going to fully understand what it’s like to live with a disfigurement. And honestly, I don’t think it’s an able-bodied writer’s job to write a book that focuses on the experience of living with a disfigurement/ bodily difference. I do think, however, that she has a duty to populate her world with all kinds of people and all kinds of bodies. As with everything else, you just have to put in the research to get it right.
I couldn’t find very many resources about writing characters with disfigurements, though I did come across this awesome essay about cultivating ugliness and rethinking our ideas about beauty. The following suggestions are based on the guidelines we’ve established throughout this series as well as my own experience with a skin condition.
Start by researching the disfigurement or skin/ facial difference itself. Does the disfigurement cause physical discomfort? Does it require a prosthetic or assistive device? What is everyday life like for a person with this type of bodily difference?
Once you understand how the disfigurement affects the way they move through the world and you can get the small details right, focus on making your character as complex and nuanced as any of your others. This is one thing that Game of Thrones does pretty well, I think. The characters pictured above are all three-dimensional. Their physical differences are a part of who they are, but they do not define them as a person.
- Don’t use a disfigured person as a source of inspiration for your other characters or readers.
- Don’t portray your disfigured character as lacking agency.
- Don’t present disfigurement as a fate worse than death.
- Don’t write a cure story.
- Don’t make characters who have disfigurements or skin conditions villains! (Unless you have a wide range of characters with disfigurements and differences, like in Game of Thrones.)
I think that these guidelines apply to other physical differences as well. Tyrion Lannister (played by Peter Dinklage in the show) is one of the most nuanced and interesting characters in the series. His bodily difference is definitely acknowledged, and it definitely affects the way he interacts with the world, but it is not his entire identity.
The following articles about the portrayal of bodily difference, disabilities, and disfigurements in Game of Thrones provide some great insights into how (and how not) to do the same in your own work.
Call to Action
I believe strongly we need to champion work by Own Voice authors if we want to improve body diversity in our books. To that end, I’ll direct you to a list of books about facial disfigurement written by Own Voice authors: 8 Books about Facial Disfigurement Written by People Actually Living with Disfigurement. Check out some of the titles on this list, especially if you want to write about characters with a facial difference.
January: Understanding Identity and Representation
February: Acknowledging (and Battling) Colonialism, Marginalization, and Erasure
March: Writing Race and Ethnicity
April: Writing Gender
- Improving Female Representation
- Writing Transgender and Non-Binary Characters
- Gender and Sexuality Terms
May: Writing Sexuality
June: Writing Disability
July: Writing Body Diversity
- Writing Fat Characters
- Writing Bodily Difference and Characters with Disfigurements