The Saint and The Curmudgeon
There really aren’t enough disabilities represented in fiction, especially when the ones that are there tend to fall into unflattering stereotypes. This is damaging to both abled and disabled people; those of us with disabilities are baffled and even insulted by these depictions. And those who are “normal” assume these portrayals are accurate and try to treat us like the poor souls they read about in their books. Bad news all around. The first stereotype I see the most often is The Saint. This character has been disabled all their life. They don’t know what they’re missing so of course they can put on a brave smile and greet the world with that unique strength that comes from obliviousness. They just keep swimming, unaware of the countless millions their story inspires, amazing their readers with their ability to get out of bed in the morning and face life. You can recognize this character by the adjectives used to describe them. Words like brave, undaunted, inspiring, or my personal favorite, stoic. Watch for these characters in minor roles, quietly compelling the hero to bigger and better deeds, because if she can sit in that chair all day without complaining, well, then, gosh darn, I can save the world.
Walking hand in hand with The Saint is The Curmudgeon. This character has only been disabled a short time, a few years at most, which means they remember what it was like to run free. So their bitterness is understandable. Look at all they’ve lost. What’s the point of moving on? they moan. Their pain is cathartic because things can’t possibly get any worse for them, and we’re reminded that our lot isn’t really that bad. This character doesn’t get nice round adjectives, just a dark, foul living space and the occasional caustic remark. You can find them occupying secondary roles, providing a foil for the bright, hopeful hero, because we can’t recognize the light without the miserable reminder of what they might become.
Now, I’ve written this with tongue firmly in cheek, but the thing is, stereotypes exist for a reason. There is a grain of truth in both the Saint and the Curmudgeon. Heck, I’ve represented both in the same day before. That “just keep going” attitude and the bitterness come from very real reactions to disability. But people (all people) are so much more that the 2D façade these stereotypes perpetuate, and the same goes for characters. I want to see the crumbling worldview behind the stoic smile and the steely strength masked by the caustic comments.