I’ve noticed a big push for more romances with “special” characters. Both publishers and readers seem to like characters that have some kind of disability or something that makes life more difficult. Since I’ve been writing stories with “special” characters lately, I began to wonder something.
Are there any disabilities, ailments, etc. that readers wouldn’t want a hero or heroine to have?
From what I can tell, physical disability is acceptable, whether it’s paralysis, blindness, deafness, amputation, etc. Post-traumatic stress disorder, especially if the hero is a veteran, seems to be popular. Autism spectrum disorders are popping up more often as well.
But what about mental illnesses that tend to make people uncomfortable, like paranoid schizophrenia? Would you read a romance with a heroine who has verbal tics that make her swear? Or with either a hero or heroine who has a skin ailment, like eczema or psoriasis?
While it’s great that the “special” people of the world are finding their way into romances, I’m worried about the portrayal. It seems that a lot of times the thing that makes them special is portrayed in a manner that glorifies the disability or makes it seem less serious than it is. I mean, how many characters with PTSD have been miraculously cured by the end of the story, and only through the power of love? Yes, a loving significant other can help a person deal with PTSD, but there is no magical cure for the disorder. If it’s there at the beginning of the book, particularly to the degree that it interferes with the afflicted character’s life, it should still be there at the end of the book, although it can improve during the course of the story.
Autism spectrum disorders are about as popular now as PTSD was a few years ago, which makes me wonder if we’ll see an influx of autistic characters in the coming years, just as we did with characters suffering from PTSD. The question here is whether the portrayals will become more realistic as time goes on. Now, I know a lot of authors do their best to create realistic autistic characters or Aspie characters (those with Asperger’s Syndrome), but a lot of the time it’s obvious to me that they don’t know what an autism spectrum disorder is like from the inside. They write as outside observers, which tends to lead to all sorts of misconceptions, such as assume the Aspie hero doesn’t really feel emotions or that the emotions are superficial at best. I have yet to come across anyone on the autism spectrum who doesn’t feel emotion at least as deeply if not more deeply than neurotypicals (non-autistics). The problem is that a lot of people on the autism spectrum have difficulty expressing those emotions in what is considered a normal manner. To bring it back to writing, even if the Aspie hero looks emotionless to the heroine, we’d better see a normal amount of emotion or more from the hero’s perspective.
With the challenges of realistically portraying disabilities and differences while keeping the story marketable and palatable to readers and editors alike, are there any ailments that are or should be off-limits?
Inquiring writers want to know what you think. Please share your opinions in the comments section!