Off-limit ailments?

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!


9 thoughts on “Off-limit ailments?

  1. My paranormal romance, Radiance:Love after Death has a heroine who suffers from physical disabilities and also traumatic brain injury. The hero is blind. It plays out a beautiful love story built on these “limatations” they have. In the end they find out nothing but love mattered anyway. As long as there is love, the rest does not matter. I think it’s refreshing to read about the different and the imperfect. Life is made of such. Enjoyed reading your post.
    Debra Jayne East

  2. Great article, good question. My book Love on Laird Avenue includes a hero with ADD. I touched on the humorous side of the issue as well as some of the downfalls. I didn’t want to get into the emotions too heavily.

    I have children on the autism spectrum and struggle with the devastation the spectrum can cause. Since my family and I have numerous medical issues, readers have contacted me about why I don’t write characters with medical issues. I write to escape the chronic frustration of living with day-to-day physical and mental issues.

    I definitely believe readers would like to see more of this, but they have also told me that they don’t want miraculous recoveries for the characters. They hate that. In a genre where the ending is supposed to be happily-ever-after, this creates a quandary in most people’s (author’s) minds.

    I read a book where the heroine was an amputee with a negative attitude throughout the book. I didn’t find it pleasant to read at all. But, it’s another case of—to each his own. I think readers will decide what’s too far.

  3. I don’t have too much to offer along this line. A few of my unpublished novels have the hero’s daughter with a nerve disorder that leaves her helpless and nonresponsive. This has found its way into my stories because our first born daughter, being non responsive, couldn’t be cured. In my two SF novels the daughter’s are cured. The hero, a widower was distraught and exerted all his time and energry to seeing she was cured. Since it is science fiction I don’t see a problem with the girl(s) being cured by advanced technology. I think these disabilities add to a story and resolution is refreshing especially when the hero has a hand in her recovery via good doctors being sought out or taking risky jobs to pay for the treatments. Hopefully I can find an editor who feels the same way. I may be onto one right now.

  4. Hi E. A.,
    An interesting post and question. I can only answer the question as if it were for my personal reading. As for me, any disability would be acceptable in fiction as long as it wasn’t the focus of the story. To me, if it became the focus, the book would need to be non-fiction.

  5. Very well said, E.A.. To me, everyone has a disability of some kind. Otherwise, we’d all be perfect and wouldn’t need the Lord. Attitude and security in God’s love are how we accept our own limitations and how we see others. As long as the character grows and finds peace through the course of a well told story, I don’t see a disability as a bad thing in a hero or heroine.

  6. I think readers relate to heroes with disabilities because we all have them! Everyone struggles with something, and reading about characters that aren’t superhuman or perfect makes it easier to relate. Great post!

  7. Excellent post, E.A.! 🙂 I do like some disability, but I read fiction to escape from the harsh realities we live in. If I read a romance story that might concentrate heavily on the disability, I think this would depress me. Not because I’m upset that the hero/heroine is “flawed” but because it makes me feel helpless. I want to get caught up in their romance and enjoy being giddy and filled with excitement of them finding their mutual love. I don’t want to feel the same in a book that I experience in real life.

    Does that make sense?

  8. Lovely post, and so thought provoking. I think it’s a gift to weave such themes into at least HFN…My sister in law struggles with mental illness; it would be hard to read that kind of theme because of, as miss mae says, the hopelessness of it. I have cancer survivors in a book–actually the heroine’s is incurable–and that’s a hard one. It’s in book three of a series and what to do in book eight? Well, real life does intrude in everybody’s work, I think. Thanks for this.

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