Updated: Oct 10
The other day, I saw a section on a job application in which applicants could voluntarily disclose whether they had a disability. I've seen this kind of section before, but it still surprises me when the lists of disabilities include things like depression, anxiety, and PTSD. For whatever reason, I've never thought of mental illnesses as being in the same category as disabilities. But if we use Merriam-Webster's definition of disability . . .
"a physical, mental, cognitive, or developmental condition that impairs, interferes with, or limits a person's ability to engage in certain tasks or actions or participate in typical daily activities and interactions"
. . . then I guess a lot of mental illnesses qualify.
This made me think about the current push for inclusivity in popular culture. I love the fact that books, movies, and TV shows are striving to include people and characters of all races, nationalities, abilities, and so on. The thing that worries me, though, is that some writers try to join this movement by putting what I call token characters in their work.
In this context, token means that the character's only function in the book is to convey a message: "Hey, look, this author is being inclusive!" The problem is that token characters exacerbate existing problems and even cause new ones:
Unlike other characters, token characters contribute little or nothing to advancing the plot. In fact, you could switch out or cut a token character altogether and see either no difference or even an improvement in the story. So having such a character does nothing to make the story better.
Token characters are often portrayed wildly inaccurately because their authors do inadequate or no research. The results can both annoy and deeply offend readers who know the facts. Worse, inaccurate token characters can perpetuate damaging lies among uninformed readers. Appallingly, some authors even do this on purpose! For example, I strongly suspect that Sir Arthur Conan Doyle made so-called Mormons the villains of A Study in Scarlet not to be inclusive but because their religion was already widely misunderstood and disliked. Though literary standards of accuracy were considerably different back then, Doyle still bears some responsibility for helping spread twisted ideas about a much-persecuted group.
While race, disability, sexual orientation, nationality, religion, and so on are major facets of someone's life, a person is so much more than any one of these things. It's not fair to anyone (or any character) to define them by a single trait. But token characters get treated as if their Otherness is the only thing about them that matters. If a story has a token LGBTQ+ character, for example, it's common for most of their dialogue and actions (and those of others toward them) to relate to their sexual orientation. This character might also love the color yellow, have a knack for remembering directions, and be terrified of spiders. But token characters rarely get the chance to talk about or do such "normal" things—even if other characters do—because they have to "represent."
Speaking of #3, token characters often get treated as representatives of their category of Otherness. Their authors heavily imply or even outright state that this is what all people who are [insert the character's Other trait] are like. But in real life, it annoys or outright offends people when someone asks them, "So, what do Black people think about X?" or "Can blind people do Y?" or "Is it true that LGBTQ+ people . . . ?" as if this individual can or should speak for all people like them. This is an unfair expectation because no two people are exactly alike, even if they share important qualities. My paternal grandparents, for instance, both survived polio. Grandma never walked again, but Grandpa did with crutches for some time. He also had a lot of polio-related respiratory problems later in life, but to my knowledge, Grandma never did.
The bottom line? If inclusivity is our goal, token characters are not the way to reach it! So what do we do instead?
First, we start the same way we would with any other unfamiliar topic we wanted to write about: doing thorough research. If, say, you want to write a character with a spinal-cord injury (SCI), there are many potential outcomes for patients with this type of injury, so it'll take a lot of work to flesh out this concept. Read credible sources about SCIs and their effects. Pose questions to medical professionals (I've had good luck with the Facebook group Trauma Fiction). If possible, talk to people who've had SCIs and learn about the people themselves, their experiences, and what they wish people knew about their situation. All this information will help you create a character who accurately reflects the reality of people with the same type of SCI but who is also a unique person.
Second, we study the work of authors who, for lack of a better term, do inclusivity well. Here are some of my favorites:
The writers of The Dragon Prince portray a medieval/Renaissance-type setting in which . . .
people of all races live together peacefully,
both men and women take decisive actions and provide gentle nurturing, and
one of the major characters, Amaya, is Deaf and communicates in sign language. Her interpreter also speaks the words when Amaya is talking to a hearing character (probably for the audience's benefit), but there are some personal moments when the filmmakers simply let the signs speak for themselves without interpretation.
Rick Riordan does a magnificent job with the characters Sam (a devout Muslim) and Alex (who's gender-fluid) in the Magnus Chase series.
Sam struggles with her identity because she was born out of wedlock, but eventually she comes to accept that she can follow her beliefs and embrace her abilities as a daughter of Loki. Later, one of book 3's major complications is that Sam is fasting for Ramadan at a time when she needs her physical strength more than ever. But she soldiers on, staying true to both her faith and her friends.
Alex, also a child of Loki, identifies as male during some parts of the story and as female during other parts. This makes for interesting relationships with other characters, particularly with Loki (whom I hadn't known is also gender-fluid in Norse mythology). It also leads to both helpful moments (such as when Sam needs a male family member as a chaperone) and complications (such as when Alex gets violently upset over someone using the wrong pronouns for him/her) throughout the series.
Alex also has a background and interests that are explored and developed throughout the series. For instance, s/he has Mexican heritage and loves creating pottery, traits that come into play when s/he builds Pottery Barn (a character, not the store) to battle Hrungir's clay figure.
Third, we make sure that every character has good, solid reasons for being in the story. "Because it's cool" or "Because we need to represent [insert category] people" isn't enough. What does this character contribute to the story that no one else can? How do their unique traits help move the plot forward? If a character's Otherness is their only contribution, we need to rethink that character.
Fourth, we do the best we can. We're never going to be perfect as writers. But we can be diligent in doing our research and treating delicate topics with the sensitivity they deserve. And that's all we can really expect from anyone.
(Thanks to Duy Pham for sharing their work on Unsplash.)