I am an advocate for including characters with illnesses and disabilities in your fiction, including heroes, side characters, and villains. But be careful when your villain has a disability, as there are some tired, harmful tropes associated with these characters and it’s best to avoid them. Here are some tips on what to consider.
Avoid the Following:
1. Connecting a disability with evilness.
A crippled body does not mean a crippled soul, but this trope exists because writers like the symbolism. It’s also common to use a disability as the source of a villain’s evilness—perhaps they struggle with trauma from an accident or, if they’ve been disabled since birth, they may envy the able-bodied. Perhaps they were lonely or ridiculed as a child for their condition. Perhaps they are in pain all the time and want to get revenge on the world for their condition.
In Battlestar Galactica, the turning point for Felix Gaeta’s morality is when he loses his leg. He’s had a lot of horrible things happen to him (like cylons destroying his planet and trying to kill him), but it’s this event that really brings him over the edge, which suggests that disability is the absolute worst thing that can happen to you.
Ant-Man and the Wasp’s villain, Ava Starr (a.k.a. Ghost), has chronic pain and does whatever it takes to find a cure, including attacking others and being willing to leave them in the quantum realm. She is angry, bitter, and makes rash decisions. Yes, chronic pain can impact your personality and can make you do uncharacteristic things, but her villainy is so wrapped up in her condition that once it’s gone, she isn’t a villain anymore. The message that people are evil or “wrong” until they’re better is unsavoury for those of us with illnesses that cannot be cured.
Connecting a disability with a villain’s evilness is a tired trope because people with chronic conditions and disabilities are no more likely to be evil than the next person (in fact, we may be less likely, because concocting dastardly plots and managing minions takes a lot of energy that we just don’t have).
2. Using physical deformities to make your villain look scary.
Hook hands, peg legs, and eyepatches are especially popular on villains. They are often there for no other reason than to make the villain look more frightening.
Technological and medical devices are commonly used for their creep factor as well, such as the life support that keeps Doctor Who’s Davros alive. An iconic example of how villains and heroes are treated differently in this area is Star Wars: Darth Vader gets an intimidating black body suit with flashing buttons to keep him alive after he suffers from severe burns, but Luke Skywalker gets a human-looking robotic replacement after his hand is cut off.
People with physical scars, deformities, and medical interfaces who constantly see these types of villains get a clear message: I am scary looking. People are afraid of me. I can’t be a hero. I don’t belong.
3. Associating mental illness with villainy.
Mental illness is often the subtext of unhinged villains who do twisted things, but that illness may never be named or properly depicted, such as with DC’s Joker. In the 2019 film, Joker’s transformation into a murderous, violent character is triggered by his mental deterioration, which includes hallucinations and other random symptoms.
Psychotic illnesses are constantly stigmatized and misrepresented in fiction, and mental illness is wrongly associated with extreme violence. Characters like Joker suggest people with mental illnesses are to be feared and may abuse others, when they are the ones who more commonly receive abuse. Portrayals like this are harmful to people who have real struggles and are are looking for understanding and assistance from those around them.
4. Making a disability a consequence of being evil.
People with chronic illnesses and disabilities already struggle with questions like “What did I do to deserve this?” (At least, I do.) The fact is, we did nothing. Life just isn’t always kind.
Fiction can perpetuate this guilt by using disability as a stock punishment for evil. For example, the subtext of Captain Hook’s missing hand in Peter Pan is that he deserves to lose his hand and be forever chased by a crocodile, because he’s evil. In the Spider-Man movies and comics, Norman Osborne is the amoral head of a giant company, Oscorp, pushing for the development of money-making technologies; he turns into the Green Goblin after being exposed to one of these experiments. In Wonder Woman, Doctor Poison creates deadly, toxic weapons and has facial scars due to the accidental exposure to her own gases.
Linking illness and disability with punishment is an unhelpful and discouraging message. No one “deserves” being sick or disabled.
What to Do Instead
If your villain has a disability, demonstrate the condition as something they simply have to live with instead of linking it to their evilness. Try using a specific condition (and research it to ensure accuracy) instead of generalizing symptoms. Even if you create a fictional illness (such as Amanda Brotzman’s Pararibulitis in Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency or Cloud Strife’s Geostigma in Final Fantasy VII: Advent Children), you can be specific with how the illness manifests.
Give other characters illnesses and disabilities, not just the evil ones. We want to see ourselves in our heroes, too! Don’t give your villain the most physically apparent disability in the story, either. If everyone else has invisible conditions and your villain is the only one with a missing leg, a scar, and an eyepatch, what does that say about those disabilities to people who aren’t villains?
Be thoughtful about how you portray these villains, and you will end up with more interesting, well-rounded characters who aren’t simply stigmas of a condition. Yes, villains can have disabilities, but not all of us with disabilities are villains.