Diversity representation in works of fiction is becoming more and more mainstream, and with good reason! People of all races, genders, and abilities deserve to see themselves represented in the stories they read. However, a lot of representation ends up being poorly researched and presented, and that is often the case for blind characters. This lack of research contributes to the perpetuation of harmful stereotypes and overused clichés, and in many cases, will make readers (not just blind ones) put down the story in disappointment.
If you want to include a blind protagonist in your story, but you aren’t sure how to go about it (or if it’s even a good idea at all), then you’re not alone! Writing a blind protagonist can be daunting, but it’s not as challenging as you might think! All it takes is a little research and practice, and you’ll be able to create a compelling blind character to add to your diverse cast of characters.
What Is It Like to Be Blind?
This might surprise you, but the vast majority of blind individuals (about 80-90%) actually retain some form of sight. Usually, that means a person is still able to perceive light and shadows, but sometimes a person can still see colors or vague shapes, or they may have tunnel vision or only be able to see in their peripheral. Some conditions can cause visual impairments that look like snow or debris that obscures vision, or dark spots could cover a large portion of a person’s field of vision. Some people just have eyes that vibrate so intensely that their sight is too blurry and dizzying.
With that said, 10-20% of blind people are completely blind, with no light, shape, or color perception at all. And, obviously, if your character does not have eyeballs at all (due to accident or birth defect), then they would fall into this category.
Contrary to what you might expect, totally blind individuals don’t “see” darkness–they actually don’t see anything at all. Most people assume that the absence of sight is equivalent to darkness, but that isn’t the case. Darkness requires sight to perceive. Even if your eyes are closed, you are still seeing the inside of your eyelids, thus why it is dark when you close your eyes.
However, experiences can vary. A person who was born blind will not even know what darkness is supposed to look like. Someone who loses their sight later in life may remember, and their brain could try to fill in the gaps in perception with what makes the most sense. If the brain isn’t receiving any visual information, it may assume that it is dark, thus creating the imaginary perception of darkness.
How A Character Can Become Blind
There are three primary ways a person can become blind: injury, illness, and birth defects.
No matter what you choose, do the research to make sure you are accurately portraying the character’s experience.
There are several ways an injury can result in blindness, and some are not as obvious as you might think.
The most straightforward option is to have the character experience some kind of physical trauma to the eye that would cause the eye to rupture. Other options include acidic or corrosive substances getting into the eye and burning it, lasers, shrapnel, or anything else that could cut, smash, bruise, or burn the eye or the tissues around the eye.
In addition to trauma to the eyes themselves, a character can become blind when the part of their brain that processes sight becomes damaged, or if the nerves connecting the eyes to the brain are damaged or severed. This can happen in a high-speed car crash, hitting the ground from a high distance, concussions, stroke, asphyxiation, and more.
If you decide to justify your character’s blindness with brain damage, there are a ton of other complications that you’re going to need to be aware of. I highly recommend taking a look at my other article How to Write About Brain Damage (Accurately!) just to make sure you can write about the topic convincingly.
Illness is another way that you can justify a character being blind in your story.
Brain tumors and some kinds of cancers can end up interfering with the eyes or optic nerves and result in blindness. Aside from that, however, there are a ton of other options for illnesses impacting a character’s vision. Autoimmune disorders can sometimes result in a person’s immune system attacking the cells in and around their eyes, whereas diseases that interfere with cardiovascular health may cause the eyes to degenerate because there isn’t enough blood and oxygen getting to the eyes’ cells.
Of course, there are also many eye-specific diseases like cataracts, glaucoma, and macular degeneration that can result in vision impairment or loss. Bacterial or viral infection can result in blindness as well.
If you’re writing a fictional story, then the disease that makes a character blind doesn’t even have to be a real disease. You could create your own disease from scratch with blindness being one of the symptoms. Of course, that’s a lot easier said than done, but if you’re willing to consider it, creating a fictional disease for your story can be a cool experience. Check out my other article How to Create a Fictional Illness for Your Story for a comprehensive breakdown of how to do this!
Blindness caused by birth defects is referred to as “congenital blindness,” and it can be caused by a variety of different conditions. The two most common kinds of congenital blindness results from anophthalmia and microphthalmia, and these conditions can occur on their own or as a result of another birth defect or disorder.
Anophthalmia is a condition in which a child is born without one or both of their eyes.
Microphthalmia is a condition in which one or both of a child’s eyes do not develop properly, which makes the eye(s) small and non-functional.
With that said, any condition that results in the underdevelopment or mutation of any of the tissues or nerves in or around the eyes and occipital lobe in the brain can result in some form of vision impairment.
Okay, okay. I know I said there were three major ways for a character to become blind, but this is worth mentioning too.
If you’re writing a story in which magic is possible, it stands to reason that a character can lose their sight due to being magically cursed. This option is of course very niche so I won’t go into detail here, but if you want to know more about curses, you can check out Curse Your Characters! (Writing About Magical Curses).
What Do Blind Eyes Look Like?
Contrary to what popular media would have you believe, blind eyes usually look just like normal eyes. Almost all of the most common types of blindness don’t affect the appearance of the eyes at all. Of course, there are exceptions to this, but it is your duty to do the research for the character’s specific condition to see if their eyes would look any different from anyone else’s eyes.
In general, a character’s eyes will not look cloudy or milky unless they have sustained the right kind of damage that would result in scar tissue forming on the cornea (the clear membrane that covers the eye). This can occur as a result of surgery that was done poorly or didn’t heal well, acid or foreign objects getting into the eye, corneal ulcers, or other physical trauma to the eye. Cataracts are the most common cause of cloudy eyes, but there is a surgery to reverse this. Some other conditions can result in cloudiness as well. Wikipedia has a good list of some of these conditions, but be warned that they do include images of scarred eyes.
Naturally, if the character was born without eyes, or had them removed (either traumatically or surgically), you won’t be describing what their eyes look like–you’ll be describing what their lack of eyes looks like. Do they still have fully formed eyelids and sockets? Do they wear fake eyes? Is there any scar tissue around where the eyes used to be? Depending on how they lost their eyes, your answers to these questions could be quite variable.
There are also some rarer conditions that can make eyes look rather unusual, while also affecting vision. (Emphasis on RARE.)
Ocular albinism describes a condition in which there is a lack of pigment in the eyes, so they appear very light blue (or even pale pink in certain light). The condition often results in extreme light sensitivity and blurry vision.
Coloboma is another interesting congenital condition that results in the eye’s pupil being distorted due to missing tissue. Sometimes, this condition interferes with the optic nerve, which results in blurry vision that cannot be corrected using glasses or contacts.
Polycoria is a condition in which an eye has two pupils. Although it is cool to look at, the condition can cause problems with blurry vision and light glare. Both of these pupils can constrict and dilate. Pseudopolycoria is a similar condition, but rather than an eye having multiple pupils, the iris simply has holes in it that look like additional pupils, but they cannot constrict or dilate. Unlike with polycoria, pseudopolycoria does not generally affect vision.
Remember that just because a person cannot see does not mean their eyes will be cloudy. In most cases, if a person becomes blind, their eyes will not suddenly turn white.
Tips for Writing Blind Characters
Writing a character in a story who cannot see can be a challenge–especially if you are not vision impaired yourself. There are many things you will need to keep in mind as you are writing, to ensure you don’t make any simple mistakes to contradict the character’s condition. In addition to that, it can be difficult to know how a blind character would navigate in different situations, and that can end up stalling your plot.
Here are some tips for things to keep in mind before you get started.
Make the Character Interesting Before You Make Them Blind
I’m sure everyone is tired of me saying this by now, but here goes. As with any marginalized community, disabled characters deserve to be interesting and complex in ways not related to their disability. Your blind character needs to have a personality that isn’t centered around being blind, and they should have interests, hobbies, skills, flaws, dreams, love interests, and more. Being blind should not exclude them from any of the character development that any non-disabled character would have.
If you want some pointers for creating characters that are complex and interesting, regardless of their disability status, then you can take a look at another one of my articles: How to Make Characters Interesting, Complex, and Unique.
Utilize Other Characters
In a story with a blind protagonist, your supporting characters are going to become really important. Generally, the blind character will rely on others to help them navigate and understand their surroundings. These characters will also play an important role in narrating the visuals to your readers, especially in a story told in first-person or closed third-person from the perspective of the blind character.
Supporting characters are going to be the voice through which you describe the visual setting. However, they should not just be mindless plot devices who objectively narrate their surroundings.
The way each character describes the world is going to depend heavily on their personality and biases. For example, there are many ways different characters could describe a group of college boys approaching them. One character may say “There are a bunch of guys coming towards us. One of them is really cute…” A different character might have something to say that’s entirely contrary to that sentiment, like “Dudebros inbound, watch out.” Very rarely will anyone give an unbiased account of what they see around them.
Of course, if you want this kind of commentary to feel natural, then you’re going to need to have a good handle on what the supporting character’s personality and biases are. Depending on the role they play in the story, you could go about creating them in the same way you would any other major character, but if they aren’t that important to the plot, you shouldn’t sink a lot of time into fully fleshing them out. You can check out one of my articles, How to Write Minor Characters, for tips on finding the right balance.
A fun consequence of relying on supporting characters to relay information is the fact that you can mislead your readers (and your main character). Everyone is inherently a little bit of an unreliable narrator, so some things they say might be misinterpreted, misunderstood, or downright misleading. If you want to foster distrust or conflict in your plot, that’s one way of doing it.
And of course, there may be times when your blind character is alone, and that’s perfectly reasonable. Blind people can often live independently. But if you have other characters present, it would be a waste not to take advantage of their presence.
Emphasize the Character’s Other Senses
Blind individuals have to rely more heavily on their other senses, like hearing and touch. Setting can be a challenge in a story with a blind protagonist, but you’ll be surprised just how little the visual descriptions matter. The things the character hears, smells, and feels creates the setting—what the place looks like doesn’t matter. For example, if a protagonist is outside, do they feel the sun on their face, a breeze, rain, or some other kind of weather? Do they hear or feel bugs flying around? What other sounds can they hear? Birds chirping, wind chimes, crowds chattering, or children playing? Do they smell flowers, trash, or bread baking? You can really bring a setting to life just by describing the sound, smell, and feel.
It can be helpful to remember that readers can’t physically see a setting when they’re reading either, so they’re already fairly good at filling in the gaps with their imagination.
It’s important that you don’t misunderstand this section. Blind people do rely on their other senses a lot to compensate for their lack of sight, but this does not mean those senses are heightened. A person’s hearing does not magically get better once they lose their sight, and the same rule applies to their other senses as well.
The reason it may appear that a blind person is better at picking up on things with their other senses is due to two things: practice, and a lack of visual distraction. No one is born good at picking up on subtle vibrations or picking out specific sounds in a noisy environment. These are things a person gets better at doing because they have to, and it is very much a skill that has to be learned, not a superpower. Secondly, not having visual stimuli as a distraction means that a blind person’s brain can spare more energy on interpreting audio and tactile information. Multitasking is hard, but the moment you eliminate one of those tasks, the others become a little easier to focus on.
Understand The Limits of the Blind Character
Blind protagonists are inherently unreliable narrators. They are not going to be able to narrate a story perfectly if they are missing a major part of the experience–namely the visuals. This is not in any way a bad thing, however! In fact, it is an opportunity for you as a storyteller to find creative ways to utilize that in the narrative. With that said, there are some things you need to be careful to keep in mind.
When a blind character is moving about the world, they are going to miss a lot of information around them. Even if they retain some sight, they might still not be able to tell the difference between signs, displays in shops, and even a dog from a pile of garbage. They might not know about ice on the road or a puddle until it’s too late.
They won’t be able to tell who they are talking to without being given some indication (like “Hey it’s George”). Even something distinctive like the smell of a strong perfume or the sound of someone’s voice may not be enough to confirm who they are speaking with. Generally, unless a character’s voice is particularly unique, the blind character is only going to recognize people they are really familiar with by the sound of their voice, such as family, close friends, or an actor they listen to a lot.
If you’re writing a story with a blind protagonist and they notice something that doesn’t make sense with the limitations of their abilities, then you’ll end up ruining the immersion and making readers question your authority as a storyteller.
How to Write a Character Who Uses a Guide Dog
Guide dogs can be a huge help to people who cannot see. Giving a blind character a guide dog in a story also comes with the added bonus of them having an iconic animal companion that travels with them (almost) everywhere. However, there are some things to keep in mind if you want to write a guide dog realistically.
What is a Guide Dog?
Guide dogs are service dogs that help a blind or vision-impaired individual navigate. These dogs undergo intensive training programs from a young age to ensure they are able to recognize and act upon the required commands to help their blind handler. Guide dogs must be the right size to easily guide a person around, and though any dog that is the correct size can become a guide dog, the most common breeds are shepherds, labradors, and golden retrievers.
You need to understand that guide dogs are not superheroes–they’re just dogs. Don’t get me wrong, they’re some of the best-trained dogs that exist, but they’re still just dogs. Not only are they going to make mistakes every now and then, but they’re also going to behave like regular pets when they’re not working. They’ll play, bug people to pet them, and dig holes in the yard, among many other things. They can be bratty, mischievous, lazy, or playful, but once their harness goes on, they mellow out and take their job seriously.
What Can Guide Dogs Do?
Next, you’re going to need to understand how guide dogs do their jobs, and what specific tasks you want your character’s dog to be responsible for.
The specific list of commands, how they are communicated, and how they are executed depends a lot on the individual’s needs and preferences, as well as the institution that trained the dog.
However, in addition to standard obedience commands like sit and stay, all guide dogs know the commands:
- Forward. This means the dog will lead the person in a straight line in whatever direction they are facing. If the dog stops suddenly, that alerts the person of some kind of obstacle in the path that they can use other context (like sound, touch, and their knowledge of the location) to determine the nature of, and maneuver around it.
- Left/Right. Simply saying one of these commands will instruct the dog to turn 90 degrees in the specified direction.
- Halt. This directs the dog to stop moving.
- Hop up. This directs a dog to step up onto an elevated obstacle, such as a curb or step. This can also be used for getting the dog to step onto a moving escalator.
- Forward up/Forward down. This command is used to instruct a dog to move up or down stairs.
- Get busy. This command (or a similar one) is used to tell a dog when to urinate. As long as their harness is on, a guide dog will not go without being directed, to ensure they don’t stop unexpectedly or relieve themself somewhere inappropriate.
In addition to these, many guide dogs will also know commands for finding exits in a building, finding a specific person (like “find grandma” or “find Holly”), locating an empty chair for the handler to rest in, finding a curb, and more. It depends on the needs and preferences of the handler.
When a handler gives a command that would put them in danger (such as giving the “forward” command into a road with traffic), the guide dog will demonstrate what is known as “intelligent disobedience,” and refuse the command to protect the handler. Similarly, the dog may act without commands to navigate the handler away from imminent danger or around immovable obstacles like a parked car.
What Can Guide Dogs NOT Do?
Guide dogs do not have GPS. The blind handler has to know the route in advance, and then they tell the dog where to go, one step at a time. The dog’s job is to navigate around unexpected things in the path and respond to potential hazards–not to show the handler how to get from point A to point B.
Similarly, dogs cannot read traffic signs, and since they are colorblind, they cannot tell the difference between lights on a stoplight. It is still the responsibility of the handler to gauge when it is safe to travel across a road.
This should go without saying, but even the best guide dog in the world cannot read minds. That is to say, dogs are not good at intuitively guessing what the handler wants them to do. Guide dogs need verbal commands to know what is expected of them, so if your character is being led around by a dog they never communicate with, that’s simply not realistic.
How to Write a Character Who Uses a Cane
Blind individuals often rely on what’s known as a “long cane” or “white cane” to help them move around. Canes can be used to roll or tap along the ground to ensure the path in front of the person is clear, to minimize the risk of stumbling on obstacles. Canes also make it easier to identify landmarks and changes in terrain that can help orient the person to their location, since different surfaces will feel and sound different. Because of this, snow on the ground can really disorient a person who uses a cane to navigate, since all their tactile landmarks will be indistinguishable while under a blanket of snow.
For tips on writing about how blind individuals do this, as well as how different surfaces sound and feel to cane users, you can check out this article on the Late Night Writing Advice Blog on Tumblr: Writing A Blind/Visually Impaired Character: Canes, Guide Dogs, O&M. It gets far more in-depth than I would be able to, and is written by a visually-impaired person with cane experience.
In addition to all this, some individuals may even be able to use their cane to echolocate in very specific instances, such as in a large parking lot in front of a store. Tapping on the ground and listening for the echo can help inform the person of how close they are to a large building. However, it’s important to keep in mind that this technique only works in certain environments when it is sufficiently quiet, and not everyone is able to do this.
How to Write About Assistive Technologies for Blind Characters
There are many different technologies and assistive devices to help blind individuals navigate the world independently. It’s important to do the research to understand some of the technologies that might be easily overlooked or considered mundane, so you can have your characters talk about them or use them casually throughout your story.
The first and most obvious thing that falls under this category is braille, which is a written language comprised of raised bumps that a person can feel with their fingertips. You don’t need to know how to write in braille in order to include this in your story, but you should know where braille commonly appears–such as elevator buttons, bathroom signs, and ATMs. You should also familiarize yourself with where braille frustratingly doesn’t appear in places it would sure be nicer if it did.
One thing that blind people use on a regular basis to navigate online spaces is a screen reader. This is pretty much exactly what it sounds like: a program will read out text and image descriptions that appear on a webpage, as well as anything the person scrolls over with their cursor. This is an easy thing to familiarize yourself with since you can install one right now and try it out for yourself. You’ll be able to hear the exact phrasing the program uses, as well as details about the tone, words it would mispronounce, and the descriptions it gives for things like emojis.
Similarly, most smartphones have accessibility settings that make them easier to use for people with vision impairments. These settings often include a screen reader, but also certain gestures, voice-to-text options, accessibility shortcuts, digital assistants like Siri, and more. Like with the point above, you can turn these settings on right now and try them out for yourself to get some real experience with them.
Obviously, understanding the digital technology is really only going to be important for you if your story takes place in a modern or futuristic world.
Writing Dialogue for Blind Characters
Dialogue is something you’ll have to pay extra attention to if you’re writing a blind character in first-person or closed third-person perspective. The reason for this is simply because the action beats that writers commonly rely on to break up dialogue are dependent on the conversing characters being able to see one another.
(pst! Check out Action Beats: What They Are and How to Use Them for tips!)
If you’re used to writing dialogue for sighted characters, you may include details like the character running their fingers through their hair, smirking, or gesturing, without really thinking about it. However, if you’re telling the story from the perspective of a blind character, they aren’t going to be able to see their conversation partner move or emote. If they cannot notice it, then it should not be included.
However, action beats are really important for reducing redundancy, setting the tone of a character’s speech, and breaking up large bits of dialogue into manageable chunks. You don’t have to (and in fact shouldn’t) cut out action beats entirely. You just need to be more conscious of how you use them.
If you’re writing action beats for the blind protagonist’s lines, then you can freely use beats that describe movement, body language, and whatever else you want. The character doesn’t have to see what they are doing with their own body to know that they are doing it. However, if you are writing action beats for other characters’ dialogue, then you need to focus more on the tone of their voice, the noises they make, and how they articulate. Only include things that their blind conversation partner would notice.
Dos and Don’ts for Writing Blind Characters
DON’T cure their blindness as part of the story’s resolution.
DO show them living well and being fulfilled as a disabled person.
DON’T have them touch other characters’ faces to “see” them. That doesn’t happen in real life (except perhaps with children).
DO have them learn to associate important people with the way they smell, speak, and sound.
DON’T give them superpowers that negate their blindness.
DO make blind superheroes if you’re writing a story about superheroes. (And make their blindness an obstacle to them. It’s a disability, not an accessory.)
DON’T victimize your blind characters just because they are blind.
DO give blind characters stories with depth, including those with heartbreak, loss, pain, and anything any other character could experience in a story.
DON’T make the character’s entire personality about mourning their blindness.
DO depict a character grieving realistically if they lost their sight recently.
DON’T give characters heightened senses as a result of being blind. That is not the reality for most people with vision impairments.
DO show how blind people rely on their other senses to navigate the world.
DON’T make your blind characters completely useless or wholly reliant on other characters.
DO show how your blind characters can be independent individuals.
DON’T normalize other characters babying the blind character too much.
DO show other characters accommodating and including the blind character casually, such as announcing their arrival with their name, making noises to let the blind character know where they are, and describing interesting things in the environment.
DON’T assume things about being blind if you don’t have the lived experience to back it up.
DO conduct lots of research on different topics related to being blind, like guide dogs, lifestyles, habits, accessible technology, and microaggressions or struggles blind people regularly face.
Things to Keep In Mind When Writing Blind Characters
Don’t assume that you will never have blind readers. I know that sounds odd, but blind people actually read (well… listen) to stories all the time, so you will likely have real blind people reading about your blind characters. In fact, they might have specifically sought your story out because of the blind character. Make sure you take the time to represent this community respectfully.
Fiction can be a great escape from reality, and people of all marginalized communities deserve to have stories where they are represented fairly. If your blind characters are stereotyped caricatures, or they are victimized and taken advantage of simply because of being blind, that isn’t going to be fun for blind people (or any compassionate person) to read. In fact, you could be preying on the insecurities and paranoia of the people you’re trying to represent, taking advantage of their lived experiences and fears just to create a cheap thrill.
Take the time to do the research, and do your best to create good representation for the groups you depict in your stories. Try finding blind beta readers, or asking them for advice on the character you’ve created or the way they are depicted. They might have some good insight for you to make them even more realistic.
I know this can be tough, but I believe in you. Good luck!