Physical Limitations: Permanent or Temporary?

Shaquem Griffin
Folk wisdom says that whatever doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. That would certainly seem to characterize Shaquem Griffin. He was born with a condition that prevented the fingers of his left hand from developing normally. Due to the pain, his left hand was amputated when he was four years old. He went on to play multiple sports, excelling in football, and following his college graduation, he was recruited by the Seattle Seahawks.


Physical Limitations Permanent Temporary
Why should writers pay attention to this sort of thing? Many people/characters have physical limitations and writers should always consider the impact of those limitations on the character and/or the plot action.


A chronic limitation/disability is permanent. It can be present from birth or a condition that results from accident, illness, an act of war, etc. For purposes of writing, the timing makes a difference. Someone coping with a chronic condition develops methods of functioning around the problem—a car modified to be driven without feet, for example. You can search on line for a girl who returned to dancing after having double leg amputation. Consider anyone in the Special Olympics. Musicians who have excelled despite blindness or missing limbs.


Issues for you to address: Just what accommodations has the person made to cope at work, at home, in public, in his/her love/sex life? And, what is his/her emotional state? Pragmatic? Optimistic? Depressed? Bitter?


An acute limitation is likely to be temporary. Here again, your character can have a major limitation (in the hospital in traction; in assisted living following a stroke) or something more minor, such as a broken bone or sprain. Besides pain, acute limitations are likely to create frustration—and perhaps embarrassment— as the person finds many things that used to be automatic are now not possible. Consider the woman who can no longer fasten her bra: how would she accommodate? Or the man who cannot cut his own dinner into bites.


For writers, the devil’s in the details. So don’t just state the limitation, consider the minute ramifications. For example, a cane user has a handbag, briefcase, perhaps a folio, and an umbrella because of a deluge. How is the door opened? How wet does the inside of the car get while struggling to get in and get settled?


Physical Limitations Permanent Temporary
Bottom line: Use physical limitations to characterize your character(s) and complicate the action in scenes and/or plot lines.