Wednesday, March 1, 2017

Crafting Characters 

Who Have Special Needs

by Kortney Price 
 Holloway Literary Agency

In my submission interests I list that I am always interested in work containing special needs characters. Why? Because I grew up working in the special needs community (Check out TASK!).  This community has taught and inspired me so much over the years and I want to give back and help them to be heard and understood. Because I want others who don’t feel comfortable around people with special needs to have the opportunity to learn through books and experience the same wonderful community.

When we include characters who are different from ourselves in our stories, we have to keep in mind that they cannot be defined as different. They have to be that puzzle piece that fits perfectly into your story to create the big picture you want readers to see. So, if you’re creating special needs characters in your story, here are a couple of tips I’ve picked up along the way.

     1)   Disability is Not a Definition. Focus on the Individual

      When you’re crafting a special needs character make sure you’re not defining them by their disability. We already know that characters need flaws, strengths, goals and a voice to feel well rounded. The same goes for special needs characters. Who are they as a person? That should be your focus. 

    2)   Research, Research, Research

      You’re going to be researching for some element of your story anyway, why not really get to know what’s happening in your character’s brain or body? The human brain is like a computer. People with certain special needs have brains that run on a different operating system than what you might be used to. Really learning about how your character’s brain runs will help you to create a well-rounded character both in your head and on the page.

3)   Know Why Your character is Present

Every character in your story has to have a purpose. If your protagonist has a little brother or sister with special needs, make sure they have a purpose in your story. If you don’t give your characters a purpose you run the risk of your story becoming cluttered or having characters who only serve to diversify your story rather than express theme or move the plot.

If you are working on writing a story featuring those in the special needs community, check out these links for lists of award winning books featuring characters with a variety of special needs.

·       Schneider Family Book Award Winners
·         Dolly Gray Award Winners

If you’re looking for reliable resources in your research, check out this awesome list of sources on the Autism Speaks website, the Department of Mental Health’s website, or try heading out to volunteer and spend some time with the special needs community in your area.

Call for Submissions:

I’m currently looking for manuscripts in the middle grade to new adult range. If you have a story featuring special needs characters and would like to submit to our agency, check out our submission guidelines here.

WIN a free critique with Associate Agent Kortney Price:

If you share your comments on this blog by March 31st, you'll be entered to win a critique with Ms. Price. If you're the winner, you can submit up to 10 pages of a manuscript that fits her call for submissions and get a written critique of your work.

Share Your Thoughts:

What are your thoughts on the portrayals of characters with special needs in children's and young adult literature? Are such portrayals important? How so? Which books do an excellent job? Which don't? Why? Come join the discussion and enter the chance to win a free critique. 



  1. As a former teacher, I know how important it is for children to learn empathy for others, especially children with disabilities. Books that show acceptance are vital for kids and adults! I really enjoyed reading this post and would love to submit to Kortney!

  2. Great look inside an agent's mind, Alexandria.
    Thank you, Ms. Price, for sharing your thoughts with us.

  3. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  4. Hello Folks,
    I'll join the comments for Ms. Price's post by thanking her for being a guest blogger on Wordy Wangderings and particpating in Vivian Kirkfield's 50 Word Contest. I want to keep this guest post for the month, so that more folks can see the great advice within.

    Here is my 50 word story:

    Spoof was a goof
    who got stuck on the roof.

    She paced and she raced,
    but her mistake couldn't be erased.

    With a meow for Cow
    and a yowl for Owl

    With a hop on the spot,
    and a spin on a wing,
    Spoof was an aloof goof again!

    1. What fun,'ve channeled Dr. Seuss here...I love it! Thanks so much for playing along.;)

  5. Kortney, I appreciated you sharing your thoughts with us and admire your desire to represent authors who write about characters with special needs. As a middle school teacher, I sometimes am privileged to work with children with special needs. I believe all children are a joy to teach, but there is something truly inspirational about these children. It's important to get their story right. Thanks for your article!

  6. It is important to have characters with special needs portrayed in fiction because it gives people who don't have those differences an insight into what it is like for someone else.

    However, I find it extremely challenging to write those stories in a way that works for most readers. My YA fantasy novel, Power Surge, which you rejected recently, features a character who has ADHD as well as some mental health issues. This is an #ownvoices novel, and I really tried to use this character to capture how hard it is for me stay focused, and how my anxiety is often expressed as anger and rage. Whenever I thought I had nailed it, I would show it to a beta reader or give an excerpt to a critique group, and they wouldn't be able to follow the characters thoughts. The current draft is polished and easy to follow, but after 50+ rejections and only 1 request, I'm wondering if I took too much feedback from people who did not have the same experiences I do with ADHD and mental illness.

    That being said, one YA book I thought did a good job portraying a character with ADHD was The Smaller Evil Stephanie Kuehn because the way that character zoned out and lost his train of thought rang true to my experiences.

    I did not like the way Cassandra Clare portrayed characters with learning disability in Lady Midnight because I felt she did define the characters based on their differences and spent too much time explaining them in a way that told the reader how they were different more than it showed it.

    I'm sure there will be lots of people entering this, but if I win, I would love to hear your thoughts on the piece you rejected.

  7. Thank you for sharing this useful information. It's something all writers need to consider. I would love to win a critique on the first 10 pages of my YA novel, Supra/normal. While it doesn't deal specifically with special needs characters, it does feature young people who are discriminated against because of their unusual powers. The theme of how society reacts to those who are different is one that is very important to me. Thanks!

  8. The worlds in which we live are not always honest, or fair or kind. Fiction, true art builds those worlds with words. If we cannot be kind, and fair, and honest in our dreams, I do not know where. Inclusion and representation are not just tokens, they are duties. Thank you for your comments.

  9. This is a wonderful post. My son is a mentally ill adult, but we've been living with his differentness most of his life. The isolation and stigma of mental illness only makes the problem deeper for those that struggle for some normalcy in their lives.The more opportunities we have to integrate all kinds of people in our stories, the better. Thank you, Kortney, for your inclusiveness.

  10. AND THE WINNER IS..... Suzanne Morrone. Congratulations, Suzanne, you've won a 10 page critique from agent Kortney Price. More details to follow!!