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Disabilities, agency and fat jokes: writing lessons from Dragons – Race to the Edge

Written by M. Amelia Eikli

The gang from Dreamwork’s How to Train Your Dragon are now into their fourth season of adventure in the Netflix original series Dragons: Race to the Edge. The show, based on the book series by Cressida Cowell, is a great watch if you want lessons in writing a varied cast that breaks with expectations.

We’ll be posting a second article looking at how the women of Dragons are written, but for now, let’s look at how the show handles disabilities and body types.

Disabilities don’t have to be storylines

At the end of the first How to Train Your Dragon film, Hiccup loses his leg. This could have opened the door to an endless parade of things-I-cannot-do-without-my-leg storylines and episodes focused on Hiccup’s prosthetic getting him into trouble (or saving the day). Instead, what we get is the occasional situation where his prosthetic leg gets stuck or needs replacing. And these situations are never storylines of their own; they are presented as just another part of life when you’re living with a prosthetic leg.

His friends don’t treat him differently; there is no sense that his disability gives him superpowers or makes him ‘less able’ than anyone else. His leg is occasionally subject to banter between him and his friends (Hiccup: “I’m going back out there.” Snoutlout: “No you’re not – I will take your other leg!”). But it is only used this way by characters close to Hiccup – his equals. If mentioned by others, it clearly highlights a character’s ignorance or cruelty.

Hiccup gets to be a normal person who does normal things, while also having a disability. The disability is not his defining quality.

There is also a fantastic nonverbal character in Dragons – Gothi – with whom Hiccup and his friends learn to communicate just as easily as they talk to any other character. Her nonverbal communication isn’t an obstacle or a plot point – it just is.

Dragons isn’t perfect in its disability representation but, for the most part, it normalises disability without erasing its impact on characters’ lives.*

There is more to overweight people than hunger

It is worth watching an episode of Dragons along with an episode of another Netflix/DreamWorks collaboration: Trollhunters. The shows’ main characters – Hiccup and Jim – are both lanky, brown-haired and clever. Both of them also have an overweight, nerdy friend, but the difference in their writing is pretty astounding.

Fishlegs – Hiccup’s buddy – gets varied jokes about his intellect, and intense love of books and dragons. Toby – Jim’s sidekick – has one, single punchline, and it is repeated over and over: Toby eats.

Toby is a nervous eater; he carries chocolate bars in his pockets; he gets worried about running out of food when he is in mortal danger. The one time he gets to save the day, he does so with a burrito from his backpack. Unfortunately, this is the standard for overweight characters in films, on TV and in books: they just eat.

Fishlegs, on the other hand, runs away from (and into) danger, he dances and he never gets stuck in holes – simply because he has the basic perceptive skills to figure out where he can fit. In the entirety of the four Netflix seasons of Dragons, I counted exactly one scene referencing his eating habits. This proves that you can write varied body types without limiting your characters to their body type.

A few big flaws

In the next Dragons article, we will get into the female characters of the show, and how they all get to live their own lives with their own agendas. But for now, it is worth mentioning that the show does have a few great flaws in its otherwise well-represented world.

The biggest flaw: every single character is white. All the main characters, side characters, background characters – they are all painted with the same palette of beige. This makes the world less interesting and less representative of its audience, not offering its otherwise brilliant representation to all of its viewers and fans.

We have heard this defended by the theory that “it’s supposed to take place in a Viking-era-like world, and therefore everyone is Scandinavian”. However, we would like to point out that this show is based on Vikings riding dragons, so historical accuracy isn’t really an issue here.

We hope the next season will let the characters explore new areas with more cultural diversity. And perhaps an LGBTQIA character, or two.

But until then, this show is well worth a watch, and it can teach you valuable lessons about letting all of your characters have faceted personalities, varied body types and agendas of their own.

Do you have a favourite source of inspiration when it comes to respectfully writing diverse casts? Leave a comment!

*No members of the Storywelling team have physical disabilities and, although we have done our research, there may be aspects of disability representation that we have overlooked. If you have any comments or corrections, we would love to hear them!

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