I am considering writing a line of dialogue in which character A calls character B (not to their face) "a lunatic". In the context of my story, it is clear that character A has a simplistic understanding of character B, and therefore character A's assessment of character B as "a lunatic" is incorrect. Additionally, character A is established to be a judgmental person. Would it be okay for me to use this line or should I scrap it entirely? Basically, I'm wondering if "lunatic" would be considered an ableist slur? If so, what should I replace it with?

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    Is character B disabled? Commented Feb 3, 2021 at 20:11
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    Even if it is, this may be acceptable to develop your A character.
    – Alexander
    Commented Feb 3, 2021 at 22:51
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    @Trich You should post that as an answer, not as a comment.
    – F1Krazy
    Commented Feb 4, 2021 at 17:55
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    I'm curious why you chose to take B's side, since many of your readers (being relatively "judgemental" compared to you) might identify more closely with A's viewpoint. Such readers might consider your current post (or, current thinking, rather) offensive. I don't believe it's possible to communicate anything non-trivial without taking the risk of offending someone --- it's a risk you've taken just to post this question.
    – jpaugh
    Commented Feb 4, 2021 at 18:37
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    Is calling someone a lunatic considered "ableist" in real life? Commented Feb 5, 2021 at 4:06

4 Answers 4


Some may call it so, and they might be right, but it's of no consequence.

Creating realistic and believable and sympathetic characters means that sometimes those characters have negative character traits like being sexist, mysogynsist, misandrist, ableist, dishonest, self-agrandizing -- any ist you could possibly imagine.

That is because people can be these things.

What matters is that the characters are interesting and that their good traits and bad traits are important to making the story go forward in an engaging way, or part of the story resolving in a satisfying way. If you make a character a wisecracking misandrist just so you can use your ready supply of men-r-jerk jokes, and her misandry doesn't add anything to the story, then it's not a great choice, no matter how hilarious she is.

And, time and setting play a part selecting character traits and attitudes towards insanity, amongst other things. A character from the 16th century might see someone's madness as god's curse. And, a character from the Progressive Era Socialist World 1984 might see them as maladjusted. The language character's use devolves from their worldview.

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    I could wish for a better phrasing here than "but it's of no consequence". I agree that characters, when we have their POV, should have a view that's flavored by their outlook, and ideally should speak realistically the way that character would speak. However, having a focus character that is, to take an extreme example, a raving Nazi, is certainly not of "no consequence." In fact, its of tremendous consequence, and shouldn't be treated flippantly.
    – T.E.D.
    Commented Feb 5, 2021 at 17:47
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    @T.E.D. You confuse Art with Real Life. The consequence, in this context, refers to the author's concern when creating the work, not the humors upsetting the tummies of delicate readers. In Art, the author chooses the characters they need to express their stories. Bridling and shackling Art for the sake of the socially conscious destroys it. When the piece is finished and shared then the Social Justice Critics can have their say as to whether they liked those choices or not.
    – EDL
    Commented Feb 5, 2021 at 18:09
  • @EDL: That's just not universally true. Some works of fiction try to hammer home their authors political opinions not for the sake of art but for the sake of getting some point across. Consider for example Ayn Rand's fiction which no sane reader would confuse with "art". Sometimes this can also happen subconsciously as a writer infuses their characters with their own (possibly unacceptable) opinions and biases. If you find your own writing is heading in that direction then you should probably amend it.
    – Peter
    Commented Feb 6, 2021 at 16:53
  • @Peter, you are illustrating my exact point. If any author worried themselves about meeting your insular standards of what is and is not art, and what is and is not a socially acceptable opinion they could never create anything rising above blandish morality tales. For every author there a million of narrow minded hecklers vetoing ideas that challenge their worldview. For the author to create their Art, they need to banish the censors voice and take a risk on being offensive in order to share a possibly greater unconsidered truth.
    – EDL
    Commented Feb 6, 2021 at 21:12

So character A is an ableist.

No problem. Your writing should have characters that are jerks, liars, cheats, criminals, murders, and more or less bad people of all kinds and types.

And some of them are called antagonists and without antagonists, you'll have problems with conflict.

OR, maybe your story's conflict is about character A thinking of character B as "a lunatic". Maybe character A follows an arc where they go from being an ableist to being a person that sees the world in much better detail. Maybe they don't.

If your message is: "don't be prejudiced" then you simply "punish" character A for their prejudice and you've got a message!

Readers will think of your characters as part of the story and if the story demands they say or do things a certain way, if it's done well, they will say the story was a good one, if it fails they'll say it was a bad one.

If the message of your story is prejudiced, on the other hand, then they'll think you are too.

It's not even a problem when the narrator is prejudiced, as long as it happens on purpose:

And then there was B, he was one of those complete lunatics!

Does that make me sound ableist? Or does it sound like the narrator is? Would it have been different if I'd just started my answer like that? Does the fact that it is written as fiction (talking about a fictional person and marked as a quote commonly used on Writing to mark fictional passages) make a difference?

I think the only way to come across as prejudiced as a narrator/storyteller is if you do your research so badly you show prejudice by your lack of understanding of people. Extreme example: all the black people in your story always sing and dance... or all the Scandinavian female characters have D-cups and sleep with everyone... or well you get the point.

Sometimes you have characters that use bad language and do horrible things, and without them, your story and your message will be worse off.

After all, "Schindler's List" would have had problems without the Nazi characters...

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    Your answer implies that being ableist relegates the character the villainy, which is a bit extreme. It could easily be a negative trait for any character, including the hero.
    – Harabeck
    Commented Feb 5, 2021 at 16:21
  • "Maybe character A follows an arc where they go from being an ableist to being a person that sees the world in much better detail." Home Alone is a classic example of this - Kevin perceives Old Man Marley as a lunatic until he actually gets to know him. In the end, it turns out he's just a nice old man. Commented Feb 5, 2021 at 22:34
  • @Harabeck, maybe. I intended it more as a transition from not so bad to very bad. I edited the statement with some fuzziness... but you need to read the whole answer...
    – Erk
    Commented Feb 7, 2021 at 4:51

I would probably say not really. "Lunatic" and "crazy" have specific real-world connotations, i.e., having a mental state that is completely detached from reality. Most mental disorders (autism, depression, OCD, ASD, etc.) aren't characterized by that. The only ones that could be are schizophrenia and Narcissistic Personality Disorder, but I don't know how you could come up with a term describing someone divorces from reality that doesn't include a benign individual with schizophrenia that just needs their meds to be functional and someone like a dangerously deluded fanatic or ideologue who is a threat to others because of their beliefs.

The other issue is the fact that most slurs have shifting baselines. The terms "moron", "idiot", and "imbecile" were all originally terms that were used to refer to the mentally handicapped that have since become broadly applicable and benign, whereas "retard", which was coined originally to be a clinical, more sensitive alternative to "moron" or "idiot" (i.e., "mentally retarded") has since become a slur. What is and is not appropriate to call someone now might not be appropriate by the time you are finished writing your story.

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    As a comment from a passerby with mental health issues (although "only" depression) I wouldn't find that offending unless clearly meant as an insult. What is insulting is that the use of "that is sick" in Polish, where it's a derogatory description implying only a mentally ill person could come up with the idea. "Lunatic" sometimes implies a person obsessed with a single idea, see Doc Brown in "Back to the Future", the person does not really have to be mentally ill. Furthermore, in modern medicine there's a suggestion to not diagnose people who are happy and able to function in society...
    – jaskij
    Commented Feb 4, 2021 at 10:26
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    I upvoted because I find this to be insightful, but I think this is answering the part of the question that doesn't belong on writing.SE. If the querent edits the question, this answer may become off-topic. I suggest adjusting the answer to pertain a bit more to the context of writing. Maybe you could include a reference to a well-respected work that uses some of these kind-of-not slurs? Commented Feb 5, 2021 at 14:42
  • @Zan700 I have utterly forgotten about "this is sick" as derogatory in English because it's so strong and used so rarely. There is such a use in Polish, but I have also seen it used in a much more casual way.
    – jaskij
    Commented Feb 5, 2021 at 16:26
  • @JanDorniak it is used to mean something is awesome when I used to skateboard
    – DKNguyen
    Commented Feb 5, 2021 at 19:43
  • @DKNguyen yeah, that's the default meaning in my mind and why I missed the derogative one
    – jaskij
    Commented Feb 5, 2021 at 19:44

There are many words that you could use to define "lunatic". Unfortunately, you're not giving us much of a background and surrounding to go with. There are words that could be used based in a periodical sense as well as cultural.

For example, in the 80s & 90s, the word "weird" or "flaky" was used more often. In the early 20th century "queer" was popular. In Victorian times, "eccentric".

Words with cultural influence, for example, "mishegas", sometimes spelled "meshugas" or "mishegoss", is a Yiddish word. In the UK, the words "bonkers" and "balmy" are used often.

As well, if Character A is prone to idioms, they could blurt out "not playing with a full deck", or "he’s about half a bubble off plumb".

Hope this helps and good luck.

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