To follow along with associated ideas from my last post where I discussed mental illness in fantasy, I wanted to address the lack of characters in fantasy with physical disabilities, or marginalized characters as some publishers describe them. While losing a limb, having a sense fail them or facing paralysis isn’t as unusual in the science fiction genre where technology exists to overcome such challenges – like prosthetic limbs that work as well or better than the one lost or regeneration tanks exist where one can simply regrow said limb – you don’t see as many major injuries resulting in disability in fantasy. You don’t tend to see many characters who have been disabled since birth in any speculative genre either (Robert J Sawyer’s WWW trilogy is an example of a story that addresses this with excellent characterization and research – the protagonist a blind teenage girl.)
This is unfortunate for a few reasons. Aside from the fact that challenging characters with one more sizable obstacle can make your story that much more interesting, in a fantasy world where technology is low-level or in some cases practically non-existent and the characters find themselves facing danger and potential injury or death on a regular basis, one would expect to see more battles ending with wounds having permanent effects. You are much more likely to see a character die in one of these battles than emerge with a lasting injury. Is that entirely realistic?
One could argue that in many fantasy worlds, magic is available to heal these kinds of injuries, or that a lack of decent medical treatment means these wounds will kill the injured party in the long run. That might be true in some cases, but not all, and what of the costs of any magic involved? Would that magic be readily and immediately available? If not, why aren’t there more battle-hardened veterans with hacked off limbs or lost eyes? Would disabled people always be relegated to the ranks of peasants and beggars?
I love adding these extra challenges to the mix. In my Snowy Barrens Trilogy, the shamans are required to take a physical “mark” as part of their initiation: missing thumbs, feet, eyes and even a split tongue that results in a speech impediment – injuries that cannot be healed or they lose their intended effect. I also have characters with supernatural injuries that cannot be healed properly by any means, including magic. As a result, they are left with a permanent limp, a paralyzed arm and a lack of speech, all the result of the type of dangers they face on a daily basis, dangers that have maimed them but not killed them. How they cope with these disabilities and how they function despite them add dimension to the tale. It even affects their relationships with other characters. Their situation makes them distinct.
In Fervor, the majority of the characters begin the series lacking one of their senses. My protagonist, Sam, is deaf and this proves problematic at times, despite being able to communicate telepathically. Other characters are badly injured later in the series during a nasty skirmish and some of the damage is permanent. Considering circumstances, it would seem pretty miraculous for everyone to escape unscathed, and I’m not big on building miracles into my stories. Just as I take issue with fantasy stories involving multiple lengthy battles where none of the heroes or prominent secondary characters ever die, I feel the same way about a lack of serious injuries.
And finally, there’s the issue of a fresh perspective. Those who are able-bodied have a certain way of looking at the world, but how might that change if you had to tackle obstacles from a different angle because of differing circumstances. Like in my yet-to-be-published dark fantasy short story where my protagonist is hearing impaired:
“The building shivered all around Pierre Belanger, as if winter’s bite had given it chills. He could sense it in his own bones as much as he could feel it in the weathered wood that surrounded him, an ominous tremor that set him on edge. It might not have bothered him quite as much if the scent of death didn’t hang in the air, an unhealthy sourness that he could taste if he breathed too deeply.
He had been trying to rest, but sleep didn’t come very easily. He didn’t have to hear the wind howling outside to know a storm raged there. Everyone took it for granted that such sounds didn’t bother him, but they were wrong. Just because the roars of the wind did not torment his ears, he still was aware they were there.
Pierre was about to roll over and burrow his way deeper into his moth-eaten blankets when a newly arrived light caught his eye. He raised himself up onto his elbows to see who had entered. He could barely make out Phillipe LeTour’s face in the flitting shadows from the candle, but he could see that the man’s expression was grim. He knew that meant only one thing. Matthieu’s condition had worsened.
Phillipe did not need to walk over and tug on Pierre’s sleeve to urge him to follow. Pierre threw off his blankets and struggled into his boots as quickly as he could manage, despite being tormented by fatigue and by the frosty sting to the air. Matthieu was his world at the settlement, both his only friend and his only family on Île Sainte-Croix. If he lost Matthieu, he would be more than just lonely. He would be more isolated than he had ever been before in his life.”
A hearing–impaired protagonist, he looks at the world differently and the writer’s challenge is to do that character’s perspective justice. That means focusing on the things he would be more aware of through his other senses and finding ways to communicate without regular speech.
So I put out my own challenge to other writers…how about giving this type of marginalized characters a chance to carry your story? You could be pleasantly surprised by the results.