Disability in fantasy

A post by Peter Newman, author of The Vagrant and The Malice

Although The Vagrant is known for having a silent protagonist I’m going to talk about someone else in the series today, a character known as Tough Call.

Tough Call is the rebel leader of Verdigris, who sets up her group headquarters underneath the city when it is overrun by demons. A child of the old administration, she opts to fight rather than bend the knee. Moreover when she comes into contact with one of the demons, she elects to cut off her own arm rather than succumb to the taint. The taint, in case you’re wondering, is something that surrounds the demons and can alter any human, animal or plant that it comes into prolonged contact with, mutating them into strange half-breed creatures. At the lowest end of the spectrum this could mean the loss or gain of nails and hair. At the highest, it could mean growth spurts, shifts in skeletal structure, loss of emotional control, organ failure, additional strength, additional limbs, or death.

Rather than gamble, Tough Call elects to remove the arm entirely before the taint can spread. In doing so, she becomes a symbol for the resistance.

In Tough Call’s case, her disability is a badge of pride, a tribute to her strength of will rather than something to be pitied or hidden. It’s never the focus in the scenes she’s in and it certainly isn’t the primary thing about her. When we first meet Tough Call she’s in a difficult position, fighting a virtually un-winnable war and making some dubious choices in order to survive and keep her people safe. She also happens to be a middle-aged woman with one arm. That’s it.

When I was writing The Vagrant and The Malice, I didn’t set out to include characters with disabilities, they just appeared as I was writing. There are three prominent characters that suffer from a physical disability which, given the number of people in the books and the kind of world it is, seems like quite a low number.

It got me trying to think about other characters in fantasy with disabilities, and the majority that come to mind are villains. Chances are if a character has a scar, a missing eye, or a hook for a hand they’re against the heroes rather than with them. And if the hero does have a scar, it’s often a ‘sexy’ scar to demonstrate toughness without disfiguring too much, or one that is located on their back or thigh, easily hidden beneath clothing. In film, we often have a shot of the (usually male) hero’s back which is covered in aesthetically placed scars, but most of the time these marks are out of sight and out of mind.

In fact I really struggled to think of any disabled protagonists in the fantasy I’d read recently (with the exception of Bran in George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire, and Xinian in Jen Williams’ Copper Cat books) though this may be more an indictment of my memory or lack of reading than the genre as a whole.

Feel free to set me straight in the comments as I’d hope there are a lot more positive examples out there, though please don’t include characters with magic or technology that renders their disability irrelevant. The classic example being blind characters that have such advanced other senses that they aren’t disadvantaged all.

If you’re a writer reading this and, like me, you’d like to include more characters on the disabled spectrum, there’s a great post by Elsa S. Henry on Chuck Wendig’s Terribleminds blog about writing blind characters, and this one by Elspeth Cooper on the Bookworm Blues blog about disability in fantasy is interesting too.

© Peter Newman, May 2016

The Malice is available from May 19, 2016. Review coming soon…

Snippet from the front cover of Peter Newman's The Malice

In the south, the Breach stirs.

Gamma’s sword, the Malice, wakes, calling to be taken to battle once more.

But the Vagrant has found a home now, made a life and so he turns his back, ignoring its call.

The sword cries out, frustrated, until another answers.

Her name is Vesper.

Purchase on Amazon

If you have any comments to make on this topic, please leave using the form below.

6 Replies to “Disability in fantasy”

  1. Thank you for this important article. We all as writers need to think about our characters outside of the labels in our heads. In my “Watch City” books, one character uses a wheelchair. The reason for her use of a wheelchair is never discussed, just as someone wearing glasses would not be discussed. She is described as rolling rather than walking, and does not need to overcome the fact that she cannot walk.

    Another character is a teenage girl who uses a prosthetic arm. Again, the reason for her needing it is not mentioned. She is a brilliant scientist and a mechanics hobbyist, and makes her own prosthesis in her workshop. Her friends are genuinely psyched when she makes a new arm, because it is cool.

    In both of these characters, their disabilities are never used to disable them or to make them better. They simply live in bodies with different circumstances.

    By the way, completely different subject, but I need to ask. Harry Potter. He wears glasses in a world where a wand stroke regrows limbs. Why? There’s no magic to improve near-sightedness? It’s just always befuddled me.

  2. I have written reviews for this site for several years and am working on my own fiction (or at least I am when not working on my doctoral thesis on disability). I am getting married in a month to the most wonderful person on the planet, I am a classical tenor, Philosopher, poet, Doctor who fan, game accessibility advocate and oh yes, I also happen to be registered blind.

    To paraphrase some of my own research, the one defigning experience of the way other people tend to treat disabled people is a perception of difference.

    Some people are admiring of a disabled person just for having a disability, some people are patronizing, some people are dismissive, some people are actively and literally hostile or abusive. Most people tend to pretend disabled people do not exist (quite a problem when you cannot make eye contact but that is more a blindness specific thing).

    One thing which botheres me in terms of representations of disability, is that whenever this issue is considered, the first thing most right thinking people say is “represent disability in a positive light”
    Ie, have characters who “triumph!” despite their disability. While I understand the motivation behind this approach, what bothers me is that it still means the defigning characteristic of a person is! their disability. When they are successful or triumphant or happy or find a relationship or win something it’s “despite!” their disability or triumphing over! their disability.
    This is why I described myself above as I did.
    I’d be an idiot to say that being photonically challenged hasn’t affected my life or what has happened to me, however I do not view it as a defigning factor of my identity, anymore than being five foot 10 or having dark hair. As I once told a disability advocate at a certain university who asked me why I wasn’t studdying computer science because “that’s what blind people usually do”

    “I’m not “blind people” I’m me”

    It’s the paralympics syndrome. While I understand the reason people think a display of disabled people’s “athletic achievement” is a good thing, If in the olympics we have different events for different types of athlete, eg, men’s and women’s events, different distances of running or swimming, different weight classes in boxing, why do the “disabled!” events need to be in a “special” olympics of their own.

    Thus while I appreciate efforts to try and redress the balance of indifference about disability with something positive, at the same time it’d be far nicer if writers considered that disabled people are people first and “disabled” second, just as elsa s. henry said.
    This doesn’t mean all being heroes or nice people eitherr, sinse disabled people are just as capable of being vile as anyone else.

    To an extent this balance is being redressed in terms of physical disabilities, though usually only those that maintain basic body symetry and leave a person relatively “normal” looking, for example I can think of several characters with missing limbs, but less with say wasted muscles or paralysed limbs.

    As to blindness specifically, I have to say blindness is probably one of the worst represented disabilities. Blind people are either A, not really blind in the dare devil geordi la forge fashion, or they are completely helpless, or they gain some sort of weerd insite through blindness such as psychic powers or unrealistic echo location etc.
    Being blind is not mystical, mostly it’s just quite a pain in the arse :D.

    It also is rather irritating in fiction how many blind characters finish by magically getting their sight back, as though living a reasonable life with blindness were not possible, particularly sinse this usually also involves the blind character having some sort of relationship as well (this was my one fault with Martine in Tad Williams’ Otherland series).

    all that being said, there are a couple of examples of blind characters who are very much people.
    One author who springs to mind is Justin Cronin. The Passage features two blind characters, one an authoritarian scuzbag (actually with glaucoma the same condition I have), and the other a lecherous old man.

    Neither is a “positive” character, but both are definitely people first.

    I’d suggest that if anyone is writing a disabled character, especially a blind character, a good exercise would be that mentioned by reviewer and film crytic Plinkit.

    Try to describe the character without mentioning either his/her position, physical appearence or actions, ie, describing a person’s “character!” rather than what they do or what they look like.

    Much as Tng is my favourite series of startrek, my biggest problem with geordi la forge is that it’s very difficult to play this game.
    Without mentioning that he’s a blind, dark skinned engineer who wares a car filter on his head, there’s not too much else.
    He’s, —- mmmmm, efficient, and mmmm, friendly? and mmmm, cheaky?

    Compare this to a similar description of someone like Picard or Data or Riker, characters in the same series and it should give an idea of the problem.

    People! first, “disabled” or “blind” or “deaf” or “paraplegic” or whatever other group categorization of physical bodily traits is used second.

  3. In my second novel ‘The Verkreath Horror’ I have a triple amputee character. When the companions encounter her, she initially wants to end her life (she was prisoner prior to meeting the companions), however with some assistance, she fights her way out of a series of underground caverns and never asks for pity once. I think the most important thing when writing characters with disabilities is to present them in a positive light. It would be a crying shame to include a character with a disability who didn’t contribute to the story.

  4. Interesting piece, thank you.
    In Joe Abercrombie’s First Law books and his Shattered Sea series there is a prominent character in each with disabilities.
    In the First Law, his multiple impairments defines how Glokta sees the world and himself…mostly negatively. But he is a strong, powerful character and whilst the books don’t hide the problems, pain and humiliation his condition gives him on a daily basis he is no “victim”.
    In the Shattered Sea, Yarvi again has real problems because of his physical disability…but again his intellect and strength of character gets him through and wins him respect. The course of the first book charts his path from “victim” to powerful individual…and he remains a force in the other books, where his disability becomes more irrelevent.

  5. Stephen King has included several protagonists with disabilities over the years in his work, just off the top of my head. And (especially as the Gunslinger books go) I’d consider that the fantasy genre.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.