Rachel Neumeier

Fantasy and Young Adult Fantasy Author

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Quick! Who are some great characters with disabilities?

So, I’m going to WindyCon this year, and I’ve been put on a panel about writing characters with disabilities. Which is great in one way, because I really admire an author who can do a good job with this. And peculiar in another way, because I haven’t managed to do that myself. It’s in the (large) category of things I would like to do but haven’t tried yet, along with write a book with an older female protagonist and write a book set in an alternate Ottoman Empire.

Anyway, back to characters with disabilities. The thing which is most important is to have the character be a great character full stop, and then also have a disability. I personally don’t like it if the person has a disability to start with and is then magically “cured”, because unless that’s handled extremely well, it sends a strong message that you’re not worth much unless you’re physically perfect.

So!

Speed of Dark

One of the most brilliant books ever, far and away the best thing Elizabeth Moon’s ever done.

And

Five Flavors

A contemporary YA with an excellent protagonist who is deaf.

I can think of other examples that did not work as well for me as the two titles above, though not many. But what I’m most interested in is any titles you all can think of where the author handled a character with a disability with grace and skill. Oh, wait, I’m also interested in examples where the author might not have pulled this off quite as well.

Step right up with your suggestions, please! I would like to read a good handful more titles before WindyCon, which is only a few weeks.

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18 Comments Quick! Who are some great characters with disabilities?

  1. Mary+Beth

    Alan Ryves in Sarah Rees Brennan’s THE DEMON’S LEXICON has a bad leg–he can walk but not run, if I recall correctly–and (spoiler) rejects the opportunity for a magical cure. SRB has written about her reasons for that and they’re much in line with your thoughts.

    Miles Vorkosigan, of course! I’ve also been rereading Bujold’s SHARING KNIFE series lately, and I love her portrayal of Dag’s disability and the way he both copes with and sometimes still curses it.

    R.J. Anderson’s KNIFE has a main character in a wheelchair. I picked up my copy in the U.K.; looks like it was published as SPELL HUNTER over here.

    And I’ve always privately thought of your own Kes as being on the autism spectrum, though I know that’s not the reading you may have intended…

  2. Cheryl L

    The first book that comes to mind for me is Matt Ruff’s amazing SET THIS HOUSE IN ORDER, in which the protagonist is suffering from multiple personality disorder. It provides a fascinating insight into the strategies a sufferer might develop in order to cope with everyday life.

  3. Maureen+E

    Mary Beth stole most of mine!

    There is, of course, Eugenides. And Merrie Haskell’s Castle Behind Thorns. And Scalzi in LOCK IN, thought I’m not sure he manages to quite pull it off.

  4. Darren T

    For the ‘grace and skill’ list, I’d suggest the character of Rufus from Joe Hill’s Locke and Key comics. Well, I say comics, but it’s really a full-length Joe Hill novel that just happens to be narrated via the medium of sequential artwork (superbly illustrated by Gabriel Rodriguez).

    Also: Tyrion Lannister, star of the early Song of Ice and Fire books (and I hold out hope that he’ll come into his own again in the as yet unpublished volumes).

  5. Rachel

    Thank you all for your suggestions! [Takes notes] Tyrion, obviously! Darren, my personal bet is that Tyrion will not only play an important role but become high king. Eugenides and Dag, of course, how could I forget? Naturally Miles Vorkosigan. Right, Alan does have a bad leg, doesn’t he? Great!

    Mary Beth, you’re not alone in your perception of Kes. I will certainly mention that some readers see Kes as so cripplingly shy as to be somewhat disabled or possibly tending toward the autistic side of normal, because hey, credibility for the panel.

    I will definitely read SET THIS HOUSE IN ORDER because that sounds very cool. Maybe I’ll have time for some of the others, too.

    Also, I did think of a couple others. Dan Wells’ THE HOLLOW CITY has a protagonist with paranoid schizophrenia. And the RED MARS/GREEN MARS/BLUE MARS epic by Kim Stanley Robinson — we see characters with bipolar syndrome and clinical depression in that.

    Whew! Now I feel a bit more prepared for that panel.

  6. Elaine T

    All the good ones have already been mentioned (including Dan Wells’ book, which I’d been trying to remember). I have vague memories of several ‘problem novels’ for YA about mental health issues, but none of them were good enough to finish, so I can’t suggest any of them for the ‘didn’t handle it well’ example.

    ULTRAVIOLET by Anderson features a synesthesisic protaganist, although IIRC it turns out to be ‘meaningful’ when the story takes a sharp turn from girl in mental institution to aliens & sf. Her mother’s reaction to it and to having it herself seemed well done once I allowed for ignorance. Synesthesia isn’t exactly a disability, but it is certainly different.

    A bit farther afield Hodgell’s Jame has claws which aren’t really a disability, but cause fear, and treats them as a shameful disabaility she hides them for a long time, as well as she can. She’s slowly coming to comfort about them.

    i know you’ve read Dunnett, but don’t remember if you ever waded all the way through her second series? Aside from Astorre the one-eyed mercenary leader who is a tertiary continuing character, one of the main secondary characters, Robin, gets thoroughly chopped up in the Battle of Nancy but survives (to my surprise) and finishes out the series (all of one more book) in a wheelchair. He resents being considered a nonentity and non-threat and proves himself capable of some action after all. I thought Dunnett handled that part well – the once fully limbed and very capable guy who now isn’t – and was gentle with her handling of his sex life after that, too.

    In Anime/manga we have the Fullmetal Alchemst who has lost an arm and a leg, but has really really good prosthetics, so most of the time it’s not an issue, although we hear about weather being a serious problem – barometric changes, and heat & cold.

  7. Rachel

    Thanks, Elaine! I’m not familiar with most of those characters. I like the whole idea of synesthesia — I know someone who “sees numbers,” in fact. You’re right that it isn’t a disability, but is interestingly different.

    By Dunnett’s second series, do you mean her Niccolo series? Because I did (eventually) read the whole thing, yet I don’t remember anybody named Robin who winds up in a wheelchair. That doesn’t sound like something I’d forget.

  8. Elaine T

    Yes, the Niccolos. Robin of Berecrofts, the kid who married Kathi, who is also Lymond’s grandfather. um… fetches her copy of GEMINI. ..skim skim .. Ch 6 is his first appearance (battle of Nancy was at the end of the previous book): one leg lost to one wound, and others causing paralysis on the side of his remaining leg from shoulder to foot. Later on he stabs someone villainous with a weapon hidden in his bandaging “No one ever remembered he had an arm that worked.”

    I find this series overall much less memorable than the Lymonds, but the guy is there.

  9. Jen Birren

    Jim Hines’s Libriomancer series has a magician who’s on the autism spectrum. (His son has ASD and I think he’s talked about writing this character to show someone who is successful in her chosen field (and is on the spectrum, if you put the clues together) rather than making the character be about the autism. I can’t find where I read that, though.)

  10. Mary+Anne

    Miles Vorkosigan. My favorite character of all time. And his brother Mark, with all his attendant emotional issues.

  11. Rachel

    Thank you, Mary Anne and Jen. You’re right, Mark as well as Miles ought to qualify. And I’ll make a note about Libriomancer.

    Elaine, huh. I honestly don’t remember Robin at all.

  12. Estara+Swanberg

    Michelle Sagara has Michael as a side character in her YA paranormal horror series – https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/12437907-silence?from_search=true – he is Autistic with Asperger’s and he does NOT get cured. Her own oldest son is autistic, she had a full slew of posts on her LJ a year or so ago talking about the time when he came into school. He’s high-functional now, from what I understand, and gave her permission for the posts. Baseline: she knows what she’s writing about.

    Jane Lindskold: Brother to Dragons, Companion to Owls – which of course you already wrote about and reviewed yourself.

  13. Hanneke

    A.C. Crispin’s Starbridge series has Tesa, a deaf girl protagonist in book 2, Silent Dances. I don’t know any deaf people personally, to ask if it’s a true portrayal, but it seemed well done to me. She returns in book 5, Silsnt Songs, which I liked less.
    Lazette Gifford has a novella Waiting for the last dance, in which the second protagonist is a teenage boy in a wheelchair, Gian. He was in a car accident a year ago, involving a friend, and is still getting therapy: no miraculous recovery, but by the end he does manage to stand again, with support, for one dance. She treats the practicalities of dealing with the wheelchair as well as the emotional trauma fairly, as far as I can see. She is mostly self-published, and less well-known than the examples others have given above, so might not be familiar to your panelists and audience.
    And I agree that Michael, from the Queen of the dead series by Michelle Sagara Silence, Touch, and Grave) is a well-written secondary protagonist on the autism spectrum. The way his friends handle the demands oc his disorder is interesting too.
    And then there are some very SF stories about severely disabled people exchanging their limited life with their handicaps for becoming the guiding intelligence in another physical body, like Anne McCaffrey’s Brain Ships series (The ship who sang, etc.) and Timothy Zahn’s Manta’sGift, though I don’t think that’s quite the sort of thing you’re looking for.
    If you’re interested in different perspectives on disability in SF, there’s a lecture up on http://www.dadafest.co.uk/disability-in-science-fiction which might kick off some ideas to explore.

  14. Rachel

    Thanks, Estara and Hanneke. The Sagara books sound perfect; I’ll definitely look them up. Thanks for your other suggestions and the link, Hanneke! [Makes more notes.]

  15. Hanneke

    One for the list of unrealistic portrayals: the autistic young boy in A Wizard Alone, in the Young Wizards series by Diane Duane, who presents that way because inside his own mind he’a high-powered young saint/wizard constantly battling the forces of evil.
    I think I’ve read one or two more of that type, where a character is posited as being autistic, but then turns out to have special powers, but I can’t quite recall the titles.
    Maybe Stephen Donaldson’s Mordant’s Need, with the woman who lived in a mirrored appartment in this world, for fear of disappearing, and never goes out (agoraphobia?), but becomes a powerful mirror-mage in the other world.

    For an example from a different genre there’s Kilmeny of the orchard, by L.M.Montgomery; Kilmeny cannot speak.There is a miraculous cure at the end, it’s a love story and love conquers all, though the story builds up a good-enough case for her dumbness being psychological rather than physical, in her backstory.

    The queen of Attolia and The king of Attolia by Megan Whalen Turner have a good pprtrayal of Eugenides losing a hand, and learning to cope with that. A similar handicap happens to Sid Halley in Dick Francis’ horseracing-based detectives: he’s the only protagonist recurring in 4 books, Ofds against, Whip hand, Come to grief, and Under orders. Dick Francis, especially in the early books, writes mostly about jockeys – he was one himself- and thus has small men as worthy protagonists. Being small is not a disability, but socially does seem to sometimes pose a bit of a handicap for a man, and it’s good to see protagonists like Miles Vorkosigan, your own ice mage Beguchren, and Dick Francis’ heroes demonstrating that physical size is not important, smaller people can be heroes too. I’m not small myself, but the best boss I ever worked for was, and I like to see small people given equal story-opportunity.

  16. Hanneke

    Sorry for the typos, I’m writing on my phone.
    One more out-of-genre example: Elizabeth Webster wrote books that make me cry, with troubled protagonists. Johnny alone is about a half-deaf boy running away from an abusive stepfather to find his dad; and there’s one about an ex-gymnast girl, disowned by her ambitious family after a bad fall meant she needed years of tgerapy, helping a concert pianist who had a stroke recover the use of his hands. They feel to me like tearjerkers, aiming for the sentiment, but written with the good intention of increasing understanding among readers for people in difficult circumstances; not unrealistic in their portrayal of the difficulties; but older and likely unknown to your panelists. Still, Bracken, about a man dying from cancer coming to terms with the end of his life, and Johnny alone, are quite sensitive portrayals.
    I’ve been thinking hard about different kinds of disabilities and books – I think I once read a story with a blind(secondary) protagonist but can’t remember more than that -it was decades ago.
    Chronically ill protagonists are very rare too. And for social handicaps, good fat heroes, especially female, are apparently impossible as well, though that may be a fairly realistic expectation that all the strenuous physical activity involved in having an adventure would be very hard for an unfit, sedentary and overweight kind of protagonist, so if I like reading about adventures (while sitting comfortably in my chair) I naturally won’t read about anyone like me… people who like doing simple homey sitting-down things like reading and needlework don’t have adventures to be written about, not of the kinds I like to read. So maybe that’s self-selecting bias.

  17. Hanneke

    It’s apparently a ‘trending topic’ this year – I’m checking the backlog of author blogs I like to read and came across a relevant post, at http://jimhines.livejournal.com/757951.html
    Jim Hines has a recent blogpost interviewing an author whose book has handicapped protagonists (blind, lost a hand), and talks about honestly writing these. It also contains links to earlier posts on this issue.
    And now I’m putting this out of mind and not commenting on this anymore. Sorry for ‘spamming’ you about it, but I was trying to be helpful and hope you take it that way.

    I’m reading Garden Secrets, because of your Halloween post, and loving it.
    I also just read The City in the Lake, and loved it very much. I’ve always loved the lyrical, poetic writing of Patricia McKillip, and when I finished the second chapter I felt you’d found exactly that lyrical voice in your writing, and almost went and posted that, but wasn’t sure if you’d mind being compared to another writer, however much I love her style.
    Having finished the book, you clearly have your own voice, it’s not in any way a copy of hers, but it’s very lovely and fitting to the story. Now I’ve read several of your books I can see that you adapt your voice to the story you’re telling, and manage to hit the right tone exactly.
    I never know what to say, writing about things that touch me, as I can’t see how the words are being taken by the reader, so I tend not to write book reviews and such; but I just wanted to let you know how much I’m enjoying your books.
    And your reviews here too, as the way you talk about the books makes it very easy for me to guess if I would like them or not (vide Garden Secrets: spot on!) – your recent post clarifying your definitions of dark and gritty was very helpful in that as well.

  18. Rachel

    Hanneke, thanks for all your comments! This is great. Plus, it takes real dedication to type that much on your phone!

    I’m so glad you’re enjoying Garden Secrets! Sarah Addison Allen does write such lovely books, but I’ll just mention that her most recent, Lost Lake, is perhaps not quite as well put together as the others, so you might adjust your expectations. My personal favorite of hers is The Girl Who Chased the Moon, but I also loved Garden Secrets and The Peach Keeper, so actually it’s hard to say which of those is my favorite.

    I love being compared to Patricia McKillip, who is my favorite author of all time. I sat down and read all of her books one after the other before I wrote CITY, and I’m happy to think that I captured something of the same lyricism.

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