Rachel Neumeier

Fantasy and Young Adult Fantasy Author

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Panel the Second: Writing disabled characters

This was another great panel! Alas, not so well attended, which is what you expect at a ten AM panel, I guess. It was a pleasure to join the other panelists — Walt Boyes, Aimee Kuzenski, Ross Martinek, and W.A. Thomasson. Aimee had included a character with schizophrenia in one of her books and the others have one or another disability. I, of course, don’t have a serious disability nor have I written a character with a typical disability, although of course Kes in the Griffin Mage trilogy is cripplingly shy and Buguchren is a very small man (if you care to count that as a kind of social disability, which I think is fair).

The best bit: When we ALL agreed that if the reader can tell that you included a character with a disability as a political statement, you have failed as a writer. It sounded like everyone else hates that kind of blatant preachiness as much as I do. I think we also all agreed that it’s not necessarily going to seem terribly inclusive to write a character with a disability and then have the character magically cured before they live happily ever after, as though only beautiful, healthy people deserve happy endings.

The worst bit: I never quite had a chance to share my complete list of disabled characters from SFF (mostly). Since you all contributed massively to that list, I will now share it with you, adding in a couple of other characters with disabilities mentioned by the other panelists:

Characters with autism:

These days, autism is not a real diagnosis, imo, because the one term clearly encompasses multiple conditions. However, here are a handful of characters that fit one or another type of autism:

1. Lou Arrendale from THE SPEED OF DARK by Elizabeth Moon. I’m not the panelist who mentioned this one first, but I definitely agree that this fabulous book should have won every award the year it came out (it did win the Nebula). If you haven’t read it, YOU SHOULD. Then by all means tell me what you think of it.

Speed of Dark

2. Nicola from LIBRIOMANCER by Jim Hines.

3. Michael from SILENCE (Queen of the Dead) by Michelle Sagara

4. A minor character from ROYAL AIRS by Sharon Shinn — I don’t want to name the character; read the book yourself. This I one of the very, very few characters with a real mental disorder that I’ve ever seen in fantasy — it occurred to me, and the other panelists agreed, that it’s easier to think of disabled characters with mental or emotional disorders from science fiction and that this is much less common in fantasy, except possibly for PTSD.

Characters with other mental illness:

5. Michael from THE HOLLOW CITY by Dan Wells (Schizophrenia)

6. From the Mars trilogy by Kim Stanley Robinson, Maya (bipolar), Sax (expressive aphasia), Ann (severe clinical depression)

7. Both protagonists from SET THIS HOUSE IN ORDER by Matt Ruff (multiple personality syndrome)

8. Rufus from LOCKE AND KEY by Joe Hill

9. Mark Vorkosigan

Characters with cerebral palsy:

10. A child in THE LOST BOYS by Orson Scott Card

11. Jonathan and all the other kids from BROTHER JONATHAN by Kilian Crawford — though I am not altogether happy with the magic cure; still, read it and see what you think.

Characters who are blind or deaf:

12. Po from GRACELING by Kim Cashore

13. Saiara from THE CHANGING OF THE SUN by Lesley Smith

14. Tesa from SILENT DANCES by AC Crispen

15. Piper from FIVE FLAVORS OF DUMB by Antony John

Characters who are missing a hand, have a damaged leg, or are in a wheelchair:

16. Eugenides, duh. Don’t know why I didn’t think of him at once myself. From the Queen’s Thief series by Megan Whelan Turner, of course.

17. Dag, also duh, from The Sharing Knife series by Bujold.

18. Alan, from THE DEMON’S LEXICON by Brennen.

19. Gian, from WAITING FOR THE LAST DANCE by Lazette Gifford

20. Robin, from the Niccolo series by Dunnett.

Characters with other physical disabilities:

21. Miles Vorkosigan, of course.

22. Waldo, from the story of the same name by Heinlein

23. Caesarion, from CLEOPATRA’s HEIR by Gillian Bradshaw

24. Glokta, from THE BLADE ITSELF by Joe Abercrombe

Small male characters:

25. Miles Vorkosigan

26. Narses from THE BEARKEEPER’S DAUGHTER by Gillian Bradshaw

27. Beguchren from The Griffin Mage trilogy by me

Seriously overweight female characters:

28. Summer from PIG’S DON’T FLY by Mary Brown — who gets thin without really noticing, which to me is highly questionable

29. Elisa from GIRL OF FIRE AND THORNS by Rae Carson — who also slims down, though imo Carson handled that better

30 Sergeant Jackrum from MONSTROUS REGIMENT by Terry Pratchett. Hah! I bet you all forgot about that one, didn’t you? Note that being overweight is not a social disability for Sergeant Jackrum — but then no one knows that Jackrum is a woman, either, until right at the end.

There! I’m sure this is a thoroughly incomplete list, but at least it’s a start.

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4 Comments Panel the Second: Writing disabled characters

  1. Hanneke

    An interesting list, with lots of new-to-me titles to try.

    Your post about ‘Set this house in order’ reminded me of another person (one of the main characters) with multiple personality syndrome, an abused child too, in Mercedes Lackey’s ‘When the bough breaks’ – fantasy, with elves, but no magical cure.

    And of course, Mark is almost as small as Miles, as well as having psychological issues, and multiple personalities when severely tortured (his Black Gang).

    Though Lazette Gifford writes mostly science fiction and fantasy, ‘Waiting for the last dance’ is set in the ordinary contemporary world, in a ‘gated community’ little town.

    I think there was someone in a wheelchair in one of the early Heinleins, the juveniles, but it was a very long time ago when I read those and I can’t quite remember; maybe in Citizen of the Galaxy, or Double star? Manny and Prof from ‘The Moon is a harsh mistress’ were on crutches or in a wheelchair while they were on earth, because of the gravity, but they weren’t handicapped in their own environment.

    Would the quaddies from Bujold’s Freefall count? In a gravity well they are handicapped by not having legs, though in space that’s a positive point, but they were deliberately genetically engineered, so I don’t think that counts.

  2. Rachel

    Hanneke, I don’t think the Quaddies count — but yes, I was thinking there was at least one character in a wheelchair in one of Heinlein’s books, but I couldn’t remember for sure.

  3. Elaine T

    I wonder if we have trouble thinking of ‘disabled’ characters because the writers handle them well; they don’t shriek “I’m disabled” they are just characters. Hence not thinking of Gen or of Dag, or of Miles….

    And on that note, I recently picked up Sean Russell’s SWAN’s WAR trilogy and while I remembered it well, also found several characters that could have gone on the list, but never occurred to me because they registered as people, not as disabled: the blind man (musician who can tell varieties by the sound of leaves and who discovers going near battle isn’t a good idea), the woman hiding due to disfiguring from burns, the legless ancient man; the probably autistic child (who gets better thanks to possession by… wizard? god?)

  4. Rachel

    Elaine, that’s a good point. Someone on the panel — Walt Boyes? — said that we (writers) have been handling disabled characters well all along, which is why whoever came up with that topic didn’t notice — the characters are handled as characters, not as *OH LOOK DISABLED* characters.

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