Writing blind characters

Oh, hey, here’s a useful guest post at Terrible Minds, by Elsa S Henry, about writing characters who are blind or have limited vision.

So you were blinded by a tragic accident involving either fireworks or spilled chemicals?

For the last damn time, I am not Daredevil, okay. I’m blind because rubella in utero sucks and that caused me to end up blind (congenital cataracts), deaf and with a congenital heart defect. I’m not sure what the exact statistics are, but I know a lot more people who were born blind or went blind in childhood than who went through a tragic accident involving, I don’t know, 0464.

Lots of good points here, I think. I can offhand think of one blind character in SFF: Moira in Patricia Briggs’ UF series. This is kind of a funny example because Elsa Henry specifically has written about the blind-people-being-magic trope, aka Daredevil I presume, and here I go thinking of Moira, who of course IS magic.

Oh, Fawn’s grandmother is blind in Bujold’s Sharing Knife series, that’s another one. Of course she’s a minor character, but important to Fawn.

Honestly, I’m having trouble coming up with others.

A nonfiction title I’d read again if I were writing a blind character: The Mind’s Eye by Oliver Sacks. I had absolutely no idea how different the experience of blindness can be for different people until I read this book.

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14 thoughts on “Writing blind characters”

  1. Thank you for the link! What a fascinating and useful post.

    Disabilities of all kinds are very rare in SFF, unless they have some sort of magic component. I think maybe that’s the next bastion of diversity we need to cross. (lay seige to??) As Elsa Henry points out in one of the comments, people without disabilities are very uncomfortable around people with disabilities. Myself included. I’m just so afraid of getting it wrong—which is also why the thought of writing about a disabled character is frightening.

  2. Sean Russell’s Swan’s War trilogy has a reasonably prominent character who is blind – not quite a protaganist, it’s more of an ensemble cast – but we do spend time in his viewpoint, and he gets out and does things. Another is disfigured by fire, and another lost his legs. First volume The One Kingdom. I think he didn’t quite give the ending enough oomph, but other than that liked it well enough. Lots of bits have stuck with me through the years since reading it. And it’s a 3 books and done trilogy not an endless series of doorstops.

    There’s also Alison Sinclair’s Darkborn trilogy, wherein a sorceress centuries ago split the people of a largish country into those who are killed by light, and those who are killed by darkness. The darkborn are blind and navigate by ‘sonning’ (basically sonar), and are rather more tech-y (they’ve invented cars! and someone invented trains, too) than the lightborn who do magic (although both sides have mages). The first book is told from the POV of the titular darkborn.

  3. There’s (if I remember right) the protagonist from the second Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, who’s a blind painter who can see most of the time because magic. I think some people had issues with her depiction, and I could sort of see why.

  4. Blind—or permanently blindfolded–characters show up often in fantasy as seers. It’s a very, very old trope. Elizabeth Moon uses a blinded sergeant as a preternaturally good archer, which isn’t so different.

  5. Oooh, and one more: Eric Flint’s best short story by far (he thinks so too) is” Islands”, about a blinded young officer in an alternate-universe World War, and his alienated young wife. I have read it many, many times. (Unfortunately, the other stories in the collection do not match up.)

  6. There was one scene in A Diabolical Bargain that was a devil to revise. Character in a pitch black tunnel with the door locked behind him. One scene of blindness and I had keep reminding myself that he couldn’t see and revising out this detail and that one.

    But only one scene.

  7. If you read romance, Joanna Bourne did a terrific job of sensory description in the first chapters of The Spymaster’s Lady. She gives the reader both the heroine’s POV and the hero’s POV. It takes several chapters for the hero and the reader learn that the heroine’s blind.

  8. Yes, the Magical Blind Character really *is* quite a trope! Pete, I kind of like Sergeant Stammel. Maybe I should read the most recent couple of books in that series, though I don’t think it’s nearly as good as the earlier Paksennarian books.

    Also, thanks for the link! I love the idea of Flint’s story.

    Sarah, I loved the entire 100,000 Kingdoms trilogy, but I do see the point about Oree.

    Kim, I agree — both that it would be good to see more disabled characters in SFF and that it’s hard to actually get up one’s nerve to try it.

    Evelyn, that is a really neat idea! I don’t read *that* much romance, but more than I used to, and that one sounds so interestingly handled.

    Mary, you’re reminding me of something . . . oh, yes, in Kate Elliot’s Spiritwalker trilogy. For a while, whenever anybody asks the protagonist a question, she has to answer it with another question. If I did that, I would be terrified of messing that up. Same with your scene — definitely a challenge to write.

  9. Sinclair wrote( somewhere I can’t find now) how hard she worked to keep her darkborn blind characters from using sighted language or cues. It’s all scent, touch, hearing… The lightborn (sighted) characters can identify darkborn work because the lines may be elegant, but oh, the colors! The interest lies in texture and line. I am somewhat skeptical of the clothing stuff and general closeness to normal human life but it isn’t inherently wrong, either.

    Russell’s blind character has really good hearing and can identify a tree by the sound of its leaves. OTOH, he’s also a noted composer, so the incredibly discerning hearing might be from musical talent. I did appreciate his realization of his folly in insisting being present for a battle on his behalf. (John of Bohemia and a couple other historical characters notwithstanding.) Not a magical blind man. Just an intelligent wealthy one who learned to use all his other senses.

  10. Caitlin Decter, the main character in Robert J. Sawyer’s WWW trilogy, is 15 years old, blind, and a math genius. The first book, www: Wake, was nominated for the 2009 Hugo Award, and it was also serialized in Analog, so I’m a little surprised that it hasn’t already been picked out as an example by your readers. The heroine us blind from birth, but has grown up surfing the World Wide Web, when an operation gives her the ability to “see” for the first time. When the increasing complexity of the World Wide Web results in its gaining consciousness, Caitlin, with her newly ability to “see” connections in the Webmind as an unforeseen consequence of her first attempt to make use of her new sensory ability, becomes its guide to learning about the outside world.

    Wake, and its successor volumes Watch and Wonder, have interesting and non-standard characters (both human and otherwise).

    Here’s the link to Sawyer’s web page for www:Wake:

    By the way, for a readable, non-fiction account of the experience of recovering sight, Robert Kurson’s book, Crashing Through, details the experience of Michael May, who was chemically blinded at age 3, and then went through a procedure that restored some vision at age 45.

  11. I just remembered that the Graceling series had a character who was Daredevil kind of blind. The author (Kristin Cashore sp?) later realized that the portrayal was somewhat insensitive, and wrote a pretty interesting post on the topic.

    Elaine, that Darkborn series sounds interesting.

  12. “Sinclair wrote( somewhere I can’t find now) how hard she worked to keep her darkborn blind characters from using sighted language or cues.”

    Oh yeah. The thing is that sighted language or cues come automatically to mind. In the heat of composition, it can be hard to look with cold clear eyes and recognize that.

  13. Eveyln, I remember The Spymaster’s Lady: that was a great book! (And it’s sequel, if I remember correctly.) I’d forgotten about that opening scene; it was really well done.

  14. Ester, interesting example! That’s certainly a different take on “magical” blindness, and a lot more plausible than most depending on how Sawyer handled it — for example if the operation involved some kind of computer tech to restore the optic nerves or something. I really am surprised no one mentioned it. Thanks for the link and especially for mentioning Crashing Through, which sounds fascinating.

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