Characterization: writing a great protagonist with an (invisible) disabililty

This post is based on one from 2011. It was easy to update since I’ve encountered several great protagonists with disabilities since then.

The original post was inspired by Five Flavors of Dumb, a contemporary YA. In Five Flavors, the protagonist, Piper, makes herself into the manager for a wannabe band (Dumb). Adding an ironic twist to this aspect of the plot, Piper is deaf.

It was Ana’s review which initially caught my interest, and the one line of the Kirkus review Ana quoted: It’s not that Piper is a Great Deaf Character, but that Piper is a great character who is deaf. I was instantly hooked: What could Piper and her family show me about the experience of the deaf? I don’t want to be preached at an author bent on writing a Great Deaf Character, but I’m interested in Piper and her world.

Ana was right: Five Flavors of Dumb is a thoroughly enjoyable story, even for me, and I don’t read a lot of contemporary fiction. I’ve picked up a couple other books by Anthony John since, which are alas still on my TBR pile. Piper’s got a distinctive voice, a distinctive attitude, interesting family dynamics, and actually she’s pretty good at managing high school students who want to form a band. You know that’s gotta be tough.

There are quite a few characters with disabilities in SFF, once you start looking. The majority are disabled in some visible, physical way. Think of Miles Vorkosigan, or for that matter Dag in the Sharing Knife series, though missing a hand no longer slows him down one bit.

Rarer are invisible disabilities. Especially mental disabilities, though I think SFF deserves a good deal of credit for including quite a few of those as well, especially in the past few decades.

My favorite such protagonist — one of my favorite protagonists of all time, really — is Lou Arrendale, in Elizabeth Moon’s incomparable The Speed of Dark.

If you’re thinking of Elizabeth Moon as the author of the Paksenarrion books plus quite a lot of space opera, well, yes. Also no.

It’s not that The Speed of Dark defines Moon as a writer — it’s quite a departure. But this one is just a masterpiece. It won the Nebula, which it richly deserved because it is truly one of the great books of the decade.

Lou Arrendale is an autistic person, see, inhabiting a very near-future world, and there’s an incredible feeling of authenticity to his first-person narrative. Moon does such an awesome job capturing his point of view — sort of sideways to the rest of us. Here’s a sample passage:

“The floor in the hall is tile, each tile treaked with two shades of green on beige. The tiles are twelve-inch squares; the hall is five squares wide and forty-five and a half squares long. The person who laid the tiles laid them so that the streaks are crosswise to each other — each tile is laid so that the streaks are facing ninety degrees to the tile next to it. Most of the tiles are laid in one of two ways, but eight of them are laid upside down to the other tiles in the same orientation.

I like to look at this hall and think about having those eight tiles. What pattern could be completed by having those eight tiles laid in reverse? So far I have come up with three possible patterns. I tried to tell Tom about it once, but he was not able to see the pattern in his head the way I can . . .

I look for the places where the line between the tiles can go up the wall and over the ceiling and back around without stopping. There is one place in this hall where the line almost makes it, but not quite. I used to think if the hall were twice as long there would be two places, but that’s not how it works. When I really look at it, I can tell that the hall would have to be five and a third times as long for all the lines to match exactly twice.”

There’s also this delightful bit:

“The next page [of the book] has the title, the authors’ names — Betsy R Cego and Malcolm R Clinton. I wonder if the R stands for the same middle name in both and if that is why they wrote the book together.”

I laughed out loud! What a perfect tidbit to show how differently Lou interprets normal trivial details he encounters.

Now, that kind of thing is like reading an alien’s point of view, and actually it’s also like reading Gillian Bradshaw’s The Sand Reckoner, where Archimedes is the main character and keep drifting off on mathematical tangents (it’s a great book!). Writing really good aliens is certainly a challenge and so is writing geniuses. I certainly did tons of research on materials science when writing my genius-protagonist, Tehre Amnachudran (The Griffin Mage, Book II). And actually, Lou is kind of a genius with some kinds of math, so Moon is doing several hard things at the same time.

But what she does is more than that. Both harder and more meaningful. Moon really brings the reader into the emotional and philosophical world of her autistic protagonist.

For example, though an important secondary character has a grudge against Lou, Lou has enormous trouble first perceiving and then acknowledging that the man is not his friend:

“When I think of the people who know my car by sight and then the people who know where I go on Wednesday nights, the possibilities contract. The evidence sucks in to a point, dragging along a name. It is an impossible name. It is a friend’s name. Friends do not break the windshields of friends. And he has no reason to be angry with me, even if he is angry with Tom and Lucia.”

Every stylistic choice Moon makes as a writer — choices of sentence length and structure, of Lou’s diction and for that matter the diction of all the autistic character, of using first person for Lou’s point of view and third for occasional dips into other character’s points of view — are so perfect for the story. Check out the style here, for example:

“I want to go home now,” Eric says. Dr. Fornum would want me to ask if he is upset. I know he is not upset. If he goes home now he will see his favorite TV program. We say goodbye because we are in public and we all know you are supposed to say goodbye in public.”

And behind all those stylistic details, Moon also addresses all these big questions — about what ‘normal’ is and about the difference between what we conventionally pretend normal people do and feel vs. what normal people *really* do and feel; about what we consider appropriate behavior for ourselves vs. what we think is appropriate behavior from others — the whole idea of the double standard re-interpreted through the lens of autism. The Speed of Dark is really about identity and about the degree to which we choose who we are.

As Kirkus said about Piper in Five Flavors of Dumb, it’s not that Lou Arrendale is a Great Autistic Character. He’s a great character who is autistic.

The Speed of Dark is a beautiful book. Honestly, when I took it off the shelf, I meant to just look up one or two passages, but I re-read the whole thing instead. I loved it the first time and now I love it even more. Plus, having written a good handful of books of my own, I can now really appreciate the skill as well as the passion that went into a novel that should, if the fates are just, be a classic for the ages.

But these days I have another favorite to place beside Lou and The Speed of Dark: Bone Gap by Laura Ruby.

The corn was talking to him again.

It had been a warm winter and a balmy spring in Bone Gap, so everyone with a field and a taste for corn had plowed and planted earlier than they’d ever dared before. On the last day of his junior year, exactly two months after his life had burst like a thunderhead, Finn walked home from the bus stop past plants already up to his waist. It was his favorite part of the afternoon, or should have been: the sun was bright and hot in the sky, the corn twitching their green fingers. Corn can inches in a single day; if you listened, you could hear it grow. Finn caught the familiar whisper – here, here, here – and wished it would shut up.

The characterization throughout this book is extremely good. I love Finn and Petey; Finn’s brother Sean and Petey’s mom Mel. I love the relationships between all these people! I do blame Sean a little for not trusting his brother more, but I can see why he didn’t; and I also blame him for letting Roza go, but I definitely see what led him to do that.

I love Finn’s bravery, which is the courage of the loner who has learned to go his own way regardless of what other people think; and I love Petey’s ferocity and strength, a kind of strength which is different from Finn’s, and complementary. And Roza’s courage, which is different again – the strength to endure, and to keep trying to rescue herself, and never give up. Roza honestly does not come across as too good to be true even though everyone loves her.

But for this post, I particularly love Finn, who is face blind. I’m moderately face blind myself, though not nearly to the degree Finn is, of course. But the bit about never being able to tell the male actors apart in movies is definitely something I recognize!

It’s so unusual for an author to hand a protagonist some kind of subtle, invisible issue like this, and here Finn’s face blindness is beautifully elucidated as well as integral to the plot. No one among Finn’s family or acquaintances understands what is going on with him until Petey figures it out. It’s a wonderful addition to a wonderful book, one of my very favorites from the past couple of years.

Lou and Finn are hard to beat. For voice and depth of characterization, and beautiful writing throughout the respective books, these two are simply extraordinary protagonists. With disabilities.

Please Feel Free to Share:


2 thoughts on “Characterization: writing a great protagonist with an (invisible) disabililty”

  1. Forsaken Skies by D. Nolan Clark has a major character with PTSD.

    Also — ehem — “Isabelle and the Siren” by Mary Catelli has a main character who’s clinically depressed. (That was a real pain to write, even at short story length.)

  2. I think all the emotional disorders must be difficult to handle in a way that evokes the lived experience. Naomi Kritzer did a good job with bipolar syndrome in her Freedom’s Gate series, or to me it seemed pretty good. Thanks for sharing your title.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published.

Scroll to Top