Tuesday, October 22, 2013

I'd Give My Left Arm ... Unless I'm The Protagonist

Evil Dead: Ash with the Chainsaw "Prosthetic"
Why aren't there more protagonists with disabilities out there?


In the genres I read and write, we-the-authors gleefully scar the fuck out of our protagonists' bodies -- knives, bullets, acid, wild animals, magic -- but we don't tend to let them actually lose a limb...and have it stay gone. I'm as guilty as the next author of doing it.  Blindness? There's a spell to cure that. Deaf? They'll be fine once the ringing stops. Mauling? It's just a flesh wound. IED? Everyone else except the protagonist is dead or mangled. Hell, in half the books, the protagonist's recovery time from a horrific conflict is on par with a nap.

Of course, we do thrive within the mountains of emotional scars. There's enough of mental crumbling underpinning our novels to build a nation of psych wards.  Internal conflict is ever so much easier to write when there's a diagnosis to be twisted.

The last book I read -- erm, got into the first 50 pages before I stopped reading -- with a disabled protagonist was JR Ward's Lover Enshrined starring amputee Phury. The reason I stopped reading had nothing to do with the romantic hero missing a leg. The storyline just didn't do it for me. Yes, yes, I do know about poor Thomas Covenant, the leper.  The pity is that he's the go-to answer for "show me an unfixably flawed hero."

Now, physically disabled villains?  Literature is full of them. For a while there, it seemed missing a piece of their body was the go-to identifier for villains. We could start with Captain Hook, Captain Ahab, and Long John Silver to reference the classics then advance to today with GRRM's Lothar Frey, Lord Cett in Sanderson's Mistborn, or Professor Moody from Harry Potter.

It's not wholly uncommon for side-kicks or secondary characters to get the physical short-stick too. How about Dr. Xavier? The deaf doctor in Brockman's Into the Fire?  For every genius black hat confined to a wheelchair there's a sage mentor with the cautionary missing body part.

Why, as authors, do we shy away from writing a permanently physically imperfect protagonist? Does it tie back to the "Write What You Know" advice? Do we unconsciously perceive it as too much of a distraction to the plot? Too hard to write? Too easy to offend?

Truly, I don't know the answer. 

I do know it's not an issue of marketability. For gods' sakes, we've made demons beddable and psychopaths saints. Surely a prosthetic limb wouldn't be a deterrent to a reader.

I haven't written a physically disabled protagonist because when characters take shape in my imagination that sort of defining characteristic doesn't even cross my mind.  I haven't taken the time to consider it. Shame on me? Probably. This week's blog post certainly has me thinking more and more about it.

Tell me, dear readers, is there a disability with which you'd like to see a protagonist grapple? Would his/her learning to live with the difference be an acceptable subplot or a distracting one? If you have advice for an author penning a protagonist with physical challenges, what would it be?


  1. I'm thinking about it now, too. Also - in the Fire and Frost anthology, former (and sorely missed) Word Whore Carolyn Crane has a protagonist with a badly twisted and wasted leg. It pains her, is a weakness and she's ashamed of it - very well done.

    1. Mad props to Carolyn. ~adds the book to TBR pile~

  2. Kerrelynn Sparks has a protagonist with a missing hand (Duncan) he eventually got a prosthetic one. Didn't the protagonist in Charlaine Harris's Grave Site series have one. She was stuck by lightning and had a leg issue... I think..
    The most common I've noticed writers use is blindness. Do you think that is because it doesn't have an impact on their looks? In speculative fiction the character often compensates for a disability with a magical ability which is kind of a cheat . .

    1. Oh interesting! Picking a disability that doesn't "harm the pretty." That's be a sad statement of intent, wouldn't it? Though, it probably is the case in some novels. I wonder if being blind is chosen more often because it's a more common fear for those of us who stare at screens/pages all day? Such interesting possibilities to explore on that train of thought...

      How many of the novels with a blind protagonist you read are written in a deep 1st Person POV? I would really like to read a book where the author can't use the usual go-tos to describe setting or emotion. In too many of the ones I've encountered the POV is 3rd Omni, the protag is "legally blind," or the disability isn't maintained throughout the story (wait, how could the hero see the enemy repelling off the roof?). I'd love a recommendation.

    2. I read this one when I was young and the character stayed with me http://www.amazon.com/Light-Single-Candle-Beverly-Butler/dp/0671292897. I remember it as deep POV - though I could be wrong. It also may not have aged well, but I learned a great deal from it.

    3. I will have dig deep in my memory to find those few books. I haven't read many first hand, but have run across them. Most were in the thriller, mystery genre. In PNR any blindness is usually a temporary thing. I read the first book in the Alex Craft series (Grave Witch) and the protagonist would damage her eyesight whenever she used her gift. I don't know how far that progressed in subsequent books.

      I used the phrase the pretty as a generalization. Romance books are usually about beautiful characters because that is what the masses like to read. Even the Beast was made beautiful as part of the HEA. Publishers put out books that will appeal to the largest demographic. Maybe with self pub we will see more diverse characters. I agree with the writing what you know. Can you imagine the beating an author would take for trying to write a handicapped character if they don't have that particular challenge? Could they accurately portray what it is like? Because if they don't someone will take issue and we have all seen what happens in social media when someone feels wronged.

      It would be interesting to study the difference between fiction books written by a blind or deaf author vs one who is not in the same genre. They perceive the world differently and how would that reflect in their writing... Sorry, getting off topic :) but what do deaf and blind people think of mainstream speculative fiction that it is full of sight and sound metaphors and descriptions?

  3. "Why, as authors, do we shy away from writing a permanently physically imperfect protagonist? Does it tie back to the "Write What You Know" advice?"


    Why do you assume that no authors are disabled?