Monday, October 21, 2013

Physical flaws in characters

Honestly, you can just take away the word physical in the title of this one. The concept is to write about  Disables Protagonists. I suspect the idea is to aim at physical disabilities. I can get with that. I have  a few of them myself.

But I have to be honest here and say that unless the disability directly affects the story, I seldom worry about the physical abilities or disabilities of my characters. If that sounds harsh or hollow, I'll apologize. but to me, it's another facet of the whole, one small part of the sum of the entity that is a small part of the sum of the parts of my story or novel. Like whether or not the character has a mole on the back of her neck, just behind her left ear and under the hairline. Unless it pertains to the story I don't bring it up.

One of the most blatant uses of physical disability I've used in a story was in the part of Tyler Wilson, the fifteen year-old trusty side kick to another teen in UNDER THE OVERTREE. Tyler had abominable eye sight. The sort where he was virtually blind without his glasses. I took his glasses away from him in one scene and let nature (or in this case supernature) take its course. By the time it was all said and done Tyler wound up unconscious in the woods after running face first into a tree. For Tyler, the glasses were a problem, but hardly a concern when balanced against being the short skinny kid who half the local jocks tormented because he couldn't back up his battleship mouth with his tugboat butt. getting nearly pulped after school was a much more serious issue for him. Also, the glasses didn;t help his self esteem when it came to the ladies.

Flaws. all flaws in characters, are a part of their makeup. They are important aspects for understanding the characters as people and if you cannot understand the characters enough to sympathize with them, you have failed as a writer in my opinion.

I once had an editor get really quite upset with me on a collaborative effort. 13 writers, 13 characters, 13 tales. The story I was asked to write took place from the perspective of the betrayer of the group. The character of Heylel Teomim a sorcerer who betrays the rest of the people with him for all the right reasons. The editor was upset because he wound up LIKING the character. That was, in my estimation, a compliment. No one ever starts out saying "I'm gonna be like Judas and screw everyone over!" Of if they do, they probably need psychological help. I wrote a sympathetic character. It was my job. I did it well enough to get praise. The character's flaw was betraying everyone because he felt he was helping them out, whether they wanted his help or not.

Physical limitations are there. Sometimes they are significant--one character I recently wrote about, Andover Lashk in SEVEN FORGES, had his hands ruined with a hammer. He deals with several issues as a result of that. Anger at the assault, depression at the thought of being a beggar for the rest of his life, and the social dread that comes with being, in his estimation, a now useless failure that no sane woman would want to deal with. Of course for him these are vital issues. It's his life, after all. Also, as an apprentice to a blacksmith, he's sort of screwed if he can't use his hands.

They've recently rebooted an old detective show, IRONSIDE (and already cancelled it apparently. I'm gonna guess Blair Underwood wasn't quite living up to Raymond Burr's portrayal, but to be fair I never saw the reboot)  In that show the detective is in a wheelchair. Mostly you only really noticed that in the original because from time to time it was darned difficult to chase the bad guys when he couldn't get up a flight of stairs, but he had able bodied sidekicks to handle that for him. In only a few episodes did his disability become an issue. Mostly because, one assumes, he was pretty okay with being in a wheelchair. Maybe not thrilled about it, but adapting.

And that's a big part of the character development, oddly enough. Sometimes people overcome their disabilities and sometimes they do not. It's that process and what it leads to that is significant to me as a storyteller. How does the character deal with the disability? In the old Silver Age DC Comics Lex Luthor learned to hate superman because he blamed Superman for making him bald. That was enough motivation for the times. Later incarnations get a bit more detailed as to Luthor's anger management issues.

Superman needs the radiation form a yellow sun to give him his super powers and he has a weakness to Kryptonite. These are aspects of his powers, but they are not the deciding factors in his life. They are facets in the whole.

Ironside's wheelchair was there, but not the thing the show revolved around in most cases. It dealt instead with the crime of the week and how he was going to handle it.

Long and short of it or me is this: How does the ailment affect the character, shape the character and ultimately change the character? If the answer is that it affects him or her very little, then it will get little if any air time in my story.

I am a diabetic with plantar fasciitis and crappy eyesight. I also weigh too much.  I control my blood sugars through diet and medications. I do stretches to help with the shortened tendons in my feet. I wear corrective lenses. I diet with moderate success. I also drive a car, wear clothes, rent a house, have a social life (sort of), write novels, work at Starbucks, have several siblings and in laws, watch television, collect movies, like peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, am planning a trip to England in two weeks, spend more than I should on books, have no special love of sweet pickles, prefer pancakes to waffles...the list goes on endlessly.

We are the sum of our parts. The only parts I intend to mention about most characters are the parts that directly affect the story of that character or the story in general. The rest is just dressing.

That's my two cents worth.

And as always feedback is encouraged.



  1. You have no special love for sweet pickles? My world is crumbling. :)

    I saw a commercial recently at a friends house. It was a group of guys playing wheelchair basketball. At the end, everyone but one guy stood up from the chair and walked off the court (the other rolled off with them) and the truly handicapped one said something like "you guys are getting better at this." That commercial has been in my mind each time I check out this weeks posts. There's so much story I can infer from that short snippet. The bonds of a friendship so strong that each of them placed value on the effort to spend time in their friend's position. It could be pity...or so much more than pity.

    Physical handicapped characters take the 'underdog' role to a new level.

  2. I love that commercial. And for me it is not pity. It is making sure a good friend in included. That's friendship.
    Among the many things I have dealt with in my life are taking care of my wife when she went into renal failure and being with her through the last several years of her life when the quality of her daily existence was often a misery. I loved her then, I love her now, I miss her daily and I always admired her determination not to let her substantial physical ailments define her world more than absolutely necessary. Yes, she had to deal with dialysis, but she managed a smile for the people she dealt with and she fought hard to get herself into a better place.

  3. Exactly. I don't think its pity either, it comes off to me as that 'so much more' and that's why the commercial is powerful. Overcoming adversity, defining our life our own way in spite of troubles is a strength all of us would hope to have, but also hope never to have the theory tested. Your wife must have been an incredibly awesome person. :) *HUGS*