Sunday, October 20, 2013

Discovering the Power of the Disabled Protagonist

Isabel was in this spot before the sun sank low enough to hit her. Excellent strategy.

This week's topic in Ye Olde Bordello is The Physically Disabled Protagonist. At first I thought KAK, our calendar whiz kid, had double-booked topics. Then I realized that it was just me. I wrote "Discovering the Power of the Disabled Protagonist" back in August on the Here Be Magic group blog. So, I'm totally taking the bye and reproducing it here.

Hope you all don't mind!

On the advice of fellow Whore James Moore, I read Westlake Soul by Rio Youers. It was a bit of a departure for me in my recent reading, because it's by a male author about a male protagonist. I don't think I was deliberately reading female authors and female POV, but I'd definitely gotten into a nearly exclusive pattern. The other interesting thing about this book is the protagonist is completely disabled. He was paralyzed in a surfing accident and is unable to move or communicate - except through the power of his mind.

I enjoyed the book and its fascinating premise. It also dovetailed with conversations I'd been having online, most notably with my friend, Sassy Outwater. For those who don't know Sassy, she's blind and has a guide dog companion named Kodak. You might have seen them at the RT Convention in spring of 2013, for example.

Sassy is on a quest for recommendations particularly of disabled heroines in romance novels. She's planning to do a full rant and review, so if you have suggestions, she's looking for any and all. Her site is being developed here. I'll be interested to see what kind of list she gets. After all, the romance tropes usually call for the feisty, nubile and always perfectly lovely heroine. That's been changing up in recent years, which is all to the good in my mind.

Speculative fiction, it seems, better lends itself to the disabled protagonist or otherwise "handicapped" hero. I'm using that word in the traditional sense - that some sort of weight is added to make the hero's journey that much more difficult. One famous example is Stephen R. Donaldson's Thomas Covenant, who suffers from - of all the horrible diseases - leprosy. Superhero stories are notable for the crippling burdens - usually emotional - that the hero carries. Think Batman with his haunted, traumatic past.

However, because I read primarily female-driven stories, it seems I rarely encounter the truly disabled heroine. Even if she's emotionally troubled, she's still physically attractive. And her psychic scars don't get in the way of relationships, like Batman's do - or they are temporary obstacles that increase sexual tension, but are easily overcome in the end.

I'm looking at my spec fic bookshelf, racking my brain for exceptions - much as I've been looking at my romance shelves (and yes, the twain do meet and mix it up) for ideas for Sassy's project. It could be my filter bias for the Happily Ever After, but I'm not coming up with much.

So, I'm throwing this out to you all. Examples of heroines in speculative fiction (I'm deliberately using that umbrella term to cover all genres of paranormal, urban fantasy, science fiction, fantasy, sword & sorcery, etc.) that are "handicapped" in some way.

Bonus points for disfiguring disabilities.


  1. Well.... fellow word whore Allison Pang wrote Abby of course.
    And there's Tara in Alayna William's Oracle books.
    Hmm... I'll have to sort through my books to see if there are more.

  2. Those are interesting examples. Though Abby has the chronic injury I never truly thought of her as disabled. And, similarly, though Tara has scars, she never seemed actually disfigured in my mind - maybe because they weren't on her face? It will be interesting to see what Allison says, if she considers Abby to be disabled.