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In my WIP, Ghosthand, the MC, Olivia Black, is born with a rare birth defect known as PSS, or Psyche Sans Soma (Life without flesh). Instead of a flesh and blood right hand, Olivia is born with a mass of ethereal energy emanating from her right wrist.

Making Olivia a differently-abled character was no coincidence.

I grew up with an older brother who was born with cleft lip and palate. I looked up to him. Thought he was an amazing guy. Saw him make the choice in high school not to go in for the final cosmetic surgery because he was tired of spending every school holiday in the hospital under the knife. And it just wasn't that important to him anymore to look exactly like everyone else. And remember, he was in HIGH SCHOOL.

And he is still an amazing guy, with an amazing son who was born with cleft lip and palate. 

Helen Keller said, "The world is full of suffering, but it is also full of overcoming."

I have always found myself drawn to stories with differently-abled characters. One could argue that speculative fiction with its comic book super-abled heroes and heroines is all about taking what society views as a disadvantage and using it to overcome things. And it is.

But here I'd like to focus not on the Magnetos or Wolverines of the story world, but on the characters in speculative fiction who are realistically differently-abled in a fantastically speculative world.  There is something about the juxtaposition of that I find wonderful.

My favorite spec fic differently-abled character by far has to be Miles Vorkosigan from Lois McMaster Bujold's Vorkosigan series. Miles, the MC, in this futuristic sci-fi series, suffers from brittle bone disease. Miles doesn't overcome this through special technology, or some supernatural counter-ability. He overcomes it purely through quick wit, a clever mind, and a undeniable belief in himself.

Below are a list of other spec fic works that include differently-abled characters. I've kept the list to novel length works, as they are easier to find than short works. I am also NOT including stories where the focus is the victimization of the differently-abled.

1. Elizabeth Bear's Hammered (New York: Bantam 2005).
Female protagonist possesses a number of prosthetics in a noir world of military and corporate espionage.

2. Lois McMaster Bujold, Beguilement: The Sharing Knife Volume 1 (New York: EOS, October 2006).
Main male MC has a prosthetic arm.

3. Emma Bull, Falcon (New York: Ace 1989).
A young differently-abled pilot with a gestalt link to his ship helps fight a corrupt government.

4. . A. C. Crispin, Starbridge (Ace 1989) and the rest of The Starbridge series, including Silent Dances and Silent Songs. Deaf characters.

6. Al Davison, The Minotaur's Tale. (Dark Horse Comics 1992). Graphic novel by an artist with spina bifida which uses the myth of the Minotaur to tell the story of a man with multiple disabilities and the disfigured female doctor who becomes involved with him.

7. Elizabeth Moon, The Speed of Dark. (Ballantine, 2003).
Main character is autistic. Themes include non-normativity and the struggle to maintain identity.

If you have any of your own favorites, I'd love to add them to my list, so please share in the comments. I'm happy to see so many women on the list above.

If you are interested in a more comprehensive list which includes short stories, films and even Star Trek episodes addressing differently-abled issues this is a fantastic website.

And what about differently-abled tropes or stereotypes to avoid?

Here are a just a few off the top of my head:

1. Disability as an outward and visible sign of inward evil.
2. Disabled characters either dying or being miraculously cured (see this article, 20 Characters Who Got Their Legs Back), as if there is no in-between, no real life with disability.
3. Disabled characters as Christ-figures, super-crips, or vehicles for pity.
4. Disabled characters with no romance or sex life.
5. Unrealistic extremes, no gradients of disability.  A blind person can't see anything, when in reality many blind people can see shades of light. The only kind of Tourettes is the kind where one blurts out obscenities.
6. The blind seer- a bit overused.

Here's an excellent website on disability tropes to avoid, or think carefully about before using.


( 16 comments — Leave a comment )
Jul. 17th, 2010 03:15 am (UTC)
Thanks for a great article. I have a novel-in-progress, where a main secondary character has a specific learning disability. He's a talented metal sculptor with a fully developed love life (it's realistic fiction). His disability is realistically portrayed, including his struggle to not be offered helped when he doesn't need it, or treated as being stupid rather than disabled. I also find my fantasy characters possessing certain abilities are also disabled to some extent by those same abilities, because the use of them forces a recovery period, and there are side effects to overcome and emotions to control while using them. I read the first volume of The Sharing Knife, and appreciated that aspect of the story, Dag's prosthetic arm. Above all, protraying differently-abled people as multi-faceted people, with both strengths and weaknesses, is the most important thing. I like your example of the blind person- it's not all or nothing.
Jul. 17th, 2010 03:37 am (UTC)
Glad you found the post helpful.

It doesn't really touch on learning disabilities or mental health issues, though, so thanks for bringing that up.

Could be a whole 'nother post.

Jul. 17th, 2010 03:56 am (UTC)
I totally found this through ego-googling, but I want to recommend John Varley's "Blue Champagne," which is about a lifeguard who falls in love with a paraplegic movie star... in space.

I found it sensitive and heartwrenching, and it neither demonizes the paralyzed character nor makes her a saint.

ETA: Oh! Oh! And the antihero/antagonist Argent the Wolf in the second series of Matt Wagner's GRENDEL.

Edited at 2010-07-17 03:58 am (UTC)
Jul. 18th, 2010 04:28 am (UTC)
I'm a fan of ego-googling myself- or at least a fan of Ego Google Alerts.

So, glad to have you join the conversation, and I'll add your recommendations to my list.
Jul. 17th, 2010 04:42 am (UTC)
I thought Miles eventually *did* get all his brittle bones replaced by synthetics? (Or maybe I'm just remembering the Vorkosigan series incorrectly, which is quite possible). But in any case I agree that Bujold did a good job of empowering him while leaving him needing to operate within the limits imposed by the brittle bone condition...

And it's been a while since I read it (a decade, at least), but Kim Stanley Robinson's novella 'The Blind Geometer' - about, surprise surprise, a blind geometer - struck me at the time as a very effective story which placed the reader well-and-truly in the skull of a character without the sense of sight.
Jul. 18th, 2010 04:31 am (UTC)
My memory on the details concerning the end of the Vokorsigan series has become a bit vague, I'll admit. It has been quite a while since I read them.

So, you may be right about the synthetic fix.

I'll check out The Blind Geometer. Is it spec fic? or just fiction.
Jul. 17th, 2010 07:24 am (UTC)
From Helen Lowe
Great post, Ripley. I would also add the central protagonist in Anne McCaffrey's "The Ship Who Sang" and Tyrian Lannister in George RR Martin's "A Song of Ice and Fire" series.
Jul. 18th, 2010 04:39 am (UTC)
Re: From Helen Lowe
Great additions. McCaffrey's Brain and Brawn Ship series was on that larger list.

For those who aren't familiar they take place in the distant future, when parents of children who are born with severe physical handicaps but highly developed minds are given the option to become "shell people"; encapsulated as children in a titanium life-support shell and specially trained for tasks that a "normal" human would be unable to do- mainly becoming brains for ships or cities.

And George RR Martin's Lannister is a character born with dwarfism.
Jul. 17th, 2010 07:53 am (UTC)
What an excellent post! I don't have any titles to add to your list. but as I'm writing about a character with blindness maybe one day my book will make the list? Hey, I can dream! :)
Jul. 18th, 2010 04:40 am (UTC)
I hope it will be. Dream on!
Jul. 17th, 2010 01:35 pm (UTC)
Like the writer or not, Mannie O'Kelley-Davis from Robert Heinlein's The Moon is a Harsh Mistress certainly fits.
Jul. 18th, 2010 04:43 am (UTC)
Thanks for that addition to the list.

For those not familiar, Mannie is a one-armed computer technician and lunar colonist.
Jul. 17th, 2010 01:45 pm (UTC)
The Dark Tower series has a character named Suzanna who has no legs. And yet still kicks so much ass. It's an excellent portrayal of someone who is differently abled, I think.
Jul. 18th, 2010 04:46 am (UTC)
Great addition.

Not only is Suzanna physically differently-abled (a double leg amputee) but she also has a dual-personality disorder.

Great Series- The Dark Tower.
Jan. 8th, 2012 06:50 pm (UTC)
I love the article. Tyrion Lannister springs to mind - a dwarf from the dangerous world of G.R.R. Martin's "Game of Thrones".

And Jake Sully from "Avatar" might qualify, too.
Jan. 8th, 2012 10:09 pm (UTC)
Excellent additions to my list. Thanks for adding them.
( 16 comments — Leave a comment )


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Ripley Patton

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