Ripley Patton (rippatton) wrote,
Ripley Patton
rippatton

Differently-Abled Characters in Speculative Fiction

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.

Tags: differently-abled characters, the writer's craft
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  • A Writing Spell

    A special thanks to ophelialaughs for reading The Derby and adding a nomination to the Sir Julius Vogel effort. She did this even while in the…

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    ANDREMEDA SPACEWAYS INFLIGHT MAGAZIN Ever heard of this magazine? Well, I have. In fact, they've published two of my stories, including Over…

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