First, I’m going to focus on physical disabilities for this week’s topic. I’ve touched on a few mental disabilities, but never really dug hard into physical. This can include blindness, deafness, missing a limb, or anything that can make functioning as a hero an extra challenge. It’s not like this is a unique route to take.
Let’s take a look at the ‘classic’ character of the ‘Blind Swordsman’. This has been done a lot in movies and fiction. You have a warrior who cannot see, but is incredibly talented and a force to be reckoned with. Authors tend to go with the ‘other senses are keener’ and have them work off hearing. I plan on doing that whenever I write a story with a blind spear fighter. If it’s not hearing then its sensing something or having a special ability that counters their blindness. Daredevil up there is based around this concept, but with a superpower twist.
So, what have we seen here? The disabled character comes with an extra skill or ability that makes up for their loss. With the Blind Swordsman, it’s keener senses that allow them to see the world. Characters who are deaf are shown with hearing aids, sign language, or lip-reading. I could keep going, but the point is that their disability typically comes with a counter. If not right away then they learn one at some point during their adventure. Sometimes it’s not even a direct one, but something that allows them to be a factor in events. For example, Professor X typically is in a wheelchair. He has great psychic abilities, which is why he can influence events. It’s an example of frail body and strong mind characters too.
I think some authors take the disabled hero too lightly. They do it, but then give such a massive counter that it doesn’t matter. Even worse, they don’t show that the character has any trouble with daily life. There are no adjustments being made because they either have the perfect counter or the author doesn’t do enough research. This happens a lot with deaf characters. They’ll read lips from far distances or when they aren’t facing the person speaking. An author simply drops in the counter to explain how they can communicate and then leave the deafness behind. It’s still there, but it’s no longer a factor, which makes one wonder why it there in the first place. Well, that would be for ‘flavor’ and nothing more than that.
More so than in the past, it really is important to get disabilities right when using them in fiction. We’re in an age of representation, which comes with critical eyes towards depictions of most groups. So, having a character with a physical disability requires that you do research and make it count. They need to show that they can be a hero or help the hero regardless of their disability. Even if they’re comic relief, they need to show a level of strength and success. Though, you really want to be careful with that route and try to avoid slapstick/accident humor here. At least, it seems to me that people get angry over that kind of stuff. Anyway, you need these characters to properly demonstrate the disability and how one can navigate a world that wasn’t really designed with their needs in mind. It makes these characters sources of inspiration.
So, what do you think about disabled heroes? Have you ever tried to write one or know of a great example?