Saturday, June 30, 2012

Celebrating Disabilities in Fiction

This post is a celebration of people in fiction suffering from disabilities but still managing to be heroes anyhow.

There's a lot of people out there who are disabled. And not always visibly. Bipolar, Depression, Autism... these are all conditions that are just as difficult to live with as an obvious physical disability. I know so many people who suffer from one or more inhibiting factors, who still live interesting, exciting, adventurous lives that would make fascinating stories.

Yet it's hard to write a hero that is limited. Because it limits the writer and what they can do with their story. So I'm not coming down on writers for not including more disabled heroes, I recognize the difficulty of it. Still, it seems as though even minor handicaps like wearing glasses could be a bit more common, doesn't it?

Still, this means that the writers who do decide to write a fiction story with a disabled hero have to work harder to make the story fit what readers want to read when they pick up a fiction novel. So lets take a look at those who have crafted memorable heroes and heroines with handicaps.

Lisbeth Selander (The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo), Aspergers
Tyrion Lannister (A Song of Ice and Fire), Dwarf
Bran Stark (A Song of Ice and Fire), Paralysis
Ivy Walker (The Village), Blind
Barbara Gordon "Batgirl", "Oracle" (Batman Comics), Paralysis
Charles Xavier "Professor X" (X-Men Comics), Paralysis
Jeanne Marie Beaubier "Aurora" (Alpha Flight Comics), Dissociative Identity Disorder
Matt Murdock (Dardevil Comics), Blind
Harry Potter, vision impaired
Dr. Gregory House (House M.D.), Leg infarction
Sherlock Holmes, possibly Manic Depressive, Aspergers or Psychopath (depending on interpretation and adaptation).
Xander Harris (Buffy the Vampire Slayer Comics), Blind in one eye
River Tam (Firefly), mentally unstable (exact condition unknown/non-definable)
Sue Thomas (Sue Thomas F.B. Eye), Deaf
Robert Reynolds "Sentry" (Marvel), Agoraphobic (thanks Isaac!)
Percy Jackson (Percy Jackson and the Olympians), Dyslexic
Max Braverman (Parenthood), Aspergers
Toph (Avatar: The Last Airbender), Blind (Thanks Valia!)

(Source Credits - Thanks to Wikipedia for exact terminology for many of the disabilities)

These are all characters with pretty obvious handicaps, all of which play some role in their respective stories, often quite a large one, and has a deliberate impact on their characterization. Many of them are memorable not because they have a handicap, but because how that handicap creates their unique personality.

Who's missing from this list? Let me know if there is an iconic and well realized character I didn't include that should be here, and I'll add it (crediting you, of course!)


Anastasia said...

Wow, I was surprised to hear about the first listing. Many members of my family have autism and aspergers, (I didn't know that some people knew it even existed :O). I don't know of any books you missed, but I once wrote a book of a crippled girl who was a 'heroin.' I love writing books about heroes with some type of disability.

Elizabeth Amy Hajek said...

Aspergers is growing in awareness, although many people are often not sure of exactly how it works. For instance, I do have an Aspergers diagnosis myself, but because a) I'm a girl, and b) my hearing loss forces me to be more aware than most Aspies, most people are shocked to hear this and often declare that they don't believe it.

Anastasia said...

So we girls have a high tendency for Aspergers, huh? :) it's actually really interesting, Aspergers people are known to be really smart in some areas, thus able to do extraordinary thing.....which I think makes up for their disability. So don't feel bad!

Elizabeth Amy Hajek said...

No, actually guys are much more likely to be diagnosed with Aspergers. Girls are much better at mimicing their peers and therefore fitting in and avoiding diagnosis (which is really sad). So we don't know if guys really are more likely to have it or not, we just know they get diagnosed way more. Also it manifests differently. Guys with Aspergers tend to be more socially inept and more interested in technological and science things (think Big Bang Theory) while girls tend to get more obsessed with animals (although they can be very science and technology oriented too).

One of the biggest things I've noticed in my aspie friends is not so much social ineptitude, but reading hints. If you don't want them to do something, (or really NEED them to do something), you can't hint at it. You have to say it outright.

Gymfan15 said...

Sue Thomas F.B. Eye is actually based on a real FBI agent of the same name. Google her; her story is pretty cool. :) So I wouldn't quite classify her as "fiction" since Sue Thomas is very much real!

Elizabeth Amy Hajek said...

Yes, I know it's based on a true scenario, but overall I'd consider most of the show pretty much fictional plots so... but yeah, good point there.

(I wanted to show a deaf person, but that hasn't been done much in fiction.)

R. A. said...

I'm not a writer, but I would say that writing a disabled character can be limiting but can also open up new possibilities. Many disabled people I've spoken to don't even think of themselves as limited, they just wish others could see the world in the completely different way that they do. :)

Some characters I could think of:
Hurt Go Happy by Ginny Rorby (deaf heroine)
The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky (some say the hero has autism)
Wonderstruck by Brian Selznick (deaf hero)
That guy from the Attolia series only has one hand, but I don't remember the author
The Catcher in the Rye by J. D. Salinger (some think the hero has aspergers or autism)
Gathering Blue by Lois Lowry (I think the heroine has a limp)
Temperance Brennan on the tv show Bones (some say she has autism or aspergers, but really only in the newer seasons.)

There is also a deaf character on the show Switched at Birth, if you're counting teen dramas. ;)

Elizabeth Amy Hajek said...

I love Switched at Birth! As a deaf woman it has been so awesome to see a deaf character star on a teen show! However I didn't feel that Daphne had reached iconic status yet (the show has only had one season) so that's why I didn't add her to the list.

There are several characters on popular TV shows that probably have aspergers, but unless they have an actual diagnosis, I don't really consider them 'handicapped' because it's not an issue that's talked about or made clear.

Valia said...

R. A., the Attolian series is by Megan Whalen Turner. :) And nice one to bring up, particularly because the loss of the hand helps motivate him to accomplish even more I think. Sadly, the series doesn't seem to be as well-known as it deserves. :(

I'm afraid I'm drawing kind of a blank on disabled characters right now. The only ones really coming to mind are Paul from R. J. Anderson's Fairy Rebel series (a main to minor character who is paralyzed from the waist down, I believe) and Toph from the tv show Avatar: The Last Airbender (main character who's blind). Not sure if either of those qualify, but there they are. :)

Very interesting post, by the way! I enjoyed reading it. :) I was actually surprised to see Harry Potter on the list as being vision impaired; I've worn glasses for years and never once thought of them as a handicap. I guess maybe it depends on how we define handicapped or disabled? I've known a number of people who've suffered from various ailments or handicaps, and compared to what all they've dealt with, two pieces of glass and a bit of metal to help me see properly doesn't really seem bad. ;)) Do you have a solid definition, though, that you could share? :)

Elizabeth Amy Hajek said...

Valia - Toph is a good one! I haven't seen the show, but it's very popular and I've seen the character name around. I'll add that to the list, thanks!

Yeah, we don't think of vision impairment as being a handicap, but it is. Think of what life would be like without your glasses... I know I for one cannot function at all without them (and get a headache very quickly if I take them off anytime other than sleeping or in the shower).