The recent Paralympics was an inspiring event for so many reasons. These people are athletes whose lives are a daily challenge because of amputations, genetic defects, disease, blindness or some other significant physical limitation, and yet they trained so hard – to reach the very pinnacle of their sport – to compete against others with similar physical constraints. Many did better than their able-bodied counterparts in the same sport, while all of them exceeded what the rest of us can do. And they all had a story to tell, some of them ordinary, but most were heart-rending. These are people driven beyond their disability in a way that many of us would have difficulty understanding. It is this ability, when so many able-bodied people can barely peel themselves off the sofa, that should be an inspiration to us all. Their ability screams out to us to ‘do the very best you can with what you have’!
So when you see such incredible, positive ambition in events like the Paralympics, why is it that fantasy books and films usually portray disabled people as villains, such as most of the Bond bad-guys, Darth Vader, Captain Hook, Voldemort and such? Of course, people can become bitter or cruel because of their disability, but able-bodied people can also become twisted for any number of reasons. It seems like a bit of a cop-out really. It seems that writers use a disability so that readers can ‘see’ that something is physically wrong with the disabled villain, therefore we’re immediately meant to realise that they are the ones who have a problem with being good because they are not physically the same as everyone else.
I challenge you as a fantasy writer to think of ways out of this stereotype. Firstly, I’m not talking about something Tolkien or Raymond E. Feist like, where there are ‘dwarves’ – these are not considered a disability or genetic defect in these books, instead they’re written in as a specific kind of human race. Also, I’m not saying you suddenly have a plethora of disabled characters turn up just to prove a point. Rather that the characters you create are endearing and readable because of their ability to overcome their disability, and their desire to get on with life and be seen as the same as everyone else. That can be a story in itself. Here are some examples of fantasy where disabilities were very much in central characters, but they were the heroes, not the bad guys:
- George RR Martin’s “Game of Thrones” – Tyrion as a dwarf has an uphill battle from the start, but as a high ranking noble-man who is sneered at by just about everyone (including his incestuous siblings) it’s an almighty struggle for him to be seen as a good and worthy man. And yet nearly everything he does shows that he is ten times more decent than just about every full-sized person around him. What he does is to try to be ordinary, but because of who he is and the obstacles he encounters, his story is extraordinary.
- Audrey Niffenegger’s “The Time Traveller’s Wife” – In this story the disability is a ‘magical’ one, where Henry cannot control a terrible affliction that sends him back and forth in time. It’s also a genetic defect that he passes on to his daughter. His desire to be a normal man is constantly challenged by his disability, putting him in danger and sending him into a gradual downward spiral.
- Tim Burton and Caroline Thompson’s “Edward Scissorhands” – This story is a little more awkward in its telling, but again it is a fantasy disability that overshadows the ability of Edward to live a normal life. With his incomplete hands full of sharp bits and pieces, this isolated man-made boy cannot become the man he wants to be or have normal relationships, and his attempts to do so start amusingly enough, but end in failure.
- Anne McCaffrey’s “The Ship Who Sang” – With a crippled body but an able mind, a disabled girl’s brain is transplanted into a ship. But although she can sail through the cosmos, she can never touch or hold the man she loves, even though she can save his life.