Writing Excuses 9.46: Disability in Narrative

Charlie Harmon, one of the luminaries of Utah area fandom, joined us to talk about disability in narrative. She’s been going blind gradually since she was a child, and these days while she can see some colored blurs, she cannot read, or recognize faces. We talk about some of the nuances of disability that many writers fail to capture, and how we can learn to write those things more convincingly.


Go to tvtropes.org and look up “Blind People.” Read some of the many tropes (Disability Superpower, Blind Black Guy, and Blind Mistake, just to name three)  then write a blind character without using those tropes.

The Fairy-Tale Detectives: The Sisters Grimm, by Michael Buckley, narrated by L. J. Ganser

24 thoughts on “Writing Excuses 9.46: Disability in Narrative”

  1. Really good episode. Thank you for doing this!

    (Although I must admit, I tend to groan when I hit play and realize its a live episode. Not quite as good audio-quality wise.)

  2. An interesting example is Martyn V. Halm’s Amsterdam Assassin series, where a blind man happens to walk into a murder scene and only survives because the assassin doesn’t consider him as an eyewitness to her deed. His description is focused more on his profession – he’s a musician – and his many other interests than his disability. The author describes some of the research that went into his work on his blog.

  3. As a disabled person one thing that struck me when reading Joe Abercrombie’s description of Glokta from the First Law trilogy was how accurately the author portrayed the difficulty in going down stairs. Too often authors think going up is harder. It is of course difficult, but going down is the real killer.

  4. I keep hearing that you shouldn’t “fix” permanent disabilities for the reasons mentioned in the podcast. But I’ve spent my entire life with twisted spine and a deformed rib cage (and constant pain) …. and I would LOVE to be magically or science-fictionally fixed. Ditto for my three other physical (but not bone-related) ailments. And I am SO glad I was able to get my “legally blind when not wearing glasses” fixed via laser surgery.

    I love it when health is improved in books and daydream wistfully about it happening to me. But everyone says that I am wrong to want that and to want to write books where things like being miraculous restored happen. Why doesn’t my opinion count on this issue? Because pain medications and back braces aren’t the same as blindness or being born with a limb missing? And why in the world don’t the people with those kinds of disabilities wish they could make them go away, like I do? What is so wrong about wanting that? And writing about that happening?

    1. First, Ciara, thank you for calling us out on this!

      Second, I think there’s a semantic issue here. We want to avoid presenting disability as a character flaw, akin to greed, or pride, or something like that. Having a character overcome a disability is just fine, and a story in which the try-fail cycle revolves around just such a thing is perfectly okay.

      Nobody is saying that those with physical handicaps shouldn’t want to not have them. What we’re trying to say is that when we write about handicaps, we should do so in a way that doesn’t shame those who suffer with handicaps in real life.

      I enjoy stories in which the handicapped protagonist resolves the plot issues without being cured, but I also enjoy stories in which the blind are made to see, the lame made to walk, etc. There are stories about prevailing in spite of weakness, and there are stories about removing weakness.

  5. @Ciara,

    I would add to what Howard said that it depends on how you present the story of a character overcoming or managing to cure a disability. When I worked for a magazine, we had occasional submissions wherein a protagonist with a handicap found a cure. The problem was that the cure was often presented as a sort of deus ex machina at the end of the story–something that appeared out of nowhere to save the protagonist but required no effort, overcoming, or growth on their part.

    On the other hand, if a character has to work for their cure (either working to afford it, to qualify for it, to discover or create it, or something else) then there might be the makings of a great story in there.

  6. I love all the different angles approached by the WE podcasts. I have some characters with impairments in the story I am writing now and found the conversation very useful. Thank you.

    I think there are some great characters whose disability is actually their super-power. Zatoichi the Blind Swordsman and Dean Koontz’s Christopher Snow come to mind.

    Thanks for this wonderful podcast.

  7. Ugh. Chris, why does character growth or even a story arc need to be involved with fixing something wrong with a person?

    For example: If I were sucked into a Harry Potter world, I would hope that the wizards would fix me because I needed to be fixed and they had the skills, not because I’d gone through a learning experience or suffered greatly or something. Ditto for finding myself in the future where it’s easy to fix human bodies. Or if aliens sucked me up into a space ship and could repair DNA damage in a way that reflected in the body over a few short hours. Or if I found myself in league with powerful witches with magical abilities to fix me up. Okay, maybe the witches might want something from me. But my point here is, WHY can’t it be, “Now you’re in the future. They can fix you easily and then you can continue on your adventures.”

    I struggle with health every single day, so I’m not very interested in reading about that struggle as a main component of a story. (Though Ms. Bujold does an excellent job with Miles.) I’d take a deux en machina if I could find one. :-)

  8. This was immensely helpful, as my current story has a magic system that only works when the user is blind from birth.

    Although I had congenital cataracts and am legally blind uncorrected, I have vision in one eye corrected that makes my life nearly normal (can drive, went to normal school, no aids other than contacts plus glasses on top). Therefore, I have some perspective, but not enough.

    Big question–how do I find alpha readers who are blind? I know none. How can I do that without by ing offensive to random strangers?


  9. One of my favorite examples of a blind character in entrainment media is Toph from Avatar: The Last Airbender. A very non-stereotypical cast for the whole show, for sure. Perhaps not the most refined choice for an example (it’s a kid’s show, albeit easily my favorite show in existence…), but I think she’s an excellent character and the writers definitely hit all the right spots in her creation.

  10. Timothy, thanks for mentioning my Amsterdam Assassin Series.

    One of my fans is visually impaired academic Hannah Thompson who has a blog on blindness and media representation of disability, Blindspot. She received a copy of the first book in the series, Reprobate, and wrote a positive article in her ‘Blindness in Fiction’ blog reviews: http://hannah-thompson.blogspot.nl/2013/01/blindness-in-fiction-4-reprobate-katla.html

    We’ve been in contact and she has since become one of my beta readers. I also have another fan who is wholly blind and uses a program to convert epubs of my books to MP3. He even alerted me to typos read over by myself and several editors/beta readers.

    Another interesting thing I noticed is that I’m popular with a group called Paradevo, female devotees who who are attracted to paraplegic and otherwise disabled men, who seek out romance novels with realistic/believable disabled fictional characters. I’ve been interviewed by one of their members, you can read the interview on Ruth Madison’s website: http://www.ruthmadison.com/author-interview-reprobate-by-martyn-v-halm/

    If anyone wants the opportunity to read Reprobate for free, I give out free review copies: https://amsterdamassassin.wordpress.com/2014/06/25/like-to-receive-a-free-review-copy-of-reprobate/

    – Martyn.

  11. Ciara, I think the problem is that you are looking for wish fulfillment and writers who try to make their dreams come true can easily fall into the trap of Mary Sue if the character did nothing to deserve a cure. The most common way to demonstrate this deservingness is by having the character struggle for it, though this doesn’t mean that the character has to fight for a cure directly. They could prove themselves in other ways, though it isn’t always as resonant with the reader when they do.
    I’m reminded of a character in Fullmetal Alchemist Brotherhood (SPOILERS AHEAD) who was rendered blind, yet he, Mustang, still continued to fight for his beliefs. Soon afterward, Dr. Marcoh offers to cure Mustang of his blindness, so as to allow him to better help people, but what sealed it in the viewer’s mind that the cure was deserved was that Mustang insisted Havoc be cured of his injuries first. (END SPOILER SECTION)
    Also, it should be noted that being “cured” does not always solve all the problems for a character relating to their handicap. There could be a period of physical recovery, but there really should be a mental/emotional adjustment.

  12. I could see a story working in which someone traveled to the future, or to a magical world, or whatever, and got cured early on just because the locals saw there was a problem and fixed it. The contrast/transition would need to be a big part of that character arc, to make this meaningful to the story.

  13. @Ciara,

    Struggle simply tends to be what makes a story engaging. I’m not saying that you *couldn’t* write a story that works well without it, I’m just saying that I don’t know how it would be done. Most stories I’ve seen without some sort of struggle didn’t work well–not if getting healed was the central point of the story. But I’d love to see something like that which pulls it off.

    In specific response to what you said: “But my point here is, WHY can’t it be, ‘Now you’re in the future. They can fix you easily and then you can continue on your adventures.'” It CAN be that, but in that case the whole “getting healed” thing generally isn’t the central plot. As you said, they get healed, and then they continue on their adventures–as in, they move on to a different, more engaging plot. I’m sorry that “getting healed easily” doesn’t tend to be engaging–I think it just doesn’t ring true enough for most people. We all know that life is anything but easy, so a story where everything happens easily doesn’t resonate as realistic.

    But I’m a firm believer that storytellers can always work whatever they want into a story while keeping it engaging. Many stories have more than one plot going on; you could make one of those the “recieving a miraculous cure” plot, and then intertwine that plot with a bunch of others.

    The best example of this that I can think of is James Cameron’s “Avatar.” While it’s not my favorite movie in the world, the plot definitely follows this pattern. James is paraplegic, he goes to a distant planet and gets “cured” in a way through his avatar. He then has a bunch of adventures, and the movie ends with him making his cure permanent. Him getting to leave his disability behind is the opening and closing plot, but it bookends a lot of other plots that require a lot more effort from him and others before he can get there.

  14. Orson Scott Card also had a “miraculous healing” plot in one of his books . . . I think it was Xenocide. Again, it wasn’t the central plot of the book, but it was one of the central elements of that character’s plot. It’s been a while since I read it, but I seem to remember that one working very well.

  15. I felt a certain irony listening to this episode, in that I felt disabled. I want to play it back at around 85% speed, because I was having trouble following them, especially the guest. Charlie.

    Thanks for covering this.

  16. Odd, I’ve _never_ seen a person walking around with a white cane and tapping it. Everyone I’ve seen slides it back and forth.

    One concern about the preference for streets over sidewalks – can you hear Hybrids/Electrics? I’m fully sighted, but I live in an area with very twisty streets, so it’s often safer for pedestrians to listen for cars than look for them – you can hear cars around corners without too much difficulty. However, that relies on the high volume of an internal combustion engine. Electrical engines are far quieter – to the point where I can barely hear them even when they’re passing within inches of me. So, in recent years, I’ve had to re-teach myself to look for cars as well as listening for them, just in case the one guy in the neighborhood with a hybrid is driving by at that specific moment.

  17. It is not SF, but I was really moved by the novel “Of Such Small Differences” by Joanne Greenberg. You get into the head of a young man who is deaf and blind, and reading his perspective has changed the way I see the world. I don’t know how accurate the story is, but I believed every word. I think this book might be good research for a writer.

  18. I’ve Cerebral Palsy, and I’m an asp[ring writer. I try to put a disabled character in my pieces. I wish that a disabled character in a wheelchair as a Main Character in urban fantasy.

  19. Like several posters, I am also visually impaired. The trouble I have is trying to write people with normal vision, because I have no frame of reference. My friends and family have tried explaining how they see to me, but I can’t figure out how to put that into words. I find it much easier to explain to my friends that my focal distance is two feet than the other way around.

    I’ve been trying, both with autobiographical and fictional pieces and talking about visual impairment and I’m having a lot of difficulty putting even that into words, but I’m learning. I guess I’ll have to really start thinking about how I do things differently to get more character details.

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