Disability and fantasy fiction – more questions than answers

Here’s an interesting question posed on Twitter by Sally Hyder – why are there no disabled female heroes in books? Is this because readers won’t accept it? Or is that the publishing fear, not the reality?

I’m indebted to Kate Elliott for flagging up Oree in N.K. Jemisin’s The Broken Kingdoms as an example of such a female – while acknowledging they are extremely rare.

Why is this? I don’t have any answers – but I am now pondering on my own, related experience. I have a crippled male hero in The Chronicles of the Lescari Revolution – in modern terms, he has cerebral palsy and is closely modelled on a friend of my teenage years with CP in what he can and cannot do, his attitudes, frustrations etc.

Neither editors nor readers have had any problem with him as a character – indeed, he’s been seen as an interesting twist on Alpha-Male heroes. But when we were discussing cover art, one major US book chain’s representative was very, very anti the notion of a man on crutches on a book jacket – he reckoned that would be the commercial kiss of death.

Well, we’ll never know. Subsequent reader reaction would indicate that was an unrealistic fear. But I wouldn’t rule it out entirely. I’ve had too many well-informed Americans conclude that the (superb) cover art contributed to Southern Fire’s failure to find a US audience.

That’s a male disabled hero. What about a female one? I would be much more cautious about writing one of those – especially following some hostile reader reaction to Lady Zurenne in the Hadrumal Crisis books. More women than I would have expected have been infuriated by her inability to cope – in the first instance – with being widowed and subject to male domination in a patriarchal society. They have found her thoroughly dislikeable – without, thankfully, condemning me as a betrayer of the sisterhood. That would be difficult given the presence of a very empowered magewoman, Jilseth, in these books.

The thing is, I can understand that reaction to some extent. I have read far too many books in the past couple of years where a woman’s role is still to be marginalised, patronised, passive and victim – apart from the minority of instances where she’s a menacing and/or vengeful bitch.

So I personally would be very wary indeed of including a disabled female character in a book without her condition being absolutely central and necessary to the plot. And then I would have to work very hard indeed to make her absolutely not a passive victim – and that would be very difficult indeed, in a narrative set in any kind of pre-modern society where reader expectations would be set by their own assumed knowledge of the historical disempowerment and invisibility of such individuals.

Now, having friends and family who’ve lived and worked abroad, often in developing countries, I know for a fact that viewpoint is more than a little skewed. When my parents lived in West Africa, we would see men and women who’d lost limbs to accident or disease out and about, making a living. Because otherwise they’d starve. We would see the mentally impaired and infirm being cared for by their families. A society needs to attain a certain level of wealth before they can warehouse the disabled out of sight.

But how to convey to the reader that their assumed knowledge is wrong without the benefit of out-of-story footnotes? It would be a very interesting writerly challenge – and if I had the right story, it would definitely be worth trying. But it would have to be for the right story, not just trying something for the sake of it.

Oh and by the way, any writer wanting to tackle this challenge should start by reading books like Sally Hyder’s own memoir, Finding Harmony. Sally has Multiple Sclerosis, not that you’d ever know it from her online conversation, unless she’s in the middle of plotting something like getting to the top of Ben Nevis in a motorised wheelchair.

As I say, it’s interesting question – and I don’t have any answers. Anyone else got any comments or observations?

Author: Juliet

Juliet E McKenna is a British fantasy author living in the Cotswolds, UK. Loving history, myth and other worlds since she first learned to read, she has written fifteen epic fantasy novels so far. Her debut, The Thief’s Gamble, began The Tales of Einarinn in 1999, followed by The Aldabreshin Compass sequence, The Chronicles of the Lescari Revolution, and The Hadrumal Crisis trilogy. The Green Man’s Heir was her first modern fantasy inspired by British folklore in 2018, and The Green Man’s Quarry in 2023 is the sixth title in this ongoing series. Her 2023 novel The Cleaving is a female-centred retelling of the story of King Arthur, while her shorter stories include forays into dark fantasy, steampunk and science fiction. She promotes SF&Fantasy by reviewing, by blogging on book trade issues, attending conventions and teaching creative writing. She has served as a judge for major genre awards. As J M Alvey, she has written historical murder mysteries set in ancient Greece.

10 thoughts on “Disability and fantasy fiction – more questions than answers

  1. My feeling is that we are likely to be see a few more characters with minor disabilities following the success of House on tv, in which the lead character’s personality is much influenced by being in constant pain. However, much less likely to see more severe disabilities in SFF due to the common emphasis on physical prowess — fighting, running, marching etc.

    In order to see more disabled characters, which I would welcome, we need to revise our notions of heroism I think. Being ‘heroic’ can take many forms — simply living with disabilities requires stoicism and determination and this can have a heroic quality which may not be the ‘epic’ heroism of an axe-wielding one-man army but is far more interesting (though let’s face it, just about everything would be more interesting than Hack McSlash of the BigAxe clan).

    I take so much for granted as an able-bodied person with able-bodied children. Writing a character who has everyday challenges and is then placed in the middle of a quest or conflict is a fascinating possibility but one that I am probably not qualified to do justice to at this stage of my writing, though I would be intrigued to see other takes this on. Great topic for further investigation.


    PS. I have enjoyed the ‘Matthew Shardlake’ character in the C.J. Sansom series, a physically disabled lawyer in Medieval England. More of his ilk in SFF would be a good thing.
    PPS. I suppose my favourite disabled character (if he actually qualifies) is Moorcock’s Elric, a physically weak albino with all the sensitivities of that condition. I would expect some mentions of Thomas Covenant too perhaps …

    1. Yes, fear of getting it wrong will be a major factor for many writers – and rightly so. Though ideally that should mean going and doing the right research rather than abandoning the challenge.

  2. There was a StarWars novel I read years back. One of Luke’s female protege’s lost a hand, and decided not to get a robotic replacement. And it infuriated me. At the time I had a baby on my hip, which tied up one arm. I couldn’t write checks without someone to hold the checkbook. I couldn’t open doors and carry the bag full of stuff I’d purchased. The list went on and on. But the character in the book did all those kinds of things anyway. So I’d say writing a disability is hard to get right.

    As a chronic migraine sufferer, I read to escape my pain. I don’t enjoy reading about characters in severe pain, because it reminds me of my own pain. I don’t know how many readers are like me, but it might be enough to limit sales. OTOH, I read a Joyce Carol Oates book about a deaf man years ago that was brilliant, so it can sell. But maybe not in Fantasy/SF?

    I bought the HB version of Southern Fire when it came out. I promptly fell in love with the main character and his family. And I put it down because I just didn’t want to see paradise end. I did that several times. I promise to buy and read the eBook version when it comes out.

  3. Male characters can get away with murder, and readers will want to forgive them, to see them become better people, to believe that deep down, the killer is a good person. I suspect women characters do not receive nearly the same benefit of the doubt. I could not say why this is, perhaps because we have seen fewer women antiheroes, or fewer flawed female protagonists. Or it could track back to the narrower field of conventionally accepted female behavior. A strict man in power is seen as strong, but a woman with the same temperament is often labelled unfairly a bitch. Historically, women in society have been cast in roles of the self-sacrificing and nurturing, and while both those aspects have heroic value, the breadth of women protagonists needs to be expanded to accompany similar advances in the 21st century.

    I hope readers will become more accepting flawed women heroes, to believe they can change their ways for the better. Likewise, I am eager to see more disabled women overcoming in spite of adversity. The two concepts are linked in my mind because in my own fantasy writing, the protagonist has a sleeping disorder known as hypersomnia, and as a result she is insecure and snippy, traits which certainly not all readers are willing to forgive her for. But I’m happy to have written her with those flaws, as it gives her room to grow as a character, and there’s nothing more powerful in literature.

  4. I must say it is something I’ve mostly ignored in my fiction. That’s a sobering realization.

  5. Women fantasy characters are valued (in many cases) as sexual first, and human beings second. So anything perceived as somehow not “sexy” enough (according to bizarre commercial standards) is a “problem” for the single market-base that’s already (IMHO) already over-served — the mythical sexually overcharged 17-25 year old Anglo straight males.
    Publishers’ marketing research seems to have concluded this is the only target group worth serving while ignoring, well, EVERYONE else.

    Hello! Female, here. Likes to read fantasy but has always hated that women are depicted as only motherly, saintly-prudes, or warrior-hookers.

    For heaven’s sake! Battle scars, different physical characteristics and abilities, adaptations…that’s part of the gritty reality of living through what fantasy characters endure. There has to be room in the genre for growth and diversity of all kinds, or it will stagnate, get oversaturated, and wither.

    As for cover art– I hate having anyone dictate to me what a character looks like, with rare exception (they’re often so very, very wrong 😉 ).

    So bring on the new fantasy MCs!

    1. Well said! Especially in a day when I went into a bookshop and saw a big display of GRRM’s books, with six others flagged as ‘if you like that, why not try this?’ – and every single one was by a male writer catering to the safe middle ground of the genre. Which isn’t to say they’re bad books obviously – but still…

      A bookseller saw me standing still looking thoughtful and asked if there was anything she could help me with. I pointed at the display and said she could put some of the many women who write epic fantasy on those shelves.

      ‘Do they?’ she asked, sceptical. ‘Like who?’

      ‘Me for a start, (gave my name) Kate Elliott…’ I gave her a list, and yes, my tone was more than a little irritated.

      Her answer was to shrug and say dismissively. ‘Well, I don’t read science fiction’.

      For about a nano-second I considered having a blazing row with her. I chose instead to walk out of the shop without saying anything further. Not least because I could see the manager observing this exchange…

      I’m still annoyed about it. Not least because I have seen similar male-author-only displays far too often.

  6. Great discussion post. I loved NK Jemisin’s Oree. Great series.

    I say break the mold by giving us a character that starts of strong in mind, body and soul, and then give her a disabling disease or accident. So, folks can fall in love with her (in a shallow way) in Book 1 and then continue the saga with her crippled. Lots of real disabled folks start life whole and then have to adjust as some infirmity hits them. So, now you have the shallow hooked and then you get the attention of everyone else who has worked closely with the disabled or is disabled. You could show her frustration, hope, and eventual victory as she overcomes her disability (to some extent, anyway).

    Also, I am just finishing up Robin McKinley’s The Hero and the Crown, where a young heroine is ill for a number of years as a teen (can’t even walk steady), recovers, goes off to be a hero, and is severely injured and has to over come injury and subsequent illness again. Not quite what you are talking about, but closer than many get.

  7. I think part of the reason for the absence in fiction is that women’s health concerns are so often denied, ignored, and dismissed in our society. Women who complain of health problems are often told it’s “all in their head” or they are mocked for malingering or acting hysterical. Scientific studies often are done only on men, and are designed in such a way that assumes men are the default.

    To even see what a woman with disabilities goes through, to listen to her, and to believe her, is a rare thing. Most people won’t do it.

    1. Yes, agreed in all respects, and thanks for highlighting yet another factor here.

      Now I’m in my late 40’s, I have seen a handful of female pals get all sorts of brushing off with regards to menstrual/fibroid related problems in recent years. Mostly along the lines of ‘oh, well, just something you have to put up with at your age…’ At the other end of the scale, one still of potentially childbearing age was just brusquely told ‘hysterectomy will sort it out’.

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