Last week’s story, The Lodger at Wintertide, featured a hearing-impaired protagonist. It got me thinking about how I rarely see disabled/differently-abled characters in genre stories, much less fiction that handles disability well. I only knew of one author who often included disabled characters in his work: Gregory Bernard Banks.
Banks is a customer support person at Lulu.com, co-Webmaster for the Speculative Literature Foundation, and owns publisher WheelMan Press. He also suffers from Type III Osteeogenesis Imperfecta, or “Brittle Bone Disease.” Our short interview was conducted over email.
Fantasy: Where are the differently-abled characters in science fiction and fantasy? Obviously you don’t know about them all. But from the perspective of a casual but pretty informed reader, I hardly see any. Is it a case of me missing them, or are they as scarce as I perceive?
Gregory Bernard Banks: Although there may be some that I’m unaware of, I don’t think there are very many people writing about disabled characters. Or, if they are disabled, it’s in a way in which the disability is either fictionalized or really not a major part of the story. One thing about Science Fiction and Fantasy is that, when written in their traditional forms such as Epic Fantasy or the pulp-style adventure Science Fiction most popular 50 or 60 years ago, the protagonists are normally archetypical heroes–the athletic Indian Jones type who always runs toward or away from danger, or the clever starship captain (sort of like Hans Solo of Star Wars fame) who zips around outer space getting into fights and conning his way out of trouble. Usually the hero is a dashing man who always seems to find love no matter where he finds himself at any particular time.
In such idealized fantasy environments and circumstances, there’s little room for a disabled guy who people are more likely to pity than be attracted to or envy. That’s not to say that one couldn’t create such characters, especially in the much broader-minded world in which we live today. But someone has to be willing to write those stories, and do it very well, and someone else has to be foresighted enough to publish those stories. Getting both to happen is possible I believe, but is it likely? I don’t know. How many authors are out there who even have a mindset to conceive of writing from a disabled perspective? Very few I’d bet.
Fantasy: Considering that differently-abled characters might be seen as differing from the perceived “norm” (white, male, able-bodied), are the challenges you face when writing and selling stories featuring them the same as, say, writing minority characters?
GBB: I may be naive, but I think a great story is a great story. In this day and time people will read great stories about great characters, be they people of color, disabled, female, gay, or whatever. Yes there are those who fiercely hold on to their narrow visions of the world, but for the most part, I think the vast majority of the reading public is ready to get to know people of different backgrounds and culture and see how different (or even more importantly, how much alike) we all are. But first we need more people entering the genre who are interested in writing from these fresh perspectives and can bring the level of literary quality and understanding to the work so that they aren’t merely writing a message piece about the disabled and the related issues, but are instead writing about an interesting character who just happens to be disabled. The character needs to be a truly fleshed out person and not just a plot device created to deliver a lesson or make a specific point to those reading it.
If a writer can achieve that, I honestly believe that there are plenty of editors out there who will publish such a piece. There are some who may shy away from certain subjects, but I think there are those who are as eager for fresh voices and perspectives as I believe readers are. But again, the problem comes back to finding people willing and able to fulfill that need.
Fantasy: What kinds of things do authors do when writing differently-abled characters that make you wince or wish they just wouldn’t?
GBB: To be honest, there simply are very few examples (that I’ve had the opportunity to read, anyway) for me to draw upon. Having said that, I have found a webpage with a pretty extensive list of stories featuring characters with disabilities. So they do exist, though to what extent and in what context each of these stories represents the disabled, I don’t know.
I guess the kinds of things that would affect me that way are the things I touched upon in the last question: stereotyped characters, characters who are disabled first, human beings second, rather than human beings for which disability is just another aspect of who they are the same as size, weight, race, religious upbringing, etc. are. What must be noted here is that my personal tendency is to write fantastical tales in contemporary settings. Many of the stories in the link above deal with disability in a general sense, but very often it is a fictionalized variation on disability. As much of the great science fiction and fantasy are about ordinary people dealing with extraordinary circumstances, what I’d like to see more of is ordinary disabled people with real-world disabilities thrown into fantastical settings where they can survive and shine.
Fantasy: Which authors do you read that are writing disabled characters well?
GBB: My favorite, by far, is Lois McMaster Bujold and her series of Vorkosigan books. There is a recurring theme of disability running through those stories, and although most are done in the form of mutants and mutations, the main character running throughout these stories is Miles Vorkosigan, a man who I very much identify with because he too has brittle bones. Although Miles’ disability is caused by his in utero exposure to a poison gas during an assassination attempt on his father, the issues he faces throughout his life and the way that through his quick wit and clever mind he overcomes all his shortcomings is, to me, a classic example of how I’d like to see disability treated more often. Miles is not only a hero time and again, but he also often gets the girl, which we all know is the traditional hallmark of any great protagonist. Miles isn’t a mutant or a freak (though like most disabled people, others treat him as such). Miles is just a man with a disability overcoming both his physical limitations and far greater and more threatening forces, and he does it all oh so well.
Miles is a prime example of the kind of characters I’d like to create, and to see others create as well. Only time will tell how successful I and others will be at it, however.
You can read find Gregory’s fiction in AlienSkin Magazine, The Speculative Fiction Centre, and Amazon Shorts. He’s also published five books: Crossroads and Other Tales, Phoenix Tales: Stories of Death & Life, A Writer’s Journey in Poetry & Prose, An Interview with Santa and Other Christmas Treats, and a variety of ebooks and articles which frequently break into the top 100 rankings in Amazon.com’s Kindle Store.