Thursday, October 27, 2011

Where Are the Handicaps in Fiction?

I almost called this one "Where are the chronic conditions?", but pretty much everything I'm talking about here are chronic (long-term and/or lifelong) conditions. (This is the fourth post in a series.) Right now, let's think about the outright handicaps.

So where are the handicaps? Where are the blind, the deaf, the fibromyalgic? I know I've read a few paralytic characters. Some authors have had blind protagonists in their stories, like Patricia Briggs in "Seeing Eye" and a YA novel with an author and name I can't remember, though I remember wanting it on my to-read list. (Blind girl gets kidnapped on accident in a car theft; ring any bells with my readers?)

The most common handicap I can remember reading in fiction? Bad knees. It's like every other kick-@$$ urban fantasy heroine has bad knees. (And water stains in their bedroom ceilings the shape of some state, but that's a topic for another post, methinks.)

What about bad wrists? Lots of people have carpal tunnel (a condition where all fingers but the pinkie finger are affected, with often severe pain or numbness). Thanks to typing, lots more people are prone to having that inner forearm muscle cramp up, which sometimes gets misdiagnosed as carpel tunnel.

(If you can bend your hand forward at a 90° angle without debilitating pain, you've been misdiagnosed. Stretch your wrist out by bending your hand back—holding two fingers at a time. In an emergency, you can follow the muscle diagonally across the inside of your forearm, from the side of your wrist below your thumb, to find the "trigger point" by your elbow—the spot that hurts like heck to touch, but if you force yourself to press and hold it for 30 seconds, your arm should loosen up. DISCLAIMER: I'm not a physical therapist; I'm just passing on what works for me and friends.)

What about weak knees and/or ankles? When I was in elementary school, my knees or ankles sometimes gave out without warning. I warned teachers, but some wouldn't believe me even after it happened. They thought I was collapsing on purpose to get out of class. (To be honest, I don't blame them for that assumption. Sports fiend I was not.)

What about vision handicaps? I can think of a few characters with glasses, but… the glasses don't effect them much. The glasses never fog up; they never have a lens fall out in the middle of a parking lot and roll under a truck; they never make it impossible for the hero to eye something sidelong, because his eyes are so bad that he effectually doesn't have peripheral vision.

Oh, and those scenes where the hero's glasses would be most inconvenient? He just so happens to be wearing contacts. (I remember one scene in This Present Darkness by Frank Peretti where a girl's glasses are gone, and she has to drive despite her atrocious vision, but that's the only time I can think of where a MC's glasses actually influenced things.)

Some people can't wear contacts. Many people have astigmatism. I have mild astigmatism in my right eye; the result is that I have a spot to my upper right where it's impossible to focus my vision. It's always blurred, unfocused. So if I happen to glimpse something in just that spot on the upper right, I won't be able to identify or read it. Here in the US, we drive on the right side of the road, so that's where road signs tend to be. I have to pay attention so I don't miss any.

Some people are color blind. (This is much more common in guys, for genetics reasons.) There are different types, so it could be interesting to see a mystery where the witness and sleuth are both different types of colorblind, and therefore don't realize it when they see the same striped shirt or some such clue.

Some have no depth perception. I don't—or if I do, it's minimal. I can't gauge distance. It's most obvious if I'm, say, standing on a chair; I then can't tell if I'm two feet up or ten. When you have this problem, you adapt by paying attention to angles, lining up the ground and walls and background with what you're looking at, to figure out what's closer. As an interesting side effect, I've found that I can answer "Which item is closer?" with comparable accuracy to someone with fantastic depth perception. When driving, I follow a policy of "Assume things are closer than you think."

Some people can't smell. Some can't taste. (I've been told that either one makes food unappealing.)

Some are missing a limb, a finger, or a toe. I know a teenager who lost a toe to a lawnmower.

When people are handicapped, they adapt. But the handicap itself has conflict potential. Maybe a killer teases his intended victims by playing a music box as "warning", but your sleuth is deaf and never hears it. Maybe your teen is struggling with a recent amputation—something that's more common than you might think—which would affect his sense of self-worth and would test his friendships; will his friends, his girlfriend, stay with him through the discomfort and awkwardness?

Personally, I've had some fun with my fantasy to create some paranormal handicaps:

  • Silva Feyim (A Fistful of Fire) – a seasonal telepath unable to block out what she hears, which will eventually drive her insane.
  • Jillian Giovanni ("Romeo & Jillian") – limited sensations and access to the five senses.
  • Emris Winters ("The Corpse Cat") – able to be controlled by another if magically bound by someone with one of her bones.
  • Lyn Burgess (who you should be able to meet before Christmas) – burns when exposed to sunlight – though not quite for the reasons you think.

See what I mean? ^_^ Being deaf wouldn't exactly be a handicap to a telepath—unless known deafness brought horrible consequences and there were ways to block telepathy. (Yes, that's something I have stewing.)

But that doesn't mean I don't stop to consider handicaps when writing. I have characters in my head with more conventional handicaps, but they've not been written or released, yet. Including one guy, the hero of a romance, who'll have a bum leg.

What handicaps do you want to see in fiction? What are your favorite examples of handicapped characters? Anyone know the name of that YA book with the kidnapped blind girl?


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