Fiction is all about the protagonist’s journey. What challenges does the protagonist face, what’s at stake? Is he/she/it looking for a happily-ever-after, winning a war, seeking employment, or solving a mystery? Who is the antagonist? Nature, social constraints, a tyrannical government or kingdom, a war, a criminal, or rival? How the protagonist handles these life-altering dilemmas is what keeps us turning pages or listening well past our allotted time.
And what if the protagonist has physical or mental challenges? How memorable were Christopher Boon, the autistic teen in the Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time, and Marie-Laure Leblanc, the blind French girl in All the Light You Cannot See?
Historical fiction sheds light on how disabilities, illness or injuries were treated and handled, or if they were understood at all in different tie periods.
I asked several Paper Lantern Writers about their characters with “impairments” and here is what they had to share.
Michal Strutin replied:
The nineteenth century marked the beginning of modern medicine and surgery. The world I’m writing about—sixteenth-century Venice and Safed—was full of illness and disabilities. I doubt anyone was as shocked as we might be to see those crippled by disease, born with deformities, and more. In my manuscript A Perilous Masquerade, three recurring secondary characters play important roles.
Leah-the-Walleye runs a student boarding school in Safed because no one wanted to marry a woman with an errant eye. She becomes the protector of one of my main characters. A similar condition is genetically linked among members of my family and is now correctible. A young Venetian boy has a hand with two thumbs. This deformity saved a main character’s life when he couldn’t remember the boy’s complicated name. One of my cousins was born with a stub of a second thumb on one hand. Again, correctable with surgery. Lastly, an amiable rag-seller was lucky to survive smallpox, but it pocked his face so badly that he kept his head tilted downward until customers became comfortable with his genial personality.
Kathryn Pritchett replied:
In my first novel, The Casket Maker’s Other Wife, I included a secondary character who stuttered. Barbara Stöckli emigrates from Switzerland to America in 1869. She homesteads in Utah Territory with her brother and his two polygamous wives. I didn’t consciously decide that Barbara needed to stutter—she just showed up with a speech disorder.
When researching stuttering I came across a helpful blog post by author Gabrielle Rhody that talked about how most writers get the depiction of stuttering wrong. Rhody worked with her father—who had a stutter all his life—to determine punctuation that conveyed stuttering accurately. They opted for the simple punctuation of ellipsis after the first sound (which is where stuttering occurs) and then a dash after the stutter. Like this: S…s-ample. I found this and Rhody’s other “Rules for Stuttering”very helpful when incorporating this character’s disability into my story.
Barbara is one of my favorite characters in the book—she’s a sturdy, tough gal who rises heroically to the challenges of the Western frontier. I appreciate that her stutter softens her imposing presence. It also makes her distinctive. Which turns her disability into a desirable feature.
Vanitha Sankaran got back to me:
My novel, Watermark, tells the story of a girl named Auda who has albinism and who was rendered mute because of a violent act based on how she looks. The book focuses on the lessons Auda learns by musing about love and life in her poetry, insights that drive her perilously close to heresy. To be honest, early versions of Auda did not feature albinism—that decision came out of a story need to explain why she would be—using written words to communicate fit that need well.
But as I researched how albinism was viewed in the Middle Ages–and especially in the south of France, which was a crossroads of various cultures—I learned that albinism could just as easily be seen as a divine omen as a sign of witchcraft. That gave me incredible opportunities to layer different viewpoints, good and bad, to Auda’s interactions.
Jonathan Posner has an unusual character:
It’s an interesting idea – giving a disability to a character, especially a villain. Does this create sympathy for him, making him a more rounded character? Or does it simply serve as a short-hand trope for his evil?
This was the challenge I faced with the character of Matthew Hopkirk, the 16th century English magistrate and witchfinder in The Witchfinder’s Well. He’s a religious fanatic, totally convinced that he’s charged by God to seek out and destroy witches. He has a complete lack of empathy and a ‘Terminator’-like determination to capture and try the heroine Justine, so I wanted a physical characteristic that demonstrated this.
His disability? The inability to blink. Not only does this spook out everyone who interacts with him, but it also gives him a mesmeric, snake-like stare. And, of course, it means that when he finally faces his downfall (as all good villains must), he faces it blinking furiously!
I have read Watermark and Witchfinder’s Well and can attest to the heartbreaking and interesting characters portrayed in both books. I look forward to A Perilous Masquerade and The Casket Maker’s Other Wife (and how is THAT for an intriguing title?). How about you? What memorable characters-with something different-come to mind?
Anne M. Beggs writes adventure romance and family saga set in Medieval Ireland. She is a member of Paper Lantern Writers and Historical Novel Society. For about her books, mounted archery, and horses, please contact her on Facebook or Instagram @annitbella72