Paranormal and fantasy author Steff Green asks: why the hell is it that characters with disabilities either have to be super heroes, or super villains? Can’t they just be characters with disabilities?
Blinded by a mysterious illness at the age of 25, James Holman set out on foot to circumnavigate the globe. Armed with only a few coins in his purse and a short stick he rapped against the ground (he used the echoes to discern his surrounds), in the early 1800s he became the first man to walk around the entire globe on foot.
I discovered Holman’s travel diaries in the university library while trying to distract myself from yet another essay on ancient Greek pottery. Instantly he became my new hero. As someone born with a rare genetic condition rendering me legally blind, I recognised in Holman’s words a fellow curious soul who longed to discern the world and all its myriad of experiences. This man’s account of his audacious adventures through Europe, Russia, Siberia, China, and even as far as Australia fuelled my own longing for travel.
Fast forward to 2009. I traveled around Europe. In England, I visited train museums and heritage railways with my husband and became enamoured with the Industrial Revolution and the impact of train travel. So much of what the Georgians and early Victorians experienced mirrored our own actions in this modern technological world. At the same time as all this change was going down, people were looking back, by digging up dinosaurs and discovering ancient tombs and learning that the world had actually never fit their tidy little theories. Those seeds came together to form the basis for my Engine Ward series of fantasy books.
When I started writing the The Sunken, the first of the Engine Ward books, I wanted to explore how technology’s impact on the world could change or reinforce belief systems. What better way to do that than by imagining an alternative Georgian London where dinosaurs had never died out and engineers were so revered that they became the Messiahs of their own religious sects?
I populated the cast with characters drawn directly from history, plopping down famous engineers and thinkers like Isambard Brunel, George Stevenson, Ada Byron and Charles Babbage and trying to imagine what would become of them in this new world. Holman’s story ultimately worked its way into the narrative. How could I write an alternate story of Georgian England and not include my hero?
The thing with books and characters is that they sometimes run away with you. When you’re writing historical fantasy, this is even more so. A character is practically created already. You can read their own words and immerse yourself in their mind. Then, you throw some dinosaurs at them and see how they react.
When their life diverges from documented history into your new, imagined timeline, and their new choices and consequences begin to stack up, you can end up with a character who is vastly different from their historical context. And when that particular character also has a disability, the difference can become even more marked, and sometimes not in a good way.
In literature – and particularly fantasy – disability is often used as an overt symbol. Nowhere is this more true than with blind characters, who abound in the genre in often problematic ways. It’s hard to escape the convenient symbolism of “blindness” – which can denote a mental or spiritual block, as well as an ability to “see” through what blinds others. How many times does the wayward traveller visit with a blind man who offers wisdom? The only time blindness is not a symbol for wisdom, is when it is a symbol for ultimate evil. Blind characters are greedy, scheming and determined to make the world pay.
Less harmful, but more annoying (at least to me), is the “blindness as a superpower” trope, where a character’s blindness offers them some kind of superhuman ability that completely offsets their disability. Mad Eye Moody, Daredevil, and Moritz from Because You’ll Never Meet Me come to mind. When I see this trope, I always wonder if the author deliberately seeks to nullify the blindness, so they avoid having to write a character that actually cannot see.
It’s not an easy thing to do, even for a writer like me, who has a bit of experience. So much of fiction is about building up a visual image using words. It’s harder to create this connection with a largely seeing audience when a character doesn’t share those same visual cues.
But when you use superpowers to take the blindness out of the person, what you are saying is that a blind character cannot have adventures or save the day or fall in love or even exist in your world unless they are somehow fixed. You use magic to erase their blindness, and therefore, an intrinsic part of what makes them who they are.
Blindness never gets to exist. It isn’t allowed to just be. It always has to be the catalyst for some kind of super special magical power that may to the writer seem like a fun idea, but actually comes across as “yeah, I’m not really blind at all. Because there’s no way I could do all this awesome stuff if I couldn’t actually see.”
Superpowers don’t have to fix everything. Not all of us want to be fixed. Why are we always seen as somehow “broken” in the first place?
What’s the alternative? What is the right approach?
There is never a one-size-fits-all for writing about blindness, because every person who is blind or vision-impaired has different experiences. In the same way that not all experiences of mental illness, or epilepsy, or deafness will be the same, so much more than just one factor goes into making a person who they are. To suggest otherwise is to define people who are blind only by their disability. And that’s basically the shittiest thing ever.
Yes, I am legally blind. I am also a writer, a mead-maker, a heavy metal fan, an alternative marriage celebrant. I am a wife, a daughter, a friend, an enemy (hopefully of not too many). A Sherlockian, an amateur chef, an archaeology geek. A traveller, a hiker, a martial arts enthusiast, a cat hoarder.
Likewise, I’m not a saint or a sinner, a wise woman or a villain. I’ve done some pretty awesome things over the years, and hearing from readers that my books help them through difficult times or make them feel proud to be who they are rank among the top. I’ve also done some shitty things that I’m not proud of, and a whole bunch of stuff that falls in the middle.
Likewise, the Blind Traveller’s achievements, although profound, might be argued to be selfish. Although much enlightened for his time, Holman was still an English man with a Colonial view of the world. His courage was immense, and his kindness for others boundless, but what he did he did for personal gratification. Like all of us, he was a complicated man, and reducing him to some kind of Saint or Sinner archetype dishonours him.
All this is to say, James Holman, that I’m sorry. In the Engine Ward series, you fall. You fall so far it seems impossible that you will redeem yourself again. I did not write you thus because I believe you to be a bad person, or because I wanted to somehow vilify you or destroy the memory of your remarkable life. I wrote your fall because the idea that a blind person can fall in fantasy is something I desperately wanted to explore. Because we’re without blind characters who can be both wonderful and terrible, brave and cowardly, innocent and guilty.
I wrote you thus, because I didn’t want to fix you.
Steff Green is the USA Today bestselling author of the Engine Ward series, as well as the Chronicles of the Wraith series (with Lindsey R Loucks), and 12 paranormal romance novels as Steffanie Holmes.
The Spinoff Review of Books is brought to you by Unity Books.
Subscribe to Rec Room a weekly newsletter delivering The Spinoff’s latest videos, podcasts and other recommendations straight to your inbox.