[GUEST POST] Special Needs in Strange Worlds: Juliet McKenna on Writing Characters with Disabilities, Then and Now

NOTE: This installment of Special Needs In Strange Worlds features a guest post from author Juliet McKenna! – Sarah Chorn


Juliet E. McKenna is a British fantasy author. She was born in Lincolnshire in 1965, and studied Greek and Roman history and literature at St Hilda’s College, Oxford. She now lives in West Oxfordshire with her husband and sons. McKenna has written two series of books, The Tales of Einarinn and The Aldabreshin Compass, as well as many short stories and articles. She is currently working on a new series, The Chronicles of the Lescari Revolution, and a contemporary fantasy novel. She regularly attends fantasy conventions, gives talks, and teaches creative writing courses. She is also one of the authors, along with others such as Sarah Ash and Mark Chadbourn, behind The Write Fantastic, which is an initiative by a group of fantasy authors to promote the fantasy genre, and to display the scope of current fantasy writing.

Writing Characters with Disabilities – What I Did Then And How I Think Now

by Juliet McKenna

In my very first novel, The Thief’s Gamble, a peripheral character suffers a crippling injury. Halice, long-time friend and ally of Livak the principal narrator, falls from a horse and breaks a thigh bone. This is quite simply a plot device to explain her absence. That’s why Livak, now at a loose end, makes a spur of the moment decision which takes her on an unexpected and perilous adventure. So far, so unremarkable, or at least, so I thought at the time, in 1996.

Then I sold the book. More than that, I was offered a two book deal and I really wanted to have Halice in the sequel. Then as now, I like to examine default-settings in epic fantasy which different angles. Such as friendship. It’s one of Livak’s primary motivations, over and above money or romance. The easy answer would be for Halice to turn up, fully healed and ready to go, but that’s where I hit a major stumbling block.

Even these days, a broken thigh bone is a serious injury. As a teenager I saw too many of my male friends spend months in traction after motorbike accidents. Even with the best medical care, one emerged with a shortened leg and another with a permanent limp. Historically or today in the developing world, as I’d seen for myself when my mum and stepfather lived and worked in West Africa, it can lead to permanent impairment. So no, Halice wasn’t going to ride back into Livak’s life as though nothing had happened. Because another aspect of fantasy fiction which I aim to explore is lingering consequence. Real life doesn’t have a reset button. Indeed, this need for reality is a central paradox of fantasy fiction. Imaginary worlds must feel as real as possible, to enable the reader to follow the author into the truly fantastic without noticing their suspension of disbelief.

Happily I realised my urge towards reality would help drive the sequel’s plot. Livak doesn’t trust magic or magic users, whether they’re elemental wizards or aetheric Artificers in the Tales of Einarinn. But would she help out a wizard if the payoff was seeing Halice magically healed? That’s what the narrator, Ryshad, put to her, in The Swordsman’s Oath. Okay, that works, or so I thought in 1998 as I was writing that book.

Mind you, I was determined this healing wouldn’t be quick or easy but long and painful. More than that, I wrote a short story some while later; A Spark in the Darkness (republished in the ebook A Few Further Tales of Einarinn). It’s set between those first two novels when Livak is struggling with the implications of Halice’s disability, not least the loss of her friend’s livelihood as a mercenary warrior. Meantime, Halice is overwhelmed by physical pain and mental anguish. Studying the martial art of Aikido since 1983, I’ve seen at first-hand how frustrating and/or demoralising even a temporary injury can be for people used to physical fitness and an active lifestyle. And then Halice got healed and was able to play a full and active part in the ongoing Tales of Einarinn.

Meantime, back in the real world, the Internet was spreading information and opinion. In SF&Fantasy, we began to hear more voices and viewpoints, discussing gender, race and disability as different and sometimes overlapping aspects of discrimination and visibility. I already knew what it feels like not to see women reflected in fiction in meaningful ways. Now I started to learn what such absences mean for people of colour and those with impairments. I can’t recall when or where I first read a wheelchair user’s eloquent irritation with the prevalence of temporary disability in fiction; where a hero or heroine effectively drops by for a visit in their reality, learns a life-affirming lesson and then handily, magically, gets healed — but I vividly remember it giving me pause for thought.

Is that what I had done with Halice? Well, yes, from that perspective. At least I’d had the sense to include the pain and demands of recovery, so hopefully that would mitigate any inadvertent offence I might have caused. Did I feel I should have written those novels differently? I decided that was a pointless question. I’d written Halice’s story as honestly and conscientiously as I knew how to at the time. Also, from a practical standpoint, the books were in print and there was no calling them back. What really mattered was what I did in the future. Through my reading and my writing as I worked on The Aldabreshin Compass, I was increasingly realising how many more and complex stories can be told effectively through epic fantasy.

Looking forward, disability would have to be a facet of any convincing reality, considered in the same way as I address aspects of gender and race. Which is to say, I don’t set out to write Stories About Significant Issues, since in my experience that all too often leads to tedious books. But where considerations around gender, race and disability arise within a narrative, I have a responsibility to seek out more informed perspectives than my own, to create realistic fiction. Thankfully popular culture, in drama and documentary, has made great efforts in recent years to broaden the range of faces and voices we see and hear.

This all came to the fore as I prepared to write The Chronicles of the Lescari Revolution. Another plot device saw me consciously including a disabled character. I wanted a disinherited nobleman involved in the initial conspiracy. How could he be disinherited without being disgraced in some fashion seriously inconveniencing my story? Well, if skill in battle is a prerequisite of a nobleman’s firstborn son, what happens if that son is disabled? Physically but not mentally impaired, since he needed the capacity to play his part in any scheming.

At that point, I recalled a friend from my teens. Craig had cerebral palsy and got around in an electric wheelchair. He also had the first electric typewriter I’d ever come across, for his schoolwork typed with the one hand he could co-ordinate. He was doing a full set of O Levels just like me, and if you only ever talked to him on the phone, you’d never know there was anything noteworthy about him as his speech was almost entirely unaffected. That enabled him to eloquently demolish people’s assumptions when he was out and about and someone asked whoever was with him some dumb or nosey question rather than addressing him directly. He was also always ready to answer genuine curiosity about his condition, however hesitant, with honesty and charm. Believe me; going to a disco with Craig was a memorable experience.

So my memories of Craig were an invaluable starting point for creating Aremil, both in terms of what I knew of his experience, and flagging up what I needed to go and find out. Even though we’d lost touch when we went off to different universities, I also felt I owed it to Craig — and everyone in a remotely similar situation — to get this character as right as I possibly could. If that then offered some insight to able-bodied folk who’d not yet considered the reality of being physically dependent on other people, so much the better. But there was one thing I was absolutely sure of this time around. There would be no magical intervention to solve Aremil’s problems. That wouldn’t stop him playing a central role in the action though.

Since then, I’m pleased, and yes, relieved to say I’ve had very positive feedback about Aremil from readers with first-hand understanding of his situation. I’m also extremely pleased by thoughtful comments from people whose life experience hasn’t included such challenges, especially from those initially surprised to find such a hero in epic fantasy fiction.

Magical healing is still possible in my books. In the Hadrumal Crisis trilogy, someone who’s suffered a disfiguring though not disabling injury goes in search of help. Once again, that helps drive a plot. As far as I’m concerned I’m playing fair with that particular character and his personal narrative. But the next time someone breaks a leg? Eighteen years on from the writer I was when Halice fell off a horse, all bets are off…

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