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[Special Needs in Strange Worlds Guest Post] Steve Bein on What Nietzsche Taught Him About Writing Fiction

Steve Bein (pronounced “Bine”) is a philosopher, photographer, traveler, translator, climber, diver, and award-winning author of science fiction and fantasy. His short fiction has appeared in Asimov’s, Interzone, Writers of the Future, and in international translation. His Fated Blades novels include Daughter of the Sword and Year of the Demon. Learn more about him on his website, or check out him out on Facebook.

That Which Does Not Kill Them Makes Them Stronger

by Steve Bein

It was never my intention to write about people with disabilities. My goal was only to write about interesting characters. Yet somehow I’ve written a book in which most of the principal characters are burdened with some kind of physical challenge. Mariko Oshiro, my lead protagonist in Year of the Demon, is a cop who lost her trigger finger. Her sword sensei, Dr. Yamada, is legally blind. His sword once belonged to another protagonist, Daigoro Okuma, who was born with a withered leg. Daigoro’s sword crosses paths with my third protagonist, Kaida, a young pearl diver whose left forearm ends in a stump.

The connection I intended to draw between all four characters was the sword. It unites them, even across five hundred years of Japanese history. It was only after the book was finished that beta readers asked me why I maimed all of their favorite characters.

The truth is, I don’t know. Like many writers, I make a lot of these choices subconsciously. Kaida came to me one-handed. Daigoro came to me with a lame leg. Dr. Yamada is the notable exception—there’s a long lineage of blind swordsmen in Japanese samurai stories—but even in his case, I don’t know why I chose to make homage to a blind swordsman instead of a sighted one.

I can hazard two guesses. First, I’ve spent much of my adult life nursing one injury or another, and so I’ve had a lot of time to think about disability. I’ve been a martial artist for twenty-two years, and it was only in the last three or four years that I gave up fighting full contact. As a result, I’ve spent my fair share of time in wheelchairs, on crutches, or wearing splints, braces, and arm slings. Every time I lay myself up like this, I have a lot of opportunities to feel grateful that this isn’t a permanent condition. Given the hours I’ve spent thinking about all the things that would be different in my life if my latest injuries were permanent, maybe it’s inevitable that some of these thoughts have slipped into my fiction.

(Incidentally, I don’t imagine even for a second that being in a wheelchair or on crutches for a few weeks tells me what my life would actually be like if I were to lose full function of my legs. That’s hogwash. As I said, this is just a guess about what’s going on subconsciously to make me disable my characters.)

The second guess: my characters’ disabilities are more than disabilities. They’re symbols. They’re obstacles on a very specific path. They crystallize something unique about that character’s struggles, and so they become a forge in which the characters temper themselves and toughen themselves into stronger steel.

Of the two guesses, I think the first probably gives rise to the second. I do spend a lot of time thinking about my injured body, but it’s also the case that I don’t injure my characters at random. Mariko doesn’t get the lame leg, and Daigoro doesn’t lose his trigger finger. In fact, he doesn’t even have a trigger finger; he only has a forefinger, because he doesn’t use guns. I withered his right leg because that one is always the lead leg in Japanese swordsmanship, taking most of the weight. As a samurai, Daigoro must define himself as a warrior; when I weaken his right leg, I give him a personal challenge to overcome in his own process of self-transformation. Similarly, I took away Mariko’s trigger finger precisely because her life depends on her accuracy with her sidearm, and it’s because Kaida needs both hands to be an effective pearl diver that I lopped off one of her arms at the forearm.

Nietzsche said, “That which does not kill me makes me stronger.” I guess that’s as true of fictional characters as it is of German existentialists. I think this is why I keep inflicting permanent injuries and disabilities on my protagonists. On one level, it’s a pretty simple device for ratcheting up the tension in the character’s story arc. On a deeper level, it’s a gateway for the characters to discover themselves, to test themselves, and to come out stronger on the other side.

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