Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Characters with mental disabilities

I’ve been thinking about characters with mental disabilities. They’re underused in fantasy, which is probably for the best in some of the sub-genres. Medieval worlds are not among the most enlightened places, and people with disabilities are likely to have been marginalized, either kept on the outskirts of society or in the attic, literally. And in the darker and grittier playgrounds of fantasy, they probably wouldn’t last long.

On the other hand, this means stories with such characters would stand out from the crowd. And they might certainly be foils to the often overpowered heroes and heroines of fantasy. So here are a few more thoughts on the matter.

The cuteness factor

This is where the person with a mental disability is either sweet or childishly funny or both, with no real characterization beyond that. Not to say that this can’t be done well. Thomas, the younger brother of the heroine in Dean Koontz’s The Bad Place, is on the cute side of the spectrum, though at worst such a character might come off like the hostage in Gigli than like Forrest Gump.

I’d like to see such characters depicted with serious negative traits, though that can be a tricky prospect. It’s one thing to give an ordinary person a fatal flaw. It’s another to do this to a character with autism; you run the risk of readers connecting the two and believing that this does autistic people no favors.

Mental disability = secret power

A lot of stories have characters with physical handicaps who discover that they have hidden abilities or knowledge. It’s a perennial favorite of readers – it balances the scales in what can be an unfair world and can produce wonderful characters as well. I haven’t come across as many mentally disabled characters with secret powers, though Koontz has written a few.

The only thing I’d be careful about is giving a mostly flawless character a special ability on top of everything else. It worked in The Bad Place because Thomas’s use of his ability made the antagonist aware of him and his whereabouts. And no matter what Thomas could do, the antagonist was far more powerful.

Be aware of the realities

Mark Haddon’s novel The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, is told from the first-person perspective of a boy with severe Asperger’s syndrome, but the book has also come under a lot of criticism. Partly because the main character’s Asperger’s syndrome is so extreme (possibly exaggerated for effect) that he comes off as an autistic-savant instead.

Still, people who speak or behave in ways that are extremely out of the mainstream are likely to be ostracised in some way by society. The same thing applies to characters with mental disabilities.

Surprising readers

Because readers expect certain things and certain roles from those with mental disabilities, they can be used in surprising ways.

One of my favorite romances is Pamela Morsi’s Simple Jess. The heroine has to deal with a love triangle while Jesse, a man with mild mental retardation, helps her manage her farm. Her two determined suitors are good men in their own ways… but the one who’s right for her is Jesse.

Likewise, two of Agatha Christie’s many murderers are a seriously disturbed child and a senile old man, neither of whom I would ever have suspected. Of course, once the detective explained everything, it was clear that the evidence pointed to them – but because of their ages and mental states, they pass neatly under the readers’ radar.


Randall said...

Tanya Huff had a mentally disabled young woman as one of the protagonists of her novel, Circle of Light, Gate of Darkness. She was presented as someone strong, but very, very simple. There was a lot of stuff about all the rules she had to follow to organize her day and such.

She did have some compensatory powers, but nothing major: she could see the Little People (though that was presented as more that she actually paid attention while the rest of us just let our eyes slide over them) and there was a twist ending that I wouldn't want to spoil for anyone who hasn't read it yet.

Hazardgal said...

So glad to find this post. Mentally disabled and emotionally challenged characters inhabit most of my short fiction, as you know. Having worked in state institutions and schools, I was awakened. I agree that the challenge is to enable them with flaws or talents without going overboard. The movie, Powder, was pure overkill.

Mary Witzl said...

It would be nice if people with mental disabilities were given equal treatment. Which means portraying them with all their human quirks. You're right: there is too great a tendency to make them little angels or capable of magic.

I personally loved 'The Curious Incident...'. I thought the protagonist was believable. He was obviously at the extreme end of the Aspergian spectrum, but he was still realistically portrayed.

A. Shelton said...

I'm working on a project in which one of the main characters is a rapid-cycling bipolar man who goes off his meds. I'm not getting into Parker's head, but using his roommate's pov. So far, he's managed to turn Aaron's (the roomate's) life upside-down, but Aaron's so caught up in keeping up with and trying help Parker that he hasn't really realized it. I'm having fun with these two.

I'm hoping to include more menally ill/challenged people in other writing eventually.

Ginger Doll said...

Robin Hobb's Twany Man books have a fairly central character with what sounds very like Downs Syndrome with the unfortunate name of 'Thick', who also has some failr unappealing character traits (including a tendancy to whinge and be stubborn). Thick was depicted well within this medieval world context, and his disability was woven into the fantasy narrative.

If interested in reading the TM trilogy it's probably best to start with the Farseer volumes first, then the Live ship traders, from which the Twany Man follows.

Deidra said...

Very interesting insights. I'd never though much about this before...
I read a book who's main character a woman who'd been very intelligent, but had been in a car accident, which resulted in brain damage that caused her to communicate slower and with more difficulty than a normal person. I found this point to be a very interesting addition to the story, giving the woman character and giving the author a lot of opportunities as far as the plot goes. Hopefully, we'll see more of this in the future.

Anonymous said...

Some good thoughts here. I agree with Mary regarding giving them equal treatment. (which rarely happens)

Regarding the Christie with the disturbed child- I think that's one of her best novels. I don't want to mention the title, and hence spoil it for anyone who happens to pick it up, but I do think it's a shame that it's not read nearly as much as some of her other books.

Marian Perera said...

Randall - I like the idea of one character noticing things that the rest of us either ignore or take for granted. And that can definitely be a reflection of her mental disability.

The list of rules she has to follow is also realistic. Thanks for the mention of the book - if I see it in the library I'll pick it up.

Marge - Yes, I remember the not-quite-normal take on characters from your stories "The Eye Box" and "Blood Bank". :) IMO, that's the right track - making them unusual while not making them either saintly or overpowered.

I watched the Powder trailer some time ago, and don't recall much except a very pale-skinned guy who made all the locker padlocks rattle as he walked past? IIRC there was also a copout ending.

I tried looking on YouTube, but couldn't find the trailer there either and had to resort to Wikipedia instead.

Marian Perera said...

Mary : I'd also like to see more disorders than OCD (crops up in both Monk and The Big Bang Theory). Psychology is such a fertile field... there should be many more problems characters can have.

And once they've been saddled with something really crippling, then they can get a skill or special ability. :)

A. Shelton : That sounds both funny and realistic! Pop psych books about mental disorders tend to stress the worst that could happen, so it would be a pleasant change to read something different.

Marian Perera said...

Hi Ginger Doll,

Thanks for the recommendation about the Tawny Man books. I must look them up, but I've also heard good things about the Lifeship Traders novels. And the premise of that trilogy is fascinating.

I tried the first book in the Assassin series, but that didn't hold my attention for some reason? Maybe the first-person POV, or the names of the characters.

Marian Perera said...

Deirdra - What's the title of that book? I'd like to check it out.

Giving a previously normal person a crippling disability could make for a gripping story as well - a la Johnny Got His Gun. I couldn't get past the halfway mark in that one; it was too painful. Especially since there was no way he could ever recover.

Hey Tasha - You like that book too. :) I can see why it's not as popular, but that psychological deconstruction of the characters at the end was excellent.

And I completely forgot to mention the (IMO) seminal novel in this topic - Flowers for Algernon.