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.
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.