Characters With Disabilities

wheelchair “Disability” can mean a whole lot of things: blindness, paralysis, amputated limbs, deafness, a chronic illness, brain damage. When I first started writing this blog, I thought it was a rare occurrence in romance novels. However, when I asked the staff here at AAR to brainstorm, we came up with a much longer list than I had anticipated.

In Virna DePaul’s upcoming book Shades of Desire, the heroine is coping with her recent loss of vision. Lily in Tessa Dare’s Three Nights With a Scoundrel is deaf, as are the heroines in Suzanne Brockman’s Into the Fire and Erin McCarthy’s Mouth To Mouth. The heroine in Jill Barnett’s Sentimental Journey is blind. When it comes to debilitating disabilities, Catherine Anderson deserves some serious praise for taking risks and writing about it: in Blue Skies, the heroine is formerly blind, and at risk for becoming blind again; in Phantom Waltz, the heroine is paralyzed; and perhaps the most challenging, My Sunshine, in which the heroine has brain damage, and Annie’s Song, in which the heroine is thought to be mentally handicapped but is in fact deaf.

Do you notice a theme? There aren’t too many men who are disabled in these romance novels. There are exceptions, of course, but for the most part when a hero is disabled, it is limited to something relatively minor, in terms of affecting his ability to live independently. Some scarring, or a limp, perhaps, but nothing he can’t handle alone. Piers, in Eloisa James’ When Beauty Tamed the Beast, would be an example of this. When disabilities do show up, it’s the women who cannot be totally independent, who is wheelchair bound or blind or deaf.

Is this because we don’t want a hero who is physically imperfect? After all, the rate of stunningly attractive men with six-packs is much higher in Romancelandia than in real life. Is it that we doubt a real HEA when we know that the stress of having a disability, or caring for someone who does, can often strain relationships? Or does it stem from more deeply ingrained gender roles? Men are traditionally the breadwinners, the protectors, and to have a woman in that role still doesn’t feel quite right to some. Even now, are there are people who still think that a man incapable of providing for his partner in all ways is not truly a Man?

I don’t have an answer to that question, and I’d be interested to hear your thoughts.

– Jane Granville

26 thoughts on “Characters With Disabilities

  1. I know of several novels where the man is disabled. Marrying the Major the hero is very ill and weak from malaria. He will have debilitating attacks for possibly the rest of his life. In Lady Folbroke’s Delicious Deception the hero is blind. In Mary Balogh’s Simply Love the hero has lost one arm and an eye, as well as having disfiguring burns across one side of his body. In Siri Mitchell’s The Messenger the hero lost a hand in the French-Indian wars. In one of Kathryn Shay’s novels the secondary romance involves a man in a wheel chair.

    I think the reasoning for the lack of heroes with disabilities may be that this is too much of real life interfering with fantasy. That’s a shame because told correctly these can be quite moving stories.

  2. There are plenty of heroes with disabilities, from Asperger’s to being paralysed from neck down and from a learning disability (dyslexia seems quite popular) to a sensory disability (deaf, blind, etc) as well as mental health issues (bipolar, e.g. Megan Chance’s NYC-set historical romance, The Portrait). Most aren’t advertised in back blurbs, though. We don’t find out until we read the stories, which isn’t usually the case for heroines with disabilities.

    The most popular, though, is facial disfigurement or amputated limb (particularly hand or arm). While there are some around, blind or deaf or/and deaf-blind heroes are pretty rare.

  3. Funny, I can think of a lot more heros with blindness. There is Christopher in Lynn Kurland’s This is All I Ask, which is one of my all time favorites. There is the hero of Teresa Medieros Until Dawn. Then, I was thinking of the heros with other disabilities, such as Phury in JR Ward’s Lover Enshrined who has lost his leg.

    But as I thought of it, even though I can think of a lot of hero’s with physical disabilities, I think there is more to it than that. It is certainly some sort of male/female thing. As rarely as you see males with physical disabilities, it is equally rare to see the females with the tortured emotional “disabilities”. I guess we like our men emotionally tortured – because we all know the list there would be endless – rather than physically so. :) Because really, it would just make it harder for them to ride in on their white horses. Though, the heros mentioned above all manage it beautifully.

  4. Interestingly, a list of recommended stories about heroes/heroines with disabilities was recently posted on Dear Author. Ridley, who compiled the list, came to the opposite conclusion:

    “Heroines with Disabilities

    These stories are the hardest to find. A heroine with a disability almost invariably is a sad, helpless martyr thrown into a story merely as fodder for the caretaker alpha sort of story. It’s not an accident that there are only three heroines with disabilities on my list and they’re books I still have reservations about.”

    http://dearauthor.com/need-a-rec/if-you-like-misc/if-you-like-books-about-characters-with-disabilities/

    It seems to me that the disabilities are probably pretty evenly divided between heroes and heroines. The differences seem to be in the type of disability they have. Men are more likely to have disfiguring disabilities, such as lost or crippled limbs, severe scaring, etc. Women are more likely to have disabilites like blindness or deafness which don’t affect their appearance.

  5. A Man Like Mac (Superromance 911) by Fay Robinson was a wonderful, wonderful story where Mac is in a wheelchair. The story line is about the heroine dealing with issues after an accident. Another oldie but great one is by Justine Davis, Morning Side of Dawn. Dar is a double leg amputee. It’s part of a trilogy when SIM’s were great.

    As a woman in a whelchair I must say I couldn’t get through Catherine Anderson’s or Tina Wainscott’s ‘girl in a wheelchair’ books, they were so whinny, it was embarrassing!

  6. I do think that the biggest difference is the type of injury or disability, and in general when I was looking I considered “disability” to mean an injury, disease, condition, etc., that makes it either extremely difficult or impossible to live independently. Scarring or a limp which is often what heroes have, does not have the same impact on a person’s life the way paralysis or blindness does, and I’ve found that sort of disability is more common with heroines than heroes.

    For what it’s worth, one of my clients at the day center for the homeless is totally blind, and he gets around and handles himself better than a lot of my other clients. But he still needs someone to read his mail to him, to call and activate his foodstamp card, to lead him around the city to the shelters or stores or park.

    Also– I read that DA blog piece right after I finished writing this one. I think the key to her opposite conclusion is that she is recommending books; like she said, sometimes disabled heroines are a bit martyr-ish or weakly characterized. Scarred — physically and emotionally — heroes tend to be more likeable, or perhaps just better written.

  7. That’s why I liked the movie “Blink” – the heroine is visually impaired (blind and then gets corneal transplants – for much of the movie she can’t see well) but she’s NOT sweet or martyrish. She drinks, she can be rude, she has a past.

  8. One book that stands out in my mind is Envy by Sandra Brown. The main character is Parker Evans and he is in a wheelchair due to an injury that is actually part of the plot as a whole. It is very, very well written in my opinion – within the first paragraph of meeting Parker, I never really thought about his disability. What I mean is he was a very strong sexy character and his disability in no way affected that….he was very appealing on many levels. I highly recommend this book if you have not read/listened (audiobook version) to this one.

  9. Simple Jess by Pamela Morsi is a stunningly good historical in which the hero is mentally handicapped.

  10. “Flowers from the Storm” by Laura Kinsale was the first book that came to my mind – the hero has suffered what is probably a stroke, but ended up in an insane asylum.
    Presently, I am reading “The Proposal” by Mary Balogh. There are a plethora of disabled individuals in this book, including the heroine (limp). Secondary characters has disabilities that include blindness, useless legs, scarred face, and a stutter. Therefore, I think we have quite a few novels with disabled heroes to look forward to in this series! YAY!!!

  11. To add to your list, My Darling Echo, a novella by Gayle Wilson, has a blind hero. Mary Balogh’s Silent Melody has a deaf/mute heroine, although Emily is beginning to speak by the end of the book IIRC. It’s been a while since I read it. Jo Beverley has a badly scarred heroine in Secrets of the Night.

    I’ve written a couple of physically damaged heroes, myself, and one blind heroine. In that last I actually regret that I didn’t leave her blind at the end of the book. I’ll put that down to first book inexperience!

    • Elizabeth Rolls:I’ve written a couple of physically damaged heroes, myself, and one blind heroine. In that last I actually regret that I didn’t leave her blind at the end of the book. I’ll put that down to first book inexperience!

      That was your first book? Huh. It was a good debut, then, minus the disappearing blindness that made me curse you out. I had really enjoyed that heroine. She was a sassy britches.

  12. I doubly endorse both of the books that Gail mentioned. In Jo Beverley’s Hazard, Anne is handicapped by a club foot, but really asserts herself against her family’s tendency to coddle her even before the hero comes along. Then there’s Dancing with Clara, which is also in essence, I think, a story of the heroine’s gradual empowerment. For mental handicaps, we should probably mention The Madness of Lord Ian Mackenzie.

    • Virginia DeMarce: Then there’s Dancing with Clara, which is also in essence, I think, a story of the heroine’s gradual empowerment.

      Funny that you say that. I found that book infuriating. In true Balogh fashion, once again a character gains empowerment and respect as he/she becomes less disabled. It’s yet another example of people equating disability with helplessness and victimhood. Pisses me off. HEA and disability are not mutually exclusive.

      Also, despite what the OP says, Phantom Waltz isn’t about a disabled heroine. That book is 100% pure ableist fantasy.

      • Ridley:
        Funny that you say that. I found that book infuriating. In true Balogh fashion, once again a character gains empowerment and respect as he/she becomes less disabled. It’s yet another example of people equating disability with helplessness and victimhood. Pisses me off. HEA and disability are not mutually exclusive.Also, despite what the OP says, Phantom Waltz isn’t about a disabled heroine. That book is 100% pure ableist fantasy.

        Ridley, I generally agree with you on the characters with disabilities, but “Dancing With Clara” worked for me. I think this was because I believed the situation was real. I grew up in a country where for my condition doctors recommended restricting physical activity well before any pain or disability started, and sometimes putting children in special boarding schools on strict bed rest. This actually produced more severely crippled people than if they were left to their own devices. I escaped that because my parents were poor and overworked, and so were unable to spend much time or money on something that was not an immediate problem. I still ended up with a disability, but I had 12 healthy years after my initial diagnosis, and I am better off than some of the kids who went through the then-standard treatment. So I read “Dancing with Clara” as an instance of that – people, maybe with the best intentions, giving very poor advice to someone who didn’t have a severe physical problem, and an outsider helping her get better.

  13. I don’t think it is enough to make a list of books when we are talking about how people are represented in the genre. As Ridley’s post and the comments thread on Dear Author show when we meet characters with a disability we are also being shown a whole lot about how our societies work and the often unspoken perceptions that people bring to dealing with someone or something that they perceive as ‘other’.

    An example is the picture that goes with this post. It is of a transport wheelchair, the sort that requires a carer to manouver. It isn’t the sort of chair that a person who requires that level of mobility assistance is likely to use in the everyday. As a picture is represents passiveness; implying and reinforcing a prevailing notion that people with disabilities have little agency. I think this is a serious issue in romance where a large part of the journey of the hero and heroine is towards a supportive relationship that enhances each others personal agency.

    I highly recommend an excellent article that appeared on the Mary Sue girls and geekery blog about these issues http://www.themarysue.com/how-to-illustrate-wheelchairs/

  14. Well, one of my favorite fictional male characters, Jaime Lannister of ASOIAF, is crippled. And he is a fascinating, complex and vibrant character. So, it’s all in the writing. Of course, he is not a romance novel character.

    I remember one of Mary Balogh’s heroes was severely disabled – didn’t seem to hurt his popularity any with the readers.

  15. LOL! I curse myself for that mistake, Ridley. I’m glad you enjoyed the rest of it. We live and learn.

    I have read Dancing with Clara. As I recall, I didn’t actually see it as a book about someone who was physically disabled, but had been disabled psychologically by another. I saw it as Clara learning to think and fend for herself. I wouldn’t put it in the same category as my own mistake with a blind heroine. Clara’s recovery was implicit, I thought, from the beginning. She was sickly, not crippled, wasn’t she?

    • Virginia DeMarce: Ridley, I am sorry that my comment angered you.

      How did you read my comment and come away with the idea you’d angered me?

      Head in the game, kid. The book is what infuriated me, not you or anyone who liked it.

      Although, every time someone recommends The Morning Side of Dawn as anything but a patronizing pile of crap, that might anger me a bit. Though I’m angrier at authors and society for making it seem like a story like that is a healthy representation of disability than with able bodied readers who don’t know any better liking the “beauty and the beast” theme. Everyone’s heart being in the right place doesn’t make that awful book any less offensive, though.

  16. Have to mention an oldie but favorite – Morning Side of Dawn, by Justine Davis – hero is a double amputee. A very lovely story about seeing past surfaces to the person inside.

  17. A favorite book of mine is This is all I ask by Lynn Kurland. The hero is blind, but manages to hide the fact from most of the world by hiding in his keep (it’s a medieval book) and creating for himself a fearsome reputation that keeps his enemies from challenging him. His people are aware, and help him enough that he even fools the heroine (his reluctant bride) for awhile.

    The heroine is equally disabled because of the emotional and physical abuse of her father. She is terrified of her husband (actually she is terrified of everyone and everything) for the first half of the book, but as she begins to realize that she is safe, slowly she falls in love and makes friends. It’s a lovely book, with a believable HEA. I recommend it highly, and I think it got a DIK review on this site.

  18. I recently read the epic romance EDMUND PERSUADER. It’s daunting length, about 1,560 pages, discourages many but I rank it right up there with the best literature I have ever read. Getting to my point, the heroine’s best friend and companion is Evelyn Brownton, who manifests all of the classic symptoms of an autism spectrum disorder. She is physically beautiful which makes it even more difficult on her socially because she does not like to be touched without her permission, she is painfully shy, socially awkward in a sense, although when comfortable, candid and forthright to a fault. She has difficulty with literacy but is otherwise narrowly highly intuitive and perceptive as are many with an autism spectrum disorder. She is truly one of the more fascinating and wholly loveable heroines this reader has yet come across. I felt for her harrowing situation because people like her were in constant threat of being committed to the “mad houses” of that time period.

  19. It isn’t just in My Darling Echo (Gayle Wilson) that the hero is handicapped. In many of her Regency books, the hero is handicapped in some way. In The Gambler’s Heart, the hero has lost an eye and is disfigured on one side of his face; in Anne Perfect Husband, the hero is frequently laid low because of the shrapnel that still affects his health; in Lady Sarah’s son, the hero has lost a foot in war; in The Heart’s Desire, the hero has a club foot and twisted leg.

    I have a lot of sympathy for these characters not just because of the way they rise above their circumstances but also because as is true of many of us, their ailments are usually of the heart. They themselves can usually manage by accepting help (accepting help is hard for even the most mobile person); sometimes their limitation has to do with letting others know of their vulnerabilities. And often their liberation comes from believing in themselves (again, something we all have trouble doing from time to time).

  20. This is interesting reading, and inspiring. The book I’m working on currently has a secondary character (man) who is disabled. As I write, I can feel his story wanting to come out, so I guess I have my work cut out!

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