So, at Emerald City Comic Con, I got to be on a really cool panel. I hung out with my favorite panel hostess, met new authors, and ran into an actual Seattle superhero! Pretty amazing stuff. And then proceeded…not to write the post I promised, because procrastination kills. Well, I’ve put it off long enough.
Here it is. The panel (I Need a Hero) was about writing heroes who reflect a wider swath of humanity. Not everyone’s a Starfleet officer who never suffers from any illness longer than an episode, who can compensate for disabilities with SCIENCE! and see into the 4th dimension. A lot of us suffer: on the simple level, a blown knee, aging spine, or weight problems. Further down the scale, there’s PTSD. Addiction. Depression. Anxiety. There’s missing limbs, autoimmune problems, and traumatic brain injuries.
And, to be fair, there ARE some representations of such characters in Star Trek. In fact, as much as I joke about it, the series does some amazing things with heroes who’re less than Nietzschean ideals. There’s Dr. Miranda Jones in the old series, a blind telepath and ambassador, who’s vulnerable sometimes but never weak. There’s Picard’s recovery from his traumatic assimilation, in Next Gen. There’s Nog, one of the most under-rated characters on Deep Space 9, dealing with PTSD and injuries from the Dominion War. There’s even Reg Barclay who, though he regularly loses battles with social and other anxieties and relapses into holodeck addiction, steps up in incredible ways to help the Voyager crew on their quest for home. Even in the future, and in some ways especially in the future, it’s hard to be imperfect.
On the panel we talked about lots of heroes with weaknesses. I’ll list some more favorites below–I spent most of the panel scribbling down ideas. SF in particular is rife with ’em, which makes me a bit proud.
We also talked about what we do and don’t want to see in such heroes. Let’s start with don’t. First, most of us were leery of the “My weakness makes me awesome!” trope: Geordi and his visor on Next Gen. The autistic who’s always a savant. The blind guy “whose other senses heighten to compensate.” Writer to writer, if you’re doing one of these, you better be going somewhere new with it. Seriously, a lot of the time, our complications are just complications.
Which brings us to our second point: the Very Special Episode. For you younger kids, back before Tumblr, we learned about things like drunk driving, divorce, and homosexuality from agonizing, preachy episodes of our favorite television shows where the action would grind to a halt, and there’d often be a warning at the start of the episode to parents that Things Would Be Discussed. Seriously, don’t grow up in the 80s.
How does that relate to the panel? Well, another pit writers can fall into is to pick up a character with unusual traits or disabilities and explain them to the reader: in this cage we have the Autistic Kid, who can’t talk well or something and sometimes gets angry for no clear reason, but you should still treat like a human being because OH MY GOD, don’t do that. EVER. Unless you have savage skill in irony that you can trust your life to. Nobody will thank you. At best, we’ll politely ignore you while you scurry out of the room.
Aaand speaking of scurrying out of the room, point three: Inspiration Porn. We all fall for it once in a while: the video about the woman with one arm who can play the ukelele, or that Maury Povich episode where the little boy has cancer but he’s being SO BRAVE about it. Basically, any time some piece of media uses a person with a disability for no reason other than to push your Feel Good About Life button and nothing else, you’re probably watching Inspiration Porn.
These three strategies all have one thing in common: they reduce people to just their disability, or their scar, or their suffering. As a human with issues like that (gender dysphoria, depression, anxiety, ADD), it feels really crappy when someone’s entire impression of me is that one tiny facet that they’ve latched onto. I am The Trans. I am so strong for beating The Depression. And of course I have a sense of humor, with all that Attention I’m Deficiting!
Plus, as a writer, well…it’s boring. It’s been done to death–why d’you think we call these things tropes? You can do better. You should do better. And if you want to sell stories and interest your audience (and you’re not Michael Bay), you better do better.
So how do you do it right?
Well, first, make your character a person. You know, with a personality, hopes, drives, skills, all that stuff? Then figure out how the disability or challenge plays into things. Is this an internal or external struggle–is it the world that beats down your character, or is it a battle inside to face the world? Is your character alone, or part of a class of people? How does your world handle this stuff–with disinterest, hostility, compassion? You can drive drama this way–imagine a world where albinism’s considered a mark of the Divine, but your character just wants to be a bard. How would she get out of the monastery, disguise herself, and kick off her career?
Second, do research! There’s little that annoys me more than seeing gender transition depicted as something you just do with no forethought or oversight, or every character with ADD acting like puppies on Meth. Portraying the subtleties of a condition and nailing the details will win you respect and readers, and it’ll probably inspire new ideas. “Where the hell is he going to find meds in the Hills of Elfland? Do they even know what epilepsy is?”
Last, let your heroes be heroes. It’s easy to be the Chosen One–the puzzle piece cut by destiny to fill the gap in the pattern. It’s much more interesting to look destiny in the eye and say “Take a number.” Why can’t a guy with brittle bones pilot a starship? Why can’t a veteran with PTSD beat the good ol’ boy police department of a small town? Why can’t a bunch of pipeweed-addicted little people beat an omniscient quadriplegic giant eyeball and his army of orcs? Okay, that last one’s a stretch, but I have ADD, and this is a long article. I’m sure you get the point.
Oh, and one last vital point from the panel. For those of you who want heroes like yourself but don’t see them? Be the hero. Write the book. Play the part. Ask the question. Push for it. But seriously–make the hero you want. It’s easier than ever today to do what I’m doing, or what people on YouTube are doing. Remember, heroes don’t have to be perfect to be awesome.
Oh, and a P.S.: Thanks again to Raven Oak, our excellent moderator, for inviting me to this panel. Thanks to my fellow authors–Sonia Lyris, John Lovett, G.G. Silverman, and Bridget Natale, for being clever, insightful, and loads of fun to hang out with to boot!
And especially, THANK YOU to the awesome audience. Authors will sit and talk about shit any time, any place. But you guys brought personal stories, joy, energy, brand new ideas, and some fantastic questions to the party. You made the panel the special thing it became: veterans, folks with neurological issues and other invisible conditions, and writers who want to tell good stories.
I said I had examples. In fact, whenever I think about it, more spring to mind. I’m only going to pick examples I think were good, and it’s still a long list. I’ll publish this now and add more over time. Feel free to share your own in the comments.
The Melissa Allen Trilogy, by Jennifer Brozek: Melissa Allen fights aliens, but she also deals with severe schizophrenia and mood problems. Her friends and allies include an agoraphobe, a claustrophobe (fun combo), and someone who’s missing part of her hand. Seriously, you could use this series as a textbook on Doing It Right.
Avatar: Toph, the blind earth-bender. Teo, the flying engineer in a wheelchair. Heck, Sokka, being a non-bender on Team Avatar! The entire Equalist plot from Korra was a great example, too.
The Mad Max movies: Furiosa goes without saying, but there are LOTS of characters in that film and others in the series. Remember the bad-ass mechanic in The Road Warrior who keeps fighting after he’s been lit on fire? Heck, Mel Gibson’s Max has a busted leg in a brace for most of his run–you gonna spit in his coffee?
The Forever War: PTSD. Limb loss. Physical therapy. Even frickin ageism! Joe Haldeman rocks.
Mass Effect: Numerous characters. Joker, who I referred to above. The Krogan and their forced sterilization could count. Tali’s entire race, and their compromised immune systems. And what about Mordin Solus? Hard to tell, but I suspect even for a Salarian he wasn’t neurotypical. 🙂
Rambo: First Blood: One of the first sympathetic portrayals of PTSD. This one’s not perfect, but I feel like John Rambo kicked enough butt in the movie to deserve a spot.
Lost: For all its weaknesses, it did some good stuff around addiction, and I can still hear John Locke screaming “Don’t tell me what I can’t do!”
Doctor Who: Again, there are lots, but Cass, the officer from “Under the Lake,” is a huge stand-out. She’s never weak, never played for pity. Her deafness is a simple fact, and only one part of who she is. Though the writers use it very well for drama, it’s just a single factor in any situation for her to overcome.
The Expanse: The Belters on the Expanse are an entire people suffering the effects of low gravity living, and their enemies use that against them.
Spinnerette: A fun webcomic about “the third-best superhero in Ohio.” The second-best is named Mechamaid, and she has a robotic armored suit. Fact is, though, that she needs the suit because she has ALS–she can’t breathe or walk without the suit’s technology.