Toph, from Avatar: The Last Airbender, hanging a poster of the missing Appa upside down

It’s Upside Down, Isn’t It?

As I mentioned in my last post, I’ve been thinking a lot about what it means to be blind. This has led me, naturally, to thinking about how people who are blind, and more broadly, how people with disabilities, are represented in fiction.


I am by no means well-read on this topic, though I should be, but the answer that I’ve come up with is it’s difficult to write characters with disabilities for many reasons and so they aren’t represented nearly as much as they could or should be.


In writing, you want your characters to have agency. They are the ones who push the plot forward. They take action. And let’s face it, because it’s true, there are some things that people with disabilities can’t do. That doesn’t mean they can’t have agency in the story. That doesn’t mean they can’t affect the plot or be the catalyst for their own change or anything like that. But unless it’s contemporary fiction or science fiction, the technology and services often don’t exist in the world of the story to allow that character to have their own agency, and unless there are superpowers involved, that character won’t be able to do what is required to move the plot along and be an active protagonist. And you have to be careful about having a disabled antagonist, because that can turn the disabled into the Other, which is bad. It’s possible to have a side character who’s disabled, certainly. They don’t affect the plot as much, but they’re still important. But you have to be careful that they don’t turn into merely a token character—”Look, I have a disabled character!”—or the comic relief. So it’s not impossible, but it’s difficult, and you have to be careful.


But I mentioned superpowers as a possibility.


Yes, I did. And it is an option. Give a disabled character a magical ability of some kind, and suddenly they can take action themselves no matter what. But there’s a problem with that. If they have a power that means they can take action no matter what, then why does it matter that they’re disabled at all?


This is not an easy line to walk. I’m blind myself, and even I struggle with it. I’m writing a story for this contest. My main character is blind. I have plans to write more stories about this character in the future, stories in which she has the ability to see the future but doesn’t know how to use it—because I enjoy messing with stereotypes. So, I’m working on this story, and I think, this could be the story where she gets these powers. She finds the confidence in herself to solve her problems on her own and finding that confidence unlocks her powers. I thought this was a good idea. She was accomplishing things without her powers. She gets powers, because she will need them for other stories, but she knows that she doesn’t need them to live as a person who is blind. Only, in practice, it didn’t work out that way. She gains her magical power at the end, as I planned, and all it really does is damage the value of her accomplishments, because theoretically she’s had this power all along even if she didn’t know it, so maybe the magic had something to do with it. Also, just from the point of view of good storytelling, if the power isn’t supposed to be important to her accomplishments in this story—which is meant to stand alone—then why do I have it at all? At first, I was reluctant to illiminate the magical power, but I realized if I do write other stories about her, there will be time to explore her agency outside her magic. So I cut it, and it’s a better story for it.


The point is, it’s really hard. I’m blind, and I’m having trouble with it. I only recently even realized the importance of writing about characters with disabilities. But it isn’t impossible. I’ve seen a few good examples of people who are blind in fiction. And what they all have in common is that the character who is blind is part of a group hero—more than one character is the protagonist of the story.


In All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr, Marie-Laure is blind, but she is not the only protagonist in the story, and therefore the plot does not only hinge on her actions. She is able to use the agency she has to save the other protagonist, who in turn is able to save her.


The other excellent example I’ve seen is Toph from Avatar: The Last Airbender. Toph has earth bending, and this bending allows her to “see,” because she can sense the earth around her. This gives her agency in the plot and power within the group, but at the same time, she’s still blind, because there are situations when she cannot see what’s going on, and she was raised in an overprotective household. And everything about Toph, from her desire to take care of herself at the expense of her friendships, to her dislike of libraries, to her difficulty with hanging posters correctly—as in my title quote and image—is all spot on.


There are probably other good examples out there. I just haven’t seen them yet. But I intend to find them, and I intend to contribute more myself. I have been reluctant to write about characters who are blind, because I was afraid that would come to define me. She’s blind,

so she writes about blind people.


But it’s important that people with disabilities are represented in fiction the same as any other group. People with disabilities are a part of our world. They have always been a part of our world. They will continue to be a part of our world. And if one of the purposes of literature is to tell the human experience, that experience should be for everyone, not just a few. People with disabilities deserve to be represented. Their stories deserve to be told, upside down posters and all.


2 thoughts on “It’s Upside Down, Isn’t It?”

  1. Toph!!! I love how you discussed the politics of a character with a disability also having a superpower. Especially relevant for us fantasy writers….have you read Kristin Cashore’s Graceling? Cashore experienced a bit of a learning curve on the whole powers negating disability deal, but she has a blog post on getting educated by readers and added a few more realistic constraints for the sequel.

    Its not blindness, but I find Dr. Xavier from Xmen to be a decent example. His powers do not negate his paralysis and he has to navigate and and struggle with the trade offs of being able to walk versus using his psychic abilities.

    Also, I’m super psyched to hear there’s more to Noa’s story.


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