Though fiction has always featured characters with physical disabilities—Tiny Tim, Captain Ahab, and Philip Carey among them—they are still wildly underrepresented on the page. And that’s a shame: when a character has a physical limitation, it often serves to add another layer of complexity, authenticity, and diversity to the story. What contemporary fiction has started to get right (thank goodness) is the representation of disabled characters as fully fleshed-out individuals who are more than just the sum of their capabilities. Here are a few of our favorite characters with a wide range of physical disabilities:
Tyrion Lannister (A Song of Ice and Fire series, by George R. R. Martin)
Being born a Lannister would be tough any way you slice it, but for Tyrion, who has dwarfism, it’s especially difficult. He must contend with a power-hungry father who uses his wealth for ruin, a brother whose sword skills and good looks are the stuff of legend (and the embodiment of every masculine ideal Tyrion is treated as lacking), a Queen/Queen Regent for a sister who takes every opportunity to mock him and blame him for their mother’s death and who has, on more than one occasion, tried to have him killed, and a sadistic psychopath for a nephew who torments him mercilessly. Without the usual responsibilities of men of his station, Tyrion spends much of his youth reading, and developing a penetrating intellect and a quick and biting wit (as well as overdoing it with the wine and patronizing brothels), which gets him out of some pretty hairy situations. Ultimately it’s Tyrion’s “differentness” that allows him to stand out from a pretty terrible pack of Lannisters. And while he’s no angel, possibly in part because of the trials he’s faced throughout his life, Tyrion has what most of them lack: the capacity for empathy.
Bran Stark (A Song of Ice and Fire series, by George R.R. Martin)
Unlike his Westeros paisano Tyrion, Bran Stark’s physical limitations aren’t genetic but, rather, the result of a tragic “accident.” His injuries leave young Bran a paraplegic, an athletic and independent boy now dependent on others for the smallest of tasks. (Enter: Hodor!) While Bran may be unable to move freely in the physical world, he soon learns that he possesses a unique gift. He begins to experience vivid dreams in which he inhabits the bodies of animals, and discovers that he can, in fact, leave his own body and enter the mind and thus body of his direwolf, Summer. Additionally, Bran’s dreams prove to be prophetic, meaning that he possesses another mystical ability: the power of greensight. These abilities both help and burden Bran. He uses them to protect those he loves, but they prove to be a tempting escape when his own reality becomes too grim.
Trudi Montag (Stones from the River, by Ursula Hegi)
Like Tyrion Lannister, Trudi Montag also has dwarfism, and is also treated poorly as a result. The neighbors in her village of Bergdorf, Germany, don’t even bother using her name, addressing her instead as Zwerg (German for dwarf). She’s accustomed to being ostracized from a young age, first by her mother and then her village, but headstrong Trudi learns how to use it to her advantage. Being an outcast who is simultaneously seen and not seen allows her to observe people, eavesdropping on their conversations and learning their secrets. Trudi’s life as an outsider also hardens her and makes her fiercely independent. With WWII looming, Nazi ideals of normalcy and conformity begin to ripple through Bergdorf, and this shifting social landscape allows Trudi to assume risks others will not, like hiding Jews in her basement. She comes out of the other side of the war realizing she and the villagers are more alike than dissimilar. Even if they can’t see it, she knows it’s the truth.
Chang and Eng Bunker (Chang and Eng, by Darin Strauss)
These brothers are not fictional, but we just couldn’t leave this fascinating book out of our lineup. Their names might not ring a bell, but chances are you’ve seen this famous image of these conjoined twins, for whom the phrase “Siamese twins” was coined. A similar image adorns the cover of Darin Strauss’s historical novel about the brothers, which chronicles their extraordinary lives around the globe, eventually ending in Wilkesboro, North Carolina, where they decide to settle. The brothers buy a plantation, marry a pair of sisters, and have children…lots of children, 21 between them. The most fascinating part of Chang and Eng’s story isn’t the details of how they managed day to day tasks—ok, so the logistics of how their babies came about are pretty amazing—it’s that nothing is undoable to them. This attitude let them dream about and obtain the lives they wanted.
Joe Bonham (Johnny Got His Gun, by Dalton Trumbo)
Joe Bonham is the kind of narrator whose voice that gets under your skin…and stays there forever. We meet Bonham in a field hospital during WWI, where he’s being treated for injuries sustained during mortar fire that left him a “slab of meat.” He lost both legs and arms, and severe burns to his face render him unable to see, hear, or speak. The only thing left for Bonham are his memories. As he recalls his prewar life he remembers the physicality of it: holding his girlfriend in his arms, working as a baker. Through the excruciating absence of his former life, Bonham underscores the true cost of any armed conflict and questions what it means to be human when you’ve lost the ability to easily connect with the rest of humanity.
Dolores Gucci (The Hiding Place, by Trezza Azzopardi)
Like many characters who have been left with physical and emotional scars from a terrible accident, Dolores Gucci is made an outcast in her own family. At only one month old, Dolores is severely injured in a house fire of suspicious origin, which leaves one of her hands deformed and unusable. The fire is just one in a series of events that mark her struggling family’s worsening situation, but it, as well as her hand, becomes the go-to reference point for Dolores’ father to point to as “the beginning” of their troubles. To Dolores, her hand symbolizes everything good that may have existed in her family before she was born, as well as the love she’ll never know. Despite this, Dolores sees an unusual beauty in her hand, describing it as “a closed white tulip standing in the rain; a cutoff creamy marble in the shape of a Saint; a church candle with its tears flowing down the bulb of wrist.” She turns her weakness into her strength.
Who are your favorite fictional characters with disabilities?