Q&A

How Do I Keep a Protagonist That’s Adapting to a Disability Involved in the Plot?

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Hi! This is a question for Fay, hope that’s alright.

I have a protagonist that loses an arm named Soup, and they happen to be the main focus out of their group. I have done some research, and I have come across a slight problem. It takes a very long time to actually recover due to the shock (3-8 weeks), and there is the other obstacles of getting a prosthetic, making sure the body doesn’t reject it, getting used to using the prosthetic, etc. This takes place in a world full of magic and technology, but the article I read says that even if you DO have a high tech world, loosing arm would still take a while to get used to. Because Soup and their group are trying to get a Mac Guffin and they have a time limit, this raises a problem: the main protagonist is recovering from something that takes a while and their group is fighting for the Mac Guffin.

I see a few options: One, use magic and technology to speed up their recovery a bit. However, I’m not sure if this would be cheating and making it seem like disabled users are faking their recovery and the struggles of recovery. I do not want to downplay that in any way. Two, I could just show them recovering while they are fighting, and then have them claim the Mac Guffin when they are done recovering. Problem with this is, there’s no reason for them to even claim the Mac Guffin when their teammates, who are viable candidates for having the Mac Guffin, are right there. Three, I could remove Soup as the main character (which is drastic, and I do not want to do at all). Or should I do something else entirely? Thanks!

– Clover

Clover,

Thank you for your question. Keeping a recovering character involved in the main plot without erasing their disability can be tricky. First of all, it’s great that you love your protagonist! Having a well-researched disabled main character is awesome and there is no reason to set them aside. This is a solvable plot problem.

When it comes to representing your main character’s disability, there is a myth that you are working around that is worth discussing. This is the myth that sufficiently advanced healing will “cure” all disabilities. Underneath its optimistic surface, this myth is about perceiving disability as a terrible thing that won’t exist in an optimistic setting. Not only does this send a negative message about disability, it also erases disabled characters from optimistic futures so that we can’t participate in that optimism. In addition, it glosses over the complex reality of disability, including disabled people who don’t want to be “cured,” such as members of the Deaf and autistic communities.

I’m bringing this myth up because it seems like you are reacting to it by wanting to make sure that disability isn’t erased, which is important. However, it is also important to envision how advanced healing benefits people with disabilities. Disabled people deserve to be included in that optimism and wish fulfillment.

When it comes to the question of how long it should take for the character to recover, it is all about finding a balanced portrayal that fits the setting. Because this setting has advanced healing, it feels like disability is being weirdly singled out if that advanced healing applies to everything but disability. The challenge is to find a balance between having advanced healing benefit the character without erasing their disability.

The key to finding this balance is clearly defining what the advanced healing can and can’t do. For example, it might be able to drastically speed up the physical process of healing while not being able to change the speed of adjusting to the loss or adapting to a prosthetic. Defining limitations, costs, side effects, and tradeoffs for treatments and assistive devices also help. For example, if the character has an advanced prosthetic, what are its limitations? Does it have a power source? Are there any risks or side effects that come with using it?

Once you have figured out how the magic and technology of the setting affect the character’s recovery process, it is time to figure out how to keep the main character involved in the central plot. Because recovery will take some time, even if it is sped up, there needs to be a way to keep them involved while they are recovering. The easiest way to approach this is to find a reason that Soup needs to be physically present with their teammates as they continue the quest for the MacGuffin. Once Soup is physically present, you can find a different reason for them to be at the center of the action.

Please notice that Soup’s reason for being present doesn’t have to put them in a central role. For example, Soup could take on a support role, such as a translator or tech person. All that reason needs to do is get Soup present in the location where everything is happening. Then when the action starts, the rapidly changing dynamics of action scenes can put Soup in the central role, even though that wasn’t their team’s original plan. For example, if Soup is a support person who doesn’t immediately get involved in fighting, they can be in a position to notice something crucial or act on an opportunity that their other teammates aren’t aware of. Just make sure that they have agency and that they stay involved in the main plot events.

One reason for a character to stay involved is that they have an essential skill or knowledge that the group needs. Alternatively, there could be a story event that makes the character essential. This is why main characters so frequently have magical connections to important people and objects – it means that the character can’t be replaced. However, this can get contrived, and there are other options. For example, Soup could be the only one to have witnessed something, such as being the only person who saw the face of, or heard the voice of, a secretive antagonist. Now they are needed to help the group identify this important antagonist when they come across them again.

If the reason for the main character to stay involved is weaker, then you can keep them involved by having the plot come to them. Maybe they have an important object and don’t know it. Or maybe their team needs to do some research to figure out their next step and they are doing that research in the same city where Soup is getting their treatment. A person who is recovering can still reasonably help out with library research, so Soup can join in. Then when something goes down at the library, Soup is right there and can get involved.

Alternatively, you can change the situation in which Soup becomes disabled so that they can’t leave their team. For example, if their team has access to advanced healing but is isolated in the middle of nowhere, Soup might get basic healing but have no safe way to leave the group, so they have to stay and help out as best they can while they are recovering.

It’s all about figuring out what option is going to work best for your story. I hope that this helps! Good luck with your writing project,

— Fay from Writing Alchemy

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Comments

  1. CJ

    You could also do the magic healing thing, but have a consequence with comes with it, say he loses a bit of his sanity or going blind in one eye of something

    • Richard

      If it’s magical growth, for the short term (the immediate needs of the story), Soup can deal with it with minimal problems. But during “down time” or later on, “alien hand syndrome” (a real thing, BTW) takes over, and Soup still has to deal with the psychological issues of having an “unnatural” arm.

      If technological, perhaps due to the hasty nature of the new arm, it’s not a perfect fit. Maybe it’s half an inch too long or too short. Or, to take it to a ludicrous extreme, in Harry Harrison’s satirical novel “Bill, the Galactic Hero”, Bill had his left arm shredded during combat – and it was replaced with a *right* arm…..

      In either case, Soup is going to be quite out of sorts (at the least), and is still going to need time to adjust when it’s all over.

      I suppose it comes down to how *driven* Soup is to get the MacGuffin on time…..

  2. AngeloPardi

    You could also just change the injury. Instead of losing his arm outright, he is badly injured, and slowly loses the use of his arm as the wound gets infected. This way the initial shock is not enough to make him (temporarily) non functional, and you get a lot of additional drama as he has to slowly come to term with the fact he is going to lose his hand.

    • Cay Reet

      And he could stubbornly push back the moment of surgery, because there’s this MacGuffin to get first, which puts him in danger from the injury. That would add to the drama.

      • Cay Reet

        I do apologize for using ‘he’ instead of ‘they’ – I try to use ‘they’ whenever applicable, but it’s a work in progress for me. It’s hard to unlearn over 40 years of being conditioned to ‘he/she’ and in a language that’s not my native one.

  3. Erynus

    You can make him fail, stablish a “darkest night” point and let the villain win, and then, after recovery, let Soup’s group return for revenge and finish the villain off. That would add tension without a time constrain in exchange to raising the stakes(since now the villain is even more powerful than before).
    Of course this wouldn’t work if the Mac guffin is an all powerful doomsday device that will destroy the world. But just it being slightly less powerful (by letting the villain conquer the world) there would be nothing preventing the heroes to restore the balance.
    In my story there is a 5 years time skip after that my MC finds out a friend lost his hand. By then, the friend has come to terms with the lost (he didn’t had the means to replace his hand historicaly nor financialy, and by the end, when he finds out that magic exists, he don’t want to take the risk and he settle as he is).
    Logically there are things that he can’t do, but he is independent enough even to fight. The fact that he have lost an eye too is more hindering in combat that the hand (he is lost a ear too, but that is just cosmetic, as it barelly hinder his hearing).

  4. Kit

    What’s the tone of the story like? It’s unrelated to the question at hand, but I’d think that a protagonist named Soup might be hard to take seriously.

    (Sure are a lot of people in the comments struggling with the concept of they/them pronouns, aren’t there?)

    • Prince Infidel

      I want pin your second paragraph to the top of this article.

  5. SunlessNick

    Could a magical or technological aid be something that substitutes for the missing body part, but risks aggravating the underlying injury? Like, Soup’s jury-rigged prosthetic arm works, but its interface with their nervous system is inflicting damage, which may affect how well they can use a properly-over-time regrown arm or better-integrated prosthetic later?

    That way Soup is having to risk their future health to get the mission done now. A subsequent story could suggest that long term recovery is possible but has been slowed down.

    • Cay Reet

      I like the idea, as it does suggest more urgency. Not only do Soup and their friends have to hurry because of the MacGuffin, Soup also needs to get proper treatment before the damage is too big.

  6. Benoan

    Isn’t Soup kind of a silly name for an arm?

    Seriously now, I imagine it could add more drama to the story but also make the character out to be stronger and more likable by having them work through the complications that come with such an injury as they continue on with their adventure if the issues at hand are pressing enough to warrant immediate action. To me that would feel heroic and inspiring.

    As a side note, I don’t really care for how you speak in stead of deaf and autistic people saying how they don’t want to be cured. Because that doesn’t represent them all and saying that has become a stereotype in and of itself.

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