In my fantasy novel my main character, Sam, is disabled. She is unable to do magic and is from a species where this is the not the norm. Her condition is so rare that there are almost no provisions for someone like her. She has had to adapt by using technology instead of magic. She also has to wear shoes, not the norm for her species, which causes her to be further discriminated against.
The problem I see with the story, and the reason I am writing to you, is that her disability is integral to the plot.
A former bully of hers asks for her help in an archaeological investigation. A cave is discovered that makes magical beings nauseous. Essentially Sam is the only one who can go in without this problem.
Is it a problem to make her disability so integral to the plot?
Part of the inspiration for this came from Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer. It is always presented as a lovely song. I see it rather darkly. He was bullied until he was useful and then everyone wanted to be his friend.
I am rather confused and don’t want to hurt anyone. I would love to hear your thoughts on this.
Making a marginalized trait integral to the plot isn’t inherently bad. It is, however, a risk factor, because it incentivizes people without the trait in question to overreach and depict it in harmful ways.
In this case, writing a work that focuses on the marginalization and stigmatization of a group you aren’t part of isn’t something we recommend. Oppression is a sensitive issue that requires more expertise to depict respectfully, and marginalized people don’t generally want to read a book that reminds them of the oppression they face every day. That’s why when writers focus on the hardships of a marginalized group they are not in, it usually comes off as exploitative.
Your case is particularly interesting because a character without magic may not be interpreted as disabled, but you’ve intentionally coded it that way, and more so than in Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer. In the song, Rudolph has the same abilities as the other reindeer before Santa discovers him; he just looks different. After Santa discovers him, he is recognized as having a superpower the others don’t have.
It could be that with growing awareness of disability issues, Rudolph and a character lacking magic will always be seen by a significant group of people as disabled no matter how they are depicted, but maybe not. I’ll see if Fay wants to answer your question.
Thanks for your question! I agree with what Chris is saying here, and I have a few points of my own to add.
I want to start by saying that being magic-less isn’t always a disability, but a magic-less character in a setting where being able to do magic is the norm is a disability—specifically, it is a fictional disability. There is a lot of nuance to fictional disabilities (in fact, I’m currently in the middle of writing an article for Mythcreants about them), but one key point is that the association with real-world disabilities is there whether you want it to be or not. That makes it important to be respectful and avoid harmful patterns, so it’s good that you are asking these questions.
The core scenario of your story, in which your protagonist’s fictional disability makes her immune to something that affects non-disabled people, is an example of the Disability Immunity trope. This particular trope isn’t inherently negative, but it frequently becomes harmful in stories, and I think this is a concern for your story. I’ve discussed Disability Immunities in detail in a previous Q&A, so please give that a read.
Generally speaking, I recommend that non-disabled storytellers avoid depictions of intense ableism, such as a story focused on ableist bullying, because those are the kind of stories best grounded in lived experience. Depictions of intense ableism have a disproportionate impact on disabled audience members, so the story needs to be doing something meaningful for those disabled audience members to make that impact worthwhile.
Ask yourself what disabled readers would get out of the depiction of ableism in this story and whether ableism is necessary for that thing to happen. In your case, your story’s message seems to be about bullying, rather than ableism. There are other ways to create a story about bullying, making the presence of ableism an unnecessary harm. In contrast, if your story does have a message that is specifically about ableism, then the presence of ableism could add something meaningful.
The rule I go by is to never use a form of oppression to illustrate something else. Depictions of oppression need to be about the oppression itself. You can read more about this in my article on Metaphorical Disability.
It seems like you have a lot to say about bullying, and that’s great! I recommend giving your character a trait to be bullied for that is not a disability. This would be a trait, like Rudolph’s nose, that doesn’t cause significant limitations or challenges in the character’s life outside of the bullying.
Finally, I do want to clarify that ableism isn’t caused by how common a person’s disability is; it comes from the way a society is structured to respond to different bodies and minds. You say that, “Her condition is so rare that there are almost no provisions for someone like her.” While the rareness of her condition will certainly affect her, such as there being fewer pre-made accessibility tools and practices, the inability of the people around her to adjust to her access needs is a result of the society being ableist, not due to the specifics of her condition.
Thanks for digging into this—it is a big topic! If you can afford it, I recommend consulting as you work on your story concept.
Fay from Writing Alchemy