11/26/2012 01:13 pm ET Updated Jan 26, 2013

A Look at Fictional Characters With Disabilities

Many characters in literature are compelling for various reasons, one of which may involve having a disability.

Protagonists with physical issues can be admirable, inspirational, pitiable, embittered, etc. -- or a mix of all those things. It's fascinating for readers to see how a disability affects a character's psyche and actions, for better or worse. Readers also might wonder what they'd do if they were disabled themselves.

One obvious example of a physically impaired protagonist is Captain Ahab in Moby-Dick. He lost part of a leg to that big white whale in Herman Melville's epic novel, and the result was a single-minded, almost crazed desire for revenge. If Ahab had chosen a career that didn't involve inflicting misery on whales, he wouldn't have been maimed and may have had a sunnier personality (though I can't quite picture him in a P.G. Wodehouse story... ).

The caustic personalities of two other fictional seamen -- Long John Silver and Captain Hook -- also weren't mellowed by the loss of a leg and a hand, respectively. Silver, of course, appears in Robert Louis Stevenson's Treasure Island and Hook is a character in J.M. Barrie's Peter Pan.

Other disabled characters attract more of our sympathy. Among them is Joe Bonham in Dalton Trumbo's searing antiwar novel Johnny Got His Gun. As a young soldier, Joe lost his arms, legs, and face in a horrific explosion, but retained all his mental faculties. Amid his despair, he comes up with an idea for how his life could have some meaning and... I won't disclose what happens. All I can say is that Johnny Got His Gun should always be widely read -- especially by politicians who send others to war while they and their children avoid military service.

There's also Kunta Kinte in Alex Haley's Roots. Kunta (renamed Toby Waller after he was enslaved) is brutally punished for trying to escape by having part of his foot chopped off; if he had chosen the other punishment option, he would not have had descendants. This heartbreaking scene encapsulates the survival skills African-Americans needed in a heartless system of servitude.

Much less weighted with symbolism is the chopping off of novelist Paul Sheldon's foot by the psychotic Annie Wilkes in Stephen King's Misery.

Also drawing our sympathy are "Mad-Eye" Moody in J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter series, Tiny Tim in Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol, Quasimodo in Victor Hugo's The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Rochester near the end of Charlotte Bronte's Jane Eyre, and many other main and supporting characters with physical issues.

Moody exhibits an appealing swagger despite all the injuries his body has absorbed over the years. Tiny Tim, of course, is an invalid kid with an upbeat attitude. Almost everyone feels Quasimodo looks hideous, yet -- partly because of this character's (unrequited) love for Esmeralda -- he's capable of acting in a noble way. The event that causes Rochester's disabilities softens his somewhat arrogant nature and helps bring Bronte's iconic novel to its moving conclusion.

There are also Colette's autobiographical novels My Mother's House and Sido, which are mostly about a memorable mother (Sido) but also feature a devoted father ("The Captain") who lost a leg during his military career.

I thought of writing this post as I read the first book of Stephen R. Donaldson's fantasy series The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant the Unbeliever. Fantasy isn't a genre I turn to often (The Lord of the Rings excepted!), but a friend recommended the Donaldson novel. Covenant is afflicted with leprosy, and his loss of two fingers to the disease becomes significant when he's thrust into an alternate world where his presence evokes a long-ago hero named Berek Halfhand.

(The first 90 pages of Donaldson's book are absorbing, but then Covenant -- who readers are ostensibly supposed to sympathize with -- does an extraordinarily cruel thing to a kind teen girl who befriends him. Although that novel's alternate world might be a dream rather than reality for Covenant, I immediately abandoned the book.)

I'm sure I've left out many characters with disabilities, and I'm also sure they're underrepresented in literature for various reasons -- including the discomfort some authors and readers might have with these characters, and the fear of other authors that they might not depict physically challenged protagonists in an adequate way.

Who are your favorite literary characters faced with some kind of disability?


Dave Astor's memoir Comic (and Column) Confessional is out -- and the many famous people mentioned in its pages include novelists! If you'd like to buy a personally inscribed copy (for less than the Amazon price), contact Dave at