The Ugly Face of Handsome Heroes: Writing Heroes With Disabilities
Imperfections are hard on people, whether it be a mental illness you were born with or a recent and permanent disability. They’re hard on the person it effects and it’s hard on those who witness it. Ever see someone missing an arm or who talks through a tube in their throat and you can’t stop staring at it? It’s the iconic, “My eyes are up here, mister,” all over again, only it’s not cleavage that’s caught your eye.
We have this pre-conceived notion of what humans should look like. We judge those who have excessive girth around their stomachs, we judge those who are blind, we judge those who are missing teeth, and have many skin imperfections. Somewhere in our programming we have this visual of what humans should look like, and so when they don’t look like that it causes us to pause, reassess, and judge.
And because we do this to our own humans, we expect literature to do it to their human characters. Romance novels and movies are the worst offenders. You’ve seen him. The dashing, handsome, strong, sexy, hero wearing tight pants with a nice butt we all swoon over and wish we were the girl in his arms. But while you’re melting in his arms, you look into his eyes that can peal open all your dirty secrets and you see a tube sticking out his throat. He says your name and his voice sounds robotic. He’s recovered from throat cancer, but it’s left him no choice but to speak with the aid of an electronic voice box.
Still melting in his arms? If not, when you die, try to come back reincarnated as a mirror so other people can love you for only as long as you make them look good.
But I don’t blame you for being turned off by the robotic voice. Books and movies (especially Hollywood) have reserved such “travesties” for their villains. A famous Hollywood villain’s name comes to mind. It starts with a “D” and ends with “Vadar”. Long before you were born, media has been training you to react THIS way when you see a handsome face and to react THIS way when you see an ugly face. So I can’t blame you.
Think of your own life, your real life, and the heroes and heroines you associate with and admire. Are they handsome? Pretty? Strong? Or do they have real human flaws like missing limbs, burn scars, fat?
Ever seen Hollywood crank out a handsome antagonist and ugly hero? Mmmmmm… there are a few, certain. Beauty and the Beast. However, DING DING DING, the Beast turns into a handsome prince at the end! Not the same, Hollywood. Not the same. Fault In Our Stars is another one. The hero is missing his leg. He’s still handsome, but at LEAST he has a physical flaw. But then he dies in the end. Hmmm. Still not the same, I feel, because the heroine was robbed of the chance to fall in love with a man who was missing a leg. So yes, there ARE those rare movies and books, but that’s just it. Rare. And most of the time they cheat. Like Beauty And The Beast and The Fault In Our Stars.
Where the heroes are handsome, the antagonists are ugly. Think Voldemort (why is he missing a nose?) The Joker (why the scar and poor make-up job?) The Wicked Witch of the West (why is her skin green?)
Because we have this pre-programming to think if you have a physical flaw you are not “human”, writers and movie producers get sucked into this trap to make the antagonists other-than-handsome because we try to make antagonists other-than-human.
I think the reason the media shies away from giving characters flaws is because it’s really close to taking care of a real human with a “flaw”. Taking care of someone paralyzed from the waist down is hard, so the media doesn’t want to make it hard on themselves by giving characters the same thing. An action-packed thriller would be slow rolling with the hero in a wheelchair. Or not. I’ve seen people do awesome things in a wheelchair. It’s just much easier to make them perfect so they don’t have to baby the character’s imperfection. Lazy.
By keeping character flaws out of books and movies, we continue to isolate the real humans with real flaws, making them seem less human than us, that maybe they are an antagonist because they aren’t perfect. This needs to stop.
It IS hard having a character with a disability. I have a blind priest in The War Queen and he often has chapters in his POV. Ever tried describing a scene using everything but sight? Hard. I had to figure out how he traveled, how he got around in unfamiliar places, how he recognized people, how he knew where he was if he was lost. Hard. Most writers don’t want to deal with it because it IS hard. How would you write a hero who couldn’t walk? How would he get around? Hard.
Stop being weak sauce, media, and do the hard thing because it is REAL life. Don't always make the antagonist ugly. Don't always make your hero handsome. Be REAL. Most good people in life have vices. Most bad people in life have good qualities
But a romance novel/movie with an overweight hero and acne-prone heroine isn’t sexy!
You’re right. It’s not. Because the media has made it so. But it doesn’t have to be this way. I’m impressed lately with a new genre coming out called Own Voices. It features protagonists (the good guys) with mental disabilities. But a mental disability is still not a physical flaw. You might cheat the system and give your handsome hero bipolar, but he’s still handsome. I’m speaking of physical flaws. Go back to my electronic voice box scenario. THAT is what we need to stop alienating in our media.
(See this other blog post about making realistic villains)