Special Needs in Strange Worlds | Robert Jackson Bennett

Robert Jackson Bennett really needs no introduction. The man is a true wordsmith and just won the Edgar Award for The Company Man to prove it. He’s also incredibly nice and very easy to talk to. I’ve recently become a huge fan of his due to his books The Troupe (which you really, really need to read if you haven’t yet) and Mr. Shivers. I asked Bennett to write a post for this event and, in his usual form, he got it back to me in two days. What a guy. I was very excited by the fact that he was willing to participate in this event. All you really have to do is read any of his books to realize that his thoughts are miles below the surface. He’s deep, friendly and profound and that’s something I really enjoy and admire, and it also made me quite excited to see what he’d have to say on this topic. I asked him to write about the importance of imperfect characters, and, as usual, he blew me away.

Anyway, enough from me. Let me introduce the man himself and after that you’ll see his post.

About the Author

Robert Jackson Bennett‘s 2010 debut Mr. Shivers won the Shirley Jackson award as well as the Sydney J Bounds Newcomer Award. His second novel, The Company Man, is currently nominated for a Philip K. Dick Award as well as an Edgar Award. His third novel, The Troupe, arrives in stores on the 21st of February.


Now, welcome the man himself, and please read his brilliant post.

I remember when my high school French teacher taught us about Classical French Theater, he said one of its key characteristics was that the plays always had to be about powerful or noble characters – kings, queens, emperors, mythological characters, etc. “It can’t be about a garbage man, in other words,” he said. “No one wants to watch a story about the garbage man.”

And I remember thinking, “That’s ridiculous. I’d probably identify more with the garbage man than some king or queen.”

I think Mr. Swope might have been exaggerating to maintain our interest in Classical French Theater – a tough thing to do for a bunch of 15 year olds – but I think the same struggle’s still going on in fiction, and it probably always will. A lot of the time, we don’t want to hear about ordinary people: we want to hear about the rich, the famous, the beautiful, the powerful – the people without a blemish, either physical, spiritual, or financial.

This is, of course, simple escapism. We watch Entourage because damn, son, that’s the life, isn’t it? We watch Sex and the City because we’d like to have those sorts of glamorous problems, like fashion faux-pas and which rich, handsome man to date. And it’s a powerful impulse to resist: fiction is a realm where one strategically edits in order to manipulate time, emotion, imagery. Why not edit ourselves? Why not clip away all our flaws, all our troubles, and concern ourselves only with fantastical, desirable problems, like saving the world and getting the girl?

The older I get, the more this style of story feels like a gallon of Diet Coke to me: hard to swallow, and completely lacking in valuable content. All I’m left with is a superficial sweetness that makes me hungry to taste something real. The characters are cauterized like victims of plastic surgery gone wrong:  you can tell where the human parts used to be, but what’s there now is something taut, plasticine, and as numb as a bundle of dead nerve endings.

Beauty is shaped by reality. It does not exist separate from it. That which is real, that which is true, is beautiful. So I don’t understand this impulse to look away anymore: if you look at the world, at real people, and see nothing but ugliness, then I can guarantee you that the problem isn’t with the world.

And, true, that doesn’t mean that you can’t write about gods and kings and the trials of the powerful. But the best of those stories, for me, are when the characters show genuinely human flaws and problems, and try to deal with them in genuinely human and frequently flawed ways. And I love, love, love when huge, god-like characters are faced with problems with no easy answer, or even no answer at all.

For example, I love Neil Gaiman’s Dream as he starts to understand, well, he used to be kind of a dick to his friends and family, and he’s not sure what to do about that. I love him in the same way I love John le Carré’s George Smiley, a short, fat, cuckolded bureaucrat in the Cold War, who struggles with trying to figure out if his compassion is a strength or a weakness in what seems to be a cynical world.

Flaws and problems are real. We all have them. And when your characters – god, king, or garbage man – learn to deal with theirs, or fail to, that can make the characters strong, and real, and memorable.

Orson Scott Card – though many of his views are indefensible – can be commended for contributing a very valuable perspective on the disabled in his fiction. Most of it was probably informed by his son, Charles, who had cerebral palsy and died a teenager. I remember reading about these disabled characters in his stories, and never once feeling, well, pity for them. They weren’t cripples. They weren’t helpless. They got by. And we all get by, don’t we? Sometimes just barely, but we get by.

Now that I’m older, and writing my own stuff, I see now that the reason his disabled characters work is that he didn’t start by writing them as disabled characters. He started by writing them as characters, as real people with real problems – the same way that the fantastical, powerful characters work the best. Sometimes they got over those problems. Sometimes – maybe a lot of the time – they didn’t. And I felt for them because I knew them because they were real.

Your stories and characters don’t have to be set in reality. But they must have some kernel of reality in them somewhere. Life can be hard, but it is also true, so it is also beautiful. I don’t mind beautiful characters – but they should have to earn it, as we all must do.


As a small aside, I really think you should read this book. It’s absolutely brilliant, so click on the image to learn more about it, or look it up in the index above. 

4 Responses

  • And we kick off the project in fine form. Thanks Robert!

    I agree, without a kernel of reality, identification with a character is damned hard.

  • Beautiful post. And thank you for mentioning Orson Scott Card’s books. I thought he did a fabulous job making his disabled characters real people with real abilities. My favourite scene in his Homecoming series is when, in the second book, Issib (who, is confined to a wheelchair and very limited in his movements) is supposed to marry Hushidh and she asks what he can actually do. And he surprises her in many ways.

    I think we’re often constrained by thinking of people with special needs in terms of what they can’t do, rather than finding out what they can.

  • Dan J.

    Slightly off-topic but all I can find on purchasing “The Troupe” is the paperback edition on Amazon. Is a hardcover edition being released?

  • @Dan J.

    I’m afraid not. Straight to paperback it is, like so many books these days.

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