Special Needs in Strange Worlds | Kendra Merritt

When I was looking for people who might be willing to post for this event, I paid very close attention to who said what on Twitter in response to Elspeth Cooper’s post, and I also paid attention to who commented on that article. One of the most enthusiastic commenters, and one of the most thoughtful and obviously passionate was Kendra. She was also one of the people I was really, really hoping would be willing to write something for this event. Kendra is a wonderful writer and a kind, thoughtful woman in general. She’s the kind of person that seems to make everything (even virtually) happier. Her post is very thought provoking, which is one of the reasons why I chose her to help Robert Jackson Bennett open up this event, so please, continue on dear readers. You will be glad you did.

About the author

Books have been Kendra’s escape for as long as she can remember. She used to hide fantasy books behind her government textbook in high school, and she wrote almost an entire novel during a semester of algebra. When she was twenty-one, she had an allergic reaction to an epidural during a scoliosis surgery that resulted in partial paraplegia. While Kendra was in rehab learning to walk again, she realized that all the heroic characters she read about could run and jump and swing a sword. She never saw any that looked and walked like she does now. That’s why she writes young adult fantasy where the heroes kick butt with whatever they can find: canes, crutches…wheelchairs. She write for anyone who’s ever felt different. She can be found every Friday over at www.kendramerritt.com where she talks about writing, reading, and life with a disability, and how those three collide.

Continue on, dear reader, for you are in for a treat. Please warmly welcome Kendra.

Stories tell us what it means to be a hero. And everyone wants to hear about a hero they relate to, someone with qualities they recognize in themselves. Sometimes it’s the heroism we see in the mirror of the page. Sometimes it’s the flaws. We want heroes to have flaws, we want them to have bad habits, alongside the bravery and the chivalry, because that makes them even more relatable. We want them to have weaknesses, because there are times when we feel weak. We want them to mess up, because that means it’s okay when we mess up. Superman has kryptonite, Aragorn is reluctant to take his rightful place. We all understand what it’s like to feel limited, whether it’s physically, financially, or mentally.

When we read about fantasy heroes who can’t walk, or who have to fight a daily battle with fatigue,  we connect with them. We see our own shortcomings in their disabilities. And when they rise up and save the day despite their difficulties, we feel as if we’ve risen with them. Their triumph is our triumph and their strength is our strength. And along with that strength comes the realization that we can be heroic ourselves. “Well, if he can do that, what could I do?” We can take the heroic qualities we admire in our favorite characters and implement them in our own lives. Our struggles may not be as epic as those of fantasy heroes but they certainly seem epic at times. My favorite character, Miles Vorkosigan from The Warrior’s Apprentice by Lois McMaster Bujold, is a dwarf and has highly brittle bones. He doesn’t let his disability get in his way. He won’t take “No” for an answer and when he wants something, he plunges forward, regardless of his difficulties. I’m not as amazing as Miles, but I like to think I can borrow his resolve and his resilience. I know what I want, and I can go for it, disability or no.

Characters we empathize with help us understand our world. They promote cooperation and mutual respect. We may not share the disability or the exact weaknesses of a hero, but there are feelings and experiences that cross those barriers. We realize we’re not really all that different. When an author gives us the chance to spend time in a disabled character’s head, we catch a glimpse of what it’s like to be them, to live in their world, and to experience their struggles. And in the process, we understand them better. When we look through the eyes of a paraplegic character, we begin to see from the height of a wheelchair. We consider what it would be like to navigate a fight with limited mobility, and our understanding of the world grows. One of the wonders of reading is the opportunity to experience new things, or to see familiar places through a different perspective.

And to draw us deeper, stories must be realistic. Yes, speculative fiction is by definition fantastical. We want to see worlds entirely different from ours, creatures that don’t exist on earth, space travel that hasn’t been invented yet. But in order for a setting to really take root in our minds, there must be a basis in reality. Something that grounds us in that fantasy, realistic details that tie us to our world so that the fantasy becomes more than just a fleeting tale with no substance to take away for further thought. Disability surrounds us in the real world. It is more prevalent than most people realize. So why is it absent in our fantasy? Where is the old swordsman with arthritis? Or the courier whose leg was amputated because of infection? Megan Whalen Turner’s main character is a thief, and she doesn’t shy away from the traditional punishment for theft. Seeing and acknowledging the hurts and difficulties of the world adds a realism that deepens a story.

We are shaped by the stories we relate to. They make us see the world differently, they change us. Maybe if we accept and understand disabled heroes in our fantasy, we will be more likely to accept and understand disabled heroes in our reality.


Kendra’s website is well worth taking the time to read. She regularly posts thoughtful book reviews, or interesting insights into the process of writing and various other things of that nature and it’s sure to please the speculative fiction junkie. If you haven’t taken a glance yet, I suggest you do.

10 Responses

  • Rob D.

    I agree with you completely that characters having disablities and flaws bring much needed depth to a book. It also shows people with and without these problems that even though we are different, we have value and can do important things in the world. We all have people including ourselves that don’t see that.

  • I loved this.
    The character Miles is such a kick.
    You guys might like the Restorer series by Sharon Hinck.

  • Very well said. Untiring, unflawed heroes with sparkling white teeth belong in melodrama along with the maidens waiting to be rescued and the villains twirling mustaches!

    • BookwormBlues

      I think that could be one big reason why I have such issues with so many urban fantasy books. The books seem to focus on stunningly beautiful women and gorgeous men. The story might be interesting, but I always end up thinking that I can’t relate to the characters. They are too flawless.

  • Thanks Kendra

    It’s way too easy to make novels and stories just what we see or are comfortable with. I do think that a lot of novels that don’t paint in wide colors as far as diversity are just unconsciously reflecting those comforts of the writer. They don’t *think* to include someone disabled, or even of a different race. Or women. Or whatever.

    • BookwormBlues

      I think there is something to that. When I was putting this event together, a lot of people chose not to participate because it was a sensitive topic they were uncomfortable writing about, or they couldn’t think of anything to say. Those are two very valid reasons and I don’t blame them at all, but it does make me wonder how many authors shy away from disabilities in their books for the same reasons.

      • It’s very easy to do. I know that I had to make a conscious decision in my own writing not to shy away from disabilities I didn’t have any experience with. Yes, it requires stepping outside my comfort zone but life isn’t comfortable.

  • Erin Hill-Dowdle

    This is another excellent post. I think this subject merits the kind of intelligent discussion this question has posed. Nicely done.

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