Special Needs in Strange Worlds | Mark Lawrence – Broken Heroes

Mark Lawrence is an author who has made huge splash in speculative fiction. His book, Prince of Thorns, is talked about and admired by the masses. On top of that, he has a very powerful internet presence and is admired by many authors and prospective authors, and rightfully so. Mark is a wonderful example of how to be professional, market well and write successfully. That being said, you can imagine how I wasn’t very hopeful that he’d decide to grace this humble blog with his presence, but I was beyond thrilled that he did.

I tend to follow Mark quite closely, because he is one of those authors who seems to do it right. He writes wonderful books, uses the internet to his fullest advantage and still manages to make a huge presence without being overbaring. His career is quite incredible. Besides all of that, he’s also very nice. I was very impressed with his enthusiasm regarding this project and was nothing less than absolutely amazed with the fantastic, thought provoking article he wrote.

Mark has written two books, Prince of Thorns and the soon to be released King of Thorns. Currently he’s doing an incredible charity drive, raising money for children in hospice care by doing an auction for his manuscript of King of Thrones. First, it’s absolutely wonderful that he’s doing this charity for such a fantastic cause, and I’d love to shout about it from the rooftops to help him get as much attention as possible. Secondly, I really think you should go to this link and learn more information about it. If you want to make a donation to the hospice itself, please go here.

I am very into charity work, so when an author is willing to do something as wonderful as this, I think he deserves to be noticed, talked about, praised and admired. Not only is Mark successful, but he’s also compassionate. Actions speak louder than words, and Mark’s actions really prove that he’s a worthy author to follow and support.

About the author

Mark Lawrence is married with four children, one of whom is severely disabled. His day job is as a research scientist focused on various rather intractable problems in the field of artificial intelligence. He has held secret level clearance with both US and UK governments. At one point he was qualified to say ‘this isn’t rocket science … oh wait, it actually is’.

Between work and caring for his disabled child, Mark spends his time writing, playing computer games, tending an allotment, brewing beer, and avoiding DIY.

The Prince of Thorns is his first published novel. It is the beginning of a projected trilogy following the fortunes of Honorous Jorg Ancrath.

Broken Heroes

(warning, contains A Song of Ice and Fire spoilers, Soldier Son trilogy spoilers, and traces of nuts)

I’m writing this piece because Sarah asked me to on the strength of a tweet about Elspeth Cooper’s guest blog [link]. I’m not sure how I established my credentials in less than 140 characters but Sarah’s hard to say no to, so I took the easy path and said yes.

Historically, there has been a tendency across many cultures and religions to view disability (and illness/misfortune in general) as something visited upon those who deserve it. Although these modes of thought have no root in the core religious texts of either Christianity or Islam, and whilst there may be debate as to their prevalence, they have certainly impacted our literature. The primal cause may be a biological revulsion for the imperfect in case ‘it’s catching’ – a reaction that might have some evolutionary benefit, however unenlightened.

In any event, time and again those with physical impairments are depicted as the ‘baddies’ in our cultural heritage. From Shakespeare’s Richard III, hunch-backed and ‘rudely stamped’ by God, to James Bond’s wheelchair-bound nemesis, Blofeld. Think of Captain Hook and Darth Vader (a multiple amputee) – Tinkerbelle and Peter Pan would never have been offered to us as heroes lacking extremities.

The portrayal of disability is of course not entirely one-sided and somewhere between Dickens’ Smike and 60’s TV series Ironside the disabled wrestled themselves into the occasional heroic role.

But we’re grown now, surely, and those days of prejudice are behind us? Maybe. It’s hard to find a disabled superhero to point at. I mean a superman with one leg … he’d still be pretty awesome, right? Since he can fly he doesn’t actually need legs at all unless he wants to kick someone. In fact the only famous examples I can think of are ones where the superpowers somehow make the disability just part of the character colour because their new abilities overcompensate. Dare Devil is blind… but he can pretty much see really. Professor X is in a wheelchair (and bald with it!) but he can stop time, make you see what he wants you to, and basically do pretty much anything. In fact he could probably float out of his chair and grow dreadlocks should he so desire.

Fantasy fiction then? That great experimental sandbox and domain of the open-minded. Well, here I have to plead ignorance in the main. I’m not that widely read in the genre. But I can cite a few popular examples where talented writers have tackled the business of a healthy person becoming disabled, through injury or illness.

First we have George Martin in the series starting with A Game of Thrones. Bran is paralysed from the waist down almost as soon as we meet him. It’s a bold move to disable a child as your opening gambit and we see a decent portrayal of the psychological consequences, the necessary readjustments of expectations, even the partial compensation of the effects through use of suitable equipment (modified saddle). It’s a portrayal that shies away from the messier side of such a disability, but in the context of the story being told we can perhaps forgive the sweeping under the carpet of incontinence and the reliance on other people to wipe backsides. Secondly from GRRM, and perhaps more boldly, we see someone not only extremely physically capable but also deeply unpleasant become disabled. Jamie Lannister has his hand amputated. Suddenly he is no longer the foremost swordsman of the realm, no longer even a decent swordsman, in fact no longer capable of buttoning his shirt, and his sister stops finding him sexually attractive (generally a good thing, but in this context a symptom of the revulsion physical impairment can engender in some people).

Hobb’s protagonist in Soldier Son styles himself an athletic warrior just waiting for his chance at glory. Magical intervention renders him morbidly obese and this alone reforms his society’s opinion about him, including those of his parents and fiancé.

These are examples of skilled writers taking the trouble to look into aspects of disability and allowing the reader new insights. But I doubt that either Martin or Hobb were doing this out of some dutiful sense of obligation. They weren’t ticking boxes in a representational chart to ensure all minorities had a fair crack of the quill. I rather suspect both were following their story, and lifted by the slow but rising tide of general enlightenment in these areas, in combination no doubt with their own varied experiences, they had realised the potential for adding interest and depth to their work by such inclusion.

My own experience is of a different flavour and two-fold. The first instance is of the slow and creeping debilitation that multiple sclerosis brings. My wife, who I’ve been with for very nearly quarter of a century now, first showed signs of the condition in her early twenties, though we only recognised that when casting hindsight back across a decade or two. It’s not the sudden devastation of Bran’s fall or Jamie’s amputation. There’s nobody to blame, no personification of the guilt, nobody did it to her. It’s an erosion, an additional vulnerability, as if somehow she’s aging faster than I am. She was always the keen cyclist, but now it’s me that cycles ten miles a day to and from work, and she has to use a wheelchair to leave the house. It’s disease, not contagious but mysterious, poorly understood. There’s no romance to it, its effects are invisible and the heights of our technology are required to just see the tiny signs of damage, and yet it devastates. Weakness is the least of it. Pain is what it gives. And pain, day in and out, grinds a person down.

The second instance was that of my daughter, and that really was as sudden as a sword blow or a fall. Almost everything was taken from my youngest daughter just minutes before her first chance to see the world. It’s a dangerous business, this being born. Some babies aren’t put together quite right. Others, like Celyn, are damaged at birth. A lack of oxygen saw her come out grey and limp with a wedge of her brain – the motor cortex mostly – dying as I laid eyes on her. And still more babies emerge in apparent health only to be dragged down by some rare and vicious syndrome as they try to grow.

Celyn’s is eight now. She can’t move any part of her body in a useful way, she can’t roll, lift an arm, sit, use her fingers. She can’t speak, her eyesight is very poor, she’s doubly incontinent, and often in pain. She sleeps for two hours at most before requiring turning, resettling, maybe drugging. All her liquids are fed to her through a tube that goes through her abdomen directly into her stomach.  But it seems that her intelligence is intact. She understands what is said to her, she got 9 out of 10 last week in her maths test on the times tables, she attends a regular school with able-bodied children and her teacher says she is one of the quickest to understand new things. She laughs. A lot. She loves stories, writes stories (with the help of a head switch, a computer listing choices, and an assistant), loves taking part, hates being left out.

This is a whole different kind of disability. The disability of forever. It’s all she has ever known. Her understanding of what has been denied to her is coming to her slowly, piece by piece. She hasn’t lost the ability to walk, to hold things, to speak, she’s never had them. It breaks my heart knowing what she can’t have, but it doesn’t break hers. Some people might say (and have in fact said – to my wife in a radio phone-in) they would rather be dead than be like that, that drowning such children at birth would be a kindness both to the child and to the tax payer. But Celyn loves her life. She has ambitions. She’s an eight year old girl who loves pink, loves princesses, wants her hair done . . . I don’t know where all this will lead us – the doctors doubt it will lead us past 18 – but she deserves her chances and what happiness she can snatch. As do we all.

This disability from birth, especially profound disability, is something I’ve not seen addressed in fantasy. It isn’t something I demand to see represented. I don’t see writing as something subject to demands. It is however something I’m interested to see. The perspective of someone who has never tasted the full array of physical opportunities is unique and hard for an outsider to penetrate. There are insights offered by such privation, insights into what we are, into what makes us people, what we share at the core. That’s the reason I’d like to see such a character in a story. Not to fill a quota, not out of duty, but because it could be fascinating.

I’ve started two books with significant characters who have been profoundly disabled since birth. In one, ‘The Arithmetic of Magpies’, the character is a young woman with severe cerebral palsy (my daughter’s condition) at the heart of a high-tech hacking operation, prized for her particular skills, who finds herself being hunted by Orion – the avatar of the mythological figure – and plunged into a very strange conflict. All largely without stirring from the spot.

In the other, ‘Gunlaw’, a young boy with similar disabilities is strapped to a board in a ‘cripple-shack’ in a pseudo Wild West milieu. In this case rather than technology it is psychic ability that offers additional possibilities to the character, but in both cases I am careful to ensure that the technology or power in no way reduces the disability to a minor inconvenience – the new capability is tangential to the disability, it doesn’t compensate but it offers additional avenues for input to the story. Moreover, I’m trying to make the characters interesting in their own right. A disabled character doesn’t have to be good, or nice, or well intentioned. They can be as wonderful or crappy as the rest of us. The disability isn’t their defining feature – it’s the thing between their defining features and us. It may shape and colour what they have to offer, but ultimately the task of the story is to see past it to the person.

And the final thing I’d like to see in fantasy, just because it’s part of life – at least part of mine – is the carer’s point of view. It’s a unique position. Compared to Joe Public the carer has a raw deal. Their time is taken, their ambitions curbed. I spend almost all my time working or caring for my daughter. I’ve not had a holiday, day off, lie in, etc for eight years. I don’t have time to maintain friendships, raise my other children with the input they need and deserve . . . it’s pretty shit all in all. Compared to the person the carer is supporting their life is often a bed of roses. I can see, talk, run, jump. I’m not in pain. I had thirty plus years of freedom and fun, holidays, lie ins, time wasted doing nothing. It was great. I should shut the fuck up.

There it is in a nutshell. The carer has it much worse than most around them but much better than the person who is really suffering. They’re denied the luxury of complaint. It’s survivor guilt. I feel small for mentioning it here after listing Celyn’s challenges. But it’s a thing. It’s real, and it’s just another dimension of the matter.

My final point is that more than foresight or social conscience or good intentions, it takes skill to bring this subject to the page. There is an exceedingly fine balance to be struck when showing the reader the world through the eyes of a disabled person. Mention the hard facts of their impairment too often and it becomes deeply irritating very quickly. Enough with the leg/arm/missing hand already! Fail to mention the problems enough and you risk sweeping the constant and intrusive core of them away for convenience – because that’s at the heart of disability; it won’t quit, won’t be pushed aside, won’t stay quiet when it’s important. It just won’t.

All of this is part of life, which is why it offers potential for fascinating literature. Throw in some swords, a suit of armour, a dragon, a spell gone wrong . . . and stir until done. Perhaps someone with serious life-long disability can use (or has already used) that particular and peculiar ability of the fantasy genre to make their experience more real and accessible to those of us on the outside. Show us some broken heroes. Only do it well. Do it right.


You can find Mark online here:


You can read more about his books on his webpage, or on Goodreads (or numerous other sources, I’m sure. Mark is one VERY talked about author).

And, once again, please check out his charity auction here.  If you’d like to make a donation to the hospice, please go here.

12 Responses

  • Thank you for sharing, Mark.

    I think I understand you and your writing, and the challenges you and your family deal with every day, and how that informs what you do.

  • Excellent post, Mark – and thanks too to Sarah for organising this utterly fascinating series of posts!

  • Okay, was my comment eaten?

    Anyway, Mark,. I wanted to thank you for your post. I think, the way you bared yourself and your family here, I understand you a lot better as a writer, and a person.

    And it occurs to me that the carer, the role you have taken on in your own life, is a role we do not see that often in genre fiction. Carers don’t get enough respect. And your post shows why they should.

  • Wolfram

    Thanks for letting us take part in your experience and insights about disability and the effects on the caring people around it. Generally, to be honest, I avoid thinking too much about this topic. And this is not because I don’t care, but because it hits me in my core soul and lets me feel a deep pain. I immediately imagine myself having this disability, and this not something one enjoys thinking about.
    But reading your article, about your experience and your pain, I felt your words ringing with truth and gained a understanding about disability and the people around it I did not have before.
    Further I really appreciated your writing advice on disability and think most writers using disability in their stories should sample your thoughts. It would help them a great measure.
    After all it delighted me a lot, that with all your hardships and difficulties in your life, you still have joy and find time and energy to write stories.

  • Thanks for sharing, Mark. As usual, you are eloquent and passionate on the matter, and state is wonderfully.

    The one thing I would add on is that I would also like to see more representation/discussion of mental or developmental disabilities in the genre as well. As the father of an autistic son, I see the challenges he faces every day, in terms of understanding what is going on around him, in making himself understood, in dealing with the everyday frustrations that we take for granted but seem to flatten him like a steam roller. Different challenges in nature than what your wife and daughter face, certainly, but similar in their source: he, like them, is not a proper “fit” with the world, and is now just realizing it. That, I think, is the hardest part as a parent: watching that realization dawn and not having a good answer when they finally ask “Why?”

    As for portraying these kinds of things in genre: yes, you’re right. It takes an exceptional writer. But I also think it takes and audience ready to accept these kinds of characters, too. As you said, it can easily get to the point of “enough, already!” on the part of the reader–a point that can be hard to balance. We are, in the end, writing for an abled audience most days. Is that an excuse not to try? No. But it is another challenge, and one I hope the field is starting to address a bit more. This series of posts is a good sign. Writers including disabled characters is another one. But I think it is going to take both a combination of the right writer(s) and an evolving audience to be able to properly examine some of these ideas. Like many things, it will take time. But that doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be tried. We write about the fantastic, after all–now we just need to look at the fantastic through a different lens.

    As always, easier said than done.

  • Thank you for sharing this article and your life experience. I can do no more than say that you and Celyn both are heroes.

    In terms of outsiders looking at disability, this may be done to maintain a guilty-pleasure belief in a just world, in the face of shocking hardship. People as a whole prefer to believe things happen for a reason. Order is comforting. Chaos and randomness, frightening. Thus the tendency to blame the victim, that they had it coming, that they deserved their bad karma. This is disquieting. What was that saying? “Judge not, lest you be an ignorant fool?”

    Leprosy (and even cousin germ tuberculosis) have a disability component because only 10% or fewer of people manifest symptoms. This can very much look like divine judgment.

    On the other hand, cultures have often associated disability with divine insight. Blind prophets. Crippled shamans. Perhaps this gave the disabled individual a role to play in ancient societies. Perhaps it offered some moral caution to not discount them.

    And as far as the archetype of crippled smiths, in the bronze age smithing often involved using arsenic alloys. So, ya. Them is some working conditions even mad-hatters would look down on.

    As far as the challenge of featuring more people with disabilities in fantasy, I’ll see what I can do.

    • Your comments and Mark’s about people looking at disability as a sign of judgement and people wanting things to happen for a reason remind me of a quote from the character Marcus Cole from Babylon 5.

      You know, I used to think it was awful that life was so unfair. Then I thought, wouldn’t it be much worse if life were fair, and all the terrible things that happen to us come because we actually deserve them? So, now I take great comfort in the general hostility and unfairness of the universe.”
      Marcus Cole, Ranger to Franklin, A Late Delivery from Avalon
      (quote pulled from http://scv.bu.edu/~aarondf/b5quotes.html)

      • Mazarkis Williams

        That is a favorite quote of mine.

  • In case there are any make-decisions-about-books types reading this, I too would be interested in fiction featuring people born with a different suite of abilities than what’s usual.

    Also, Mark- I’ve found the Gaunt’s Ghosts books by Dan Abnett to be an interesting exploration of the kind of disabilities you mentioned first- those that come on later in life, after you’ve gotten used to having certain abilities. (Though there is one character with epilepsy. But only one, compared to the half a dozen or so that lose limbs, sight, hearing, or bits of their face.) Because of the setting, most of these people are able to get augmentations- similar to the way the loss of a limb nowadays doesn’t mean you don’t have access to tools that can help you, just that you need different tools than most folks. And like nowadays, that doesn’t mean your life is at all the same.

    In case you aren’t familiar, they’re military SF; the kind where people on your side actually get shot. Hence the occasional major injury.

    Any way, they are widely considered to be some of the best in the genre, and they make me cry regularly, and are pretty fucking badass, and if you have the time, you might want to take a peek. (It does take about two books for Abnett to hit his stride, though; you could either be patient or skip those two.)

    In any case, thanks for posting this.

  • Oh, and fyi, the twitter link in the article is linking to the wrong Mark Lawrence.

    • BookwormBlues

      Thanks! I’ll fix it.

  • Wonderful post, Mark. Carers are given a raw deal, which too often goes unacknowledged. So, I salute you and everyone else who cares for someone who depends on them 24/7, 365 days a year and does so with grace and mostly a smile on their face. You are the unsung heroes.

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