Hello everyone, and thank you for hosting me today at Romancing the Book!
I’ve been asked about my decision to write a disabled main character–specifically, my heroine, Aurelia Newbold. So here are my thoughts on that, and on disabled characters in general.
Characters with disabilities can be found in any genre, and their personalities are as diverse as the challenges they face. They can be as angelic as Tiny Tim–holiday shout-out!–whose health is miraculously improved by a reformed Scrooge’s benevolence, or as diabolical as Shakespeare’s Richard III plotting revenge against the world in retaliation for his deformities. And some go on to be heroes, like one-handed ex-jockey Sid Halley or the incomparable Miles Vorkosigan, or at least beloved underdogs, like Tyrion Lannister.
Disabled or disfigured heroes tend to be more common than similarly afflicted heroines, especially in romance. Many love stories use the popular theme of Beauty and the Beast, and feature a beautiful, virtuous heroine who falls for a physically imperfect hero, often a scarred and/or crippled war veteran. As in the fairy tale, the heroine’s love rescues the hero from spiritual darkness and despair, and they develop a bond that transcends the physical.
When I first started Waltz with a Stranger, I wasn’t planning on having a disabled heroine. My original intent was to focus on a beautiful American heiress seeking to make a brilliant marriage to an English lord. I couldn’t have been more surprised when my untitled hero left the ballroom, wandered into the conservatory, and encountered the beauty’s scarred, crippled twin sister, dancing alone in the moonlight. But the story that opened up for me then seemed so much more interesting that the one I’d first imagined. So I went with it–and never looked back.
One challenge of writing the disabled heroine is establishing how she feels about herself and her condition. Too sunny and she defies credibility; too bitter and she risks forfeiting the readers’ sympathy. The circumstances under which the heroine sustains her handicap also make a difference. A character afflicted from birth may learn to compensate for her condition early, while a character more recently stricken might have a much harder time coming to terms with dramatic changes to her appearance and physical capabilities.
I didn’t make it easy for Aurelia. She sustained her injuries–a broken thigh that mended short and a visible scar on the left side of her face–in a horrific riding accident, for which she fully accepts the blame. Her first love jilts her, and his rejection has her convinced that no man will ever want her. And always before her is her beautiful twin, Amy, a constant reminder of how Aurelia herself used to look. In an era where beauty and vigor, along with breeding and fortune, were considered a woman’s greatest assets, she seems destined to remain a spinster, pitied but undesired.
Three years after the accident, Aurelia drifts through life, hiding in the background while Amy dazzles London society. While she tries to accept her limitations with patience and fortitude, she has her share of dark, even self-pitying moments. All that changes after kind-hearted James Trelawney tells her she need not be defined by her scars and then sweeps her into a secret waltz.
Their dance proves to be the catalyst for Aurelia taking up her life again, traveling abroad in search of healing and happiness.
The hard reality is that there were no easy fixes for Aurelia’s condition in the late Victorian period. No orthopedic and cosmetic surgeons who could magically cure her leg and erase her scars. She is limited to the treatments available at the time, which included special diets, exercise regimens, and mineral baths. As it is, she is fortunate that her family can afford to send her to a German spa like Bad Ems, and that she responds well to her doctor’s course of treatment.
All the same, Aurelia’s leg, while much improved, cannot be restored to its former state. And she will always carry the scars from that one reckless ride. It takes inner reserves of strength and determination to effect her transformation from timid mouse to strong, resilient woman. And even then she must fight continually against her own insecurities: that inner voice insinuating that her physical imperfections make her undesirable and that even James, for whom she nurtures a secret passion, must prefer beautiful, unscarred Amy to her.
This is a battle that can’t be won in a single day, but must be waged over and over until that taunting voice is silenced and hard-won confidence is restored. But every victory, however small, brings Aurelia closer not just to the person she was before the accident but the person she wants to be now: the queen, and not the little mouse!
So, who are your favorite disabled/challenged characters? And how do you feel about Beauty and the Beast as a romance theme?
Pamela Sherwood grew up in a family of teachers and taught college-level literature and writing courses for several years before turning to writing full time. She holds a doctorate in English literature, specializing in the Romantic and Victorian periods, eras that continue to fascinate her and provide her with countless opportunities for virtual time travel. She lives in Southern California and is currently at work on her second novel.