Peregrine’s deafness: how it came to be a fantasy novel

In 2005-ish, I began writing the novel draft that would become Remedy. Since this was my second book, I wanted to do something more distinctive than the quest-for-magical-objects plot of my scrapped first novel.

Shortly before I started writing Remedy, I read Limyaael’s rant about disabled fantasy characters. What really caught my attention was this point:

I hate to death those fantasies where the hero loses a hand, and about a chapter later, he has a magical special silver one that’s stronger than any ordinary human hand and can grip a sword better and gives him the ability to shoot lightning bolts. It starts looking as though the author took away his hand only to provide a little shallow angst- maybe not even that- and then an excuse to give him something better.

It’s true — sci-fi and fantasy stories tend to trivialize disabilities. When every character can have awesome magic/tech, it seems like a natural choice to give the most overpowered magic/tech to a less abled person. I immediately think of Geordi La Forge from Star Trek: TNG, who can rig his visor to see just about any energy signature the plot needs him to see. This kind of thing provides tools for the plot, but it can make the character seem lame. Having a flashy, powerful gift makes it hard to take the character seriously when they’re unhappy about their original disability.

How does this relate to my peaceful world of non-humans? Well, I already had a vague idea that my ferrin race would make great personal assistants. They’re small enough to sit on a korvi’s shoulder or be easily carried, which could come in handy if the korvi needs to transport their little friend somewhere. Ferrin also have excellent hearing and strong awareness of body language. So I started developing a pair of characters who lived life through each other. One was Peregrine of Ruelle, a korvi who had damaged his hearing with hammer-and-chisel mining; the other one was Tillian Sri, call her Tillian, a ferrin taught how to relay the world to her friend. Her chirpy voice is one of few high-pitched sounds that Peregrine can stil hear.

This works for the Aligare world and its symbiotic society. The three peoplekinds already rely on each other’s skills to get through life, in good times and bad. So when someone has a disability that makes it hard for him to perform ordinary tasks (like verbal conversations), the ideal solution is thought to be teamwork. Tillian finds her work fulfilling, but the Remedy story begins as Peregrine develops feelings of guilt. He chose to take up mining — and therefore chose to deafen himself — so he feels like he’s burdened Tillian. He resolves to change his career and learn to live on his own skills, which would free Tillian to be something other than a deaf man’s companion.

Peregrine’s hearing loss affects how he reacts to the world. He’s slow to initiate conversation, because he thinks casual chatter isn’t worth his effort. I made sure to include conversations where Peregrine could struggle through on his own, but it’s much easier to let Tillian feed him information. After all, we all fall victim to convenience sometimes. Soon, Peregrine comes to realize that his greatest obstacle is his own attitude. He’s spent eighty years in a rut, thinking of himself as unable to hear, and he hasn’t properly appreciated what he can do.

All of this forms the main emotional storyline of Remedy. The plague epidemic just kicks Peregrine in the butt and forces him to join the relief efforts — because critically ill people can’t wait for him to brood over his disability. The story development seemed like a natural progression for me, the author. I made the characters, who then grew a story around themselves. And just to make sure there aren’t any quick fixes, Aligare magic is directly proportional to a person’s physical strength. They can’t use a godly amount of magic any more than they can lift a mountain, or donate ten times their weight in blood. Peregrine eventually agrees to use healing magic on his ears, but that’s one small part of his road to recovery.

When a disability is treated like the complex thing it is, it can merit a lot of exploration. But I can see why a writer might not want that one characterization aspect to take over a story, or why they might be intimidated to tackle the subject. Heck, sometimes a writer just wants a quick excuse to add magic or devices, or imply that the character participated in cool battles. Me, I want to explore things I haven’t seen very often in magical fantasy. Peregrine and Tillian’s story might be unusual for its genre, but I’m glad it came out the way it did.

4 Comments on “Peregrine’s deafness: how it came to be a fantasy novel”

  1. OkayChrista says:

    HEIDI. C. VLACH! I’m liking your blog so far. Insightful content in a place that’s simple to navigate.

    I always thought Peregrine’s deafness was a unique physical flaw that linked to his internal state of mind. I noticed in some novels, when a character is disabled somehow, either the cool silver hand comes, or they don’t notice their disability after a few pages. It’s a bit of an annoyance sometimes.

    • Well, hello! Glad you like the new surroundings.

      Yeah, it’s not very believable when a disability is a Big Deal and yet handwaved away. Stuff like that probably contributes to the myth that all SFF characters are made of cardboard.

  2. Your story sounds very interesting and it appears as though you’ve thought it out well, unusual for the genre or not, I’m sure you’ve done the story justice.

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