“Wow, You Too?”

I’m on a book discussion listserv for the Young Adult Library Services Association. Recently, we had a thread going about how common heterochromia is in works of fiction – and man, it’s all over the place. This got me thinking about unusual conditions and how they’re often more common in fiction than in real life. (Considering that a major character in The Dogwatchers has albinism, my own work is no exception.)

Since most fictional worlds are independent of one another, one tends to assume that, unless otherwise stated, each world has roughly the same incidence of such conditions as the real world. Still, it’s kind of funny to think, say, how many more characters with albinism I’ve read about than I’ve met. Or probably even seen. There’s an even bigger gap for heterochromia – I’ve only ever met one person that I can think of who had it (and it wasn’t obvious, e.g. one blue eye and one brown, but more of a one green/one hazel thing).

In some stories, these things are the result of magic or other supernatural forces. This can change their significance in the story – a person’s natural heterochromia might be used as a symbol for some kind of internal conflict, whereas maaagical heterochromia might have more practical implications (“The blue eye sees your thoughts!”), or be otherwise telling (“She’s been like that ever since the spell backfired. We don’t know what else might have changed”).

The way I see it, there are four big reasons why certain rare conditions appear commonly in characters in fiction. And – here it comes – KA-LIST!

  1. Because it’s symbolic. This came up in the YALSA listserv’s discussion of heterochromia, which could probably win an award among rare physical characteristics for Most Potential for Symbolism.
  2. Because it’s the point. It may not be the point of the whole character, or of the whole story, but the author genuinely wants to explore some aspect of the lives of people with this condition, or the condition is otherwise responsible for the character’s being in the story.
  3. Because it happens. Some argue that, in the same way that you should never have to justify a character being a certain gender, orientation, race, etc., you shouldn’t have to have a reason that the character has a more unusual descriptor. Others argue that this is an excuse to use rare characteristics as gimmicks. I think that, like many things in writing, it’s all in how it’s handled. (Vague enough for you?)
  4. Because it’s cool. This may be a secondary motive for an author who would more readily cite one of the other reasons.

(This is assuming that the state in question is still rare in the world of the book. If it’s, say, a futuristic novel in which people readily alter their eye colors or the whole world has for some reason become albinistic, all bets are off.)

I know there are conditions besides albinism and heterochromia that pop up way more frequently in fiction than real life, but I’m blanking on them. Anyone?

4 thoughts on ““Wow, You Too?”

  • The MC of Firesight (which is still my WIP, darnit, even if I haven’t looked at it in a year) is blind, though he has a magical second sight thing going on that partially compensates. I try hard to keep it “partially,” with some additional benefits that normal sight doesn’t have but some undeniable drawbacks, to keep it from becoming a gimmick. But the bottom line is that I thought it would be an interesting wrinkle to throw into what might otherwise be a fairly typical epic fantasy hero. I just have to make sure I do it right.

    Thomas Covenant’s leprosy comes to mind, as far as conditions. I’ve never met anyone with leprosy. Funny, though–I’ve met two dogs (different breeds) with one brown eye and one blue.

    The way I see it, having one of these conditions in a fictional world is a lot like having a prediliction to save the world, or living in a world that’s regularly threatened by dark lords. The story wouldn’t be written if it weren’t interesting for some reason or other.

  • Comas and amnesia. (Even more on TV and in movies.)

    But I think magic7words has a point. Our stories are about the memorable, the unusual, the significant. And so the incidence of dramatic events in stories is also greater than in life, as will be the incidence of unusual physical conditions and characteristics.

    I once realized that although I’ve seen guns pointed at people hundreds, perhaps thousands, of times on TV, I have only seen that once in real life. (I was an accidental bystander at an arrest made by US marshals. I still don’t know who they were arresting.)

    • True. The way my dad put it (when explaining his view on unlikely coincidences in fiction) is, “I imagine there are infinite different [fictional] worlds where things happen a little differently, and the one you write a story about is the one where things work out the way that makes the best story.”

  • Hey, so I just picked up a children’s/YA fantasy novel called Akata Witch, with jacket recommendations for the author from Diana Wynne Jones and Ursula Le Guin, about a Nigerian girl with albinism. I’ll let you know how it is, but I think it’s going to be good! So far the author has been pretty awesome about pointing out and dismissing stereotypes about people with albinism.

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