A few months after I was diagnosed with fibromyalgia, I was struck with a sudden thought one night as I lay in bed: there would never be a superhero like me.
The more I thought about it, the more I became convinced of it. Superheroes and I have exactly nothing in common. Superheroes live normal lives on top of their super ones, and I can barely handle a full load of classes. Superheroes are strong, resilient to pain, active; they are more than the average human whereas I thought, at the time, that my fibromyalgia and the limits it put on my life made me less.
How could there possibly be a superhero like me? How could there be a superhero who sleeps twelve hours a day, who can sometimes barely move because of pain, who can barely handle climbing one set of stairs let alone leaping tall buildings in a single bound?
I realized that this didn’t constrict itself to the superhero genre. I didn’t fit into any genre besides realistic contemporary fiction, because in any other genre, I thought, there was no way for me to live up to the expectations of a protagonist. I wouldn’t survive in a zombie-ridden apocalypse, and if I were in a historical fiction I’d at best be the sickly, bedridden sibling character. I especially couldn’t imagine fitting into any fantasy or science fiction story.
It took me a long time to realize that I was trapped in a web of internalized ableism based on what our culture tells us a hero is. A hero is strong. A hero is energetic. A hero is able-bodied and always busy and never, ever lazy.
There are very few chronically ill fantasy and science fiction heroes because it seems impossible for “chronically ill” and “hero” to describe the same person. There are, obviously, other reasons too, such as the misconception that chronic illnesses and disabilities will all be “cured” in a fantasy or science fiction environment (here’s looking at you, J.K. Rowling), but these all lead back to the fact that we can’t imagine our heroes being chronically ill. The closest one I can think of is the antihero Deadpool, but that’s one example in a large sea of science fiction and fantasy stories.
Why does a hero need to be what we are told a hero needs to be? Recently in my literature classes and online I’ve been seeing a lot more criticism of what constitutes literature and what constitutes a story. Just a few days ago I came across a post about how the concept that a plot needs conflict is a western idea, not a global one. In the same way, our idea of a “hero” is rooted in cultural norms, and like any norm, it does not need to always be followed. We can create stories without conflict if we want, and similarly, we can create chronically ill heroes.
Creating a chronically ill hero in a fantasy or science fiction environment seems hard, but it just requires extra creativity. It requires redefining what we believe a hero to be. For a while I kept telling myself that I wasn’t creative enough to even imagine it—I could imagine any other kind of hero, but not one in chronic pain like myself—and it’s still a thought I constantly fight against.
If it’s that hard for a chronically ill person like myself to imagine this kind of hero, I’m not surprised that the thought never even occurs to able-bodied writers. I’m not surprised I’m constantly finding people like me missing from science fiction and fantasy.
I keep hoping that will change, though. I keep hoping that someday, someone will come along and redefine what a hero is. Maybe I’ll do it someday, when I figure out how. All it takes is some creativity, and isn’t that what writing’s all about anyway?
Science fiction and fantasy tell us that anything can happen, and yet disabled people are often told that their narratives don’t fit into the genres. If anything can happen, why can’t we be heroes too?