I’m nearsighted, nearsighted enough that in order to function normally in the modern world I have to wear contacts or glasses. Yet I rarely think about how handicapped and limited I would be if I did not have those visual aides. Since I almost always wear contacts, I just pop them in when I get up in the morning, and I really don’t think about them for the rest of the day. In many cases, people that I work with extensively and closely don’t even know that I’m nearsighted. Yet, imagine if I did not have easy, relatively cheap access to such technology. I wouldn’t be able to read street signs or the menus at restaurant counters without getting right on top of them, or having someone else to read them to me. I would have trouble identifying people without getting close to them, or even interpreting their expressions. When sitting in presentations or conferences, I would struggle to see the slides or other visuals involved.
Authors are supposed to look for unique challenges and traits to give their characters to make them more interesting and memorable to readers, and contact lens and glasses are relatively recent technological developments that would be out of place in many fantasy settings, yet I can only think of one instance in fantasy I’ve read where a character struggled with nearsightedness, and that was a minor side character who’s archery abilities had deteriorated because he could no longer see his targets well. Is it because it is so easy in our modern world to solve nearsightedness with technology, that we don’t really even think about it as a problem anymore?
Now, I’m not suggesting that someone should go out and write about a character who’s main problem is navigating the world while being nearsighted. I don’t think it should be a defining trait. But it would be interesting to explore as another character quirk, something to differentiate a character just a bit more from the others in the story. Part of the reason that this is not done might be that in a setting where there probably aren’t things like street signs and multimedia presentations, untreated nearsightedness would be much less of a handicap. I’ve been known to forgo my contacts/glasses while camping or hiking on occasion, and after a day or so I tend to grow accustomed to it. Yet putting them back in, I am always aware of how much I may have missed out on being able to see because I didn’t wear them.
From this, one wonders what other common facts about everyday life we tend to ignore because of how seamlessly our technology helps us overcome those difficulties. Since most fantasy stories take place in pre-industrial settings that would not have most of these kinds of aides, it is worth considering working these kinds of facts of the human condition into stories. Not as some kind of a statement, but simply to help make characters more unique and interesting, and to make the world feel a little more real.