Lieutenant Lord Miles Vorkosigan is the protagonist of Lois McMaster Bujold's Vorkosigan Saga, a science fiction series that starts with The Warrior's Apprentice and goes through Cryoburn, which just came out in 2010. There are also two prequels, Shards of Honour and Barrayar, that are about Miles' parents that you might want to check out if you're a completionist like me. Miles is the son of a renowned general on a militaristic planet that admires physical prowess and abhors genetic imperfection. So when I say Miles is disabled, you can immediately see some of the struggles he will face. Before he was born, he was exposed to toxic gas which caused brittle bones and stunted growth. As an adult he stands at a mere 4' 9” tall. Miles has to deal with prejudice just for his physical appearance alone, constantly explaining that his differences are due to teratogenic changes, not genetic abnormalities.
But what's even more dangerous than the prejudice he faces is the weakness in his bones. A simple fall will break his arm, yes, but also too much pressure on his chest will break his ribs. Bones are there to give a body structural integrity, and if his break too easily, then Miles can't trust his own body. I have very weak quads, the muscles that keep your knees straight when you walk. So like Miles, every time I stand up in the morning or take a step I have to wonder if my legs are really going to hold me this time. They almost always do, but I've been dumped on my butt enough to have developed that moment of hesitation. Toward the beginning of the series, Miles wears leg braces to help make up for his disability. Another medical torture device I can relate to. Are they very helpful? Yes, of course. Are they also the most annoying and uncomfortable things on the planet - or in Miles' case, planets? You bet your sweet KFOs they are (that stands for knee-to-foot orthotics). So it's no surprise Miles eventually trades out his leg braces for synthetic leg bones that won't break as easily.
What makes Miles such an awesome character and so much fun to read about is his personality, his indomitable nature. He suffers from an excess of both genius and energy and there is no off switch. In The Warrior's Apprentice he couldn't get into the military academy so he started his own mercenary company. Yes, it was sort of by accident, but that's the charm of Miles' character. He plows forward at full speed, only dealing with consequences when they come back to bite him in the butt. He's always telling himself the key is forward momentum.
One of my favorite moments in the series comes in the epilogue of Barrayar. Miles is five and has escaped from his parents to try horseback riding. When they finally find him, he's fallen and is holding his arm. His bodyguard asks him if it's broken. Miles doesn't cry. He just replies “Yeah” and waits while the bone is set and put in an emergency cast. Then he's back up and convincing his grandfather to teach him how to ride properly.
Miles never falls into self-pity - he probably doesn't have time for it, and most of the time the reader doesn't even notice his limitations. And yet, Miles is clearly shaped by his disability. He knows what he looks like, he knows what his weaknesses are and so he pushes himself to be bigger, better, faster. He exudes confidence, radiates loyalty, and in the end those around him are so staggered by the strength of his personality that they can't help but hitch their stars to him and ride to glory in his wake.
That's not to say that Miles is perfect. He fails almost as often as he succeeds, but he does both spectacularly. Instead of playing it safe, he tried to prove himself on the academy obstacle course and ended up breaking both legs, thereby barring his way to the military academy. And while he may not have time for self-pity, he feels guilt just fine. If he's not manic, he's depressive. There is no middle ground.
Somehow it all works for Miles. There is a balance between those times when I want to cuddle him and when I want to smack him over the head. He is one of my favorite characters ever written. I'd read the whole series just for Miles. But he's not alone. He's supported by hundreds of characters just as wonderfully portrayed as he is. I dare not get started on Miles' clone-brother Mark or we'll be here forever. Or his cousin Ivan. Or his mother Cordelia. Okay, I'm stopping now.
All that to say, when I'm teaching myself how to write gripping fiction, I reach for Lois McMaster Bujold. She brings to life characters who take hold of you, who change you. If Miles passed me on a street in Denver, I'd recognize him. Not just because his stature is pretty recognizable, but because I know him. He's a very dear friend who has shaped the way I see myself.