Writing a Character with an Illness

I’ve talked about my struggle with both physical and mental health issues.  I have seen more doctors in the past 5 years than most people ever see in their life.  I have been bedbound and crippled by debilitating pain.  I know what it’s like to be sick.  I know what the emotional aspect is like as well.  Because of that I’m very aware of the problems facing “sick” people.  I’m not claiming to understand every illness, but I have a general understanding of the issue.  I can spot glaring errors with a sick character pretty easy.  I’ve read quite a few fics where the character has an illness, and it doesn’t feel believable at all.

Sometimes the writer mentions that the character has a debilitating disease, and then doesn’t mention it anywhere else in the story.  If your character has a debilitating disease, it affects everything that they do in life.  As an example, a friend of mine visited this weekend.  We were going to go to the museum with her boys, but I was not doing well physically so I couldn’t go.  And I sat for much longer than I should have because we were having so much fun, so I started to get a bit less cheery because my pain was ramping up.  Then the following day I was in more pain because my joints were all flaring.  I didn’t mention any of this to my friend because I didn’t want her to feel guilty because she shouldn’t.  This is just something I have to deal with.

I’m not saying you need to go into full detail about a character’s illness.  But you can’t say that your character has a debilitating illness and never bring it up again.  I worked with cancer patients in my internship.  Those with advanced cancer have horrible pain.  They are on Fentanyl patches usually, which makes you really nauseated and sedated.  I’m not even going into chemotherapy because those all have different side effects.  Being on heavy duty opiates influences a lot of things.  If you are really nauseated you don’t feel like eating.  Often their nausea is so bad it’s refractory to most anti-nausea drugs.  And when that happens you just want to stay in bed all day because it’s like having the flu.  You can generally only keep 1-2 things down, so you’re starving, but can’t eat because you’ll just throw it up.  It’s very frustrating.  If you’re really sedated then you sleep a lot, and when you are awake you are pretty groggy.  And pain affects people whether they want it to or not.  When I’m in a lot of pain I don’t want to talk to anyone because I’m just miserable.  I blast music in my ears and cry because I can’t even focus long enough to watch TV.  I know for myself, some days are better than others, and you can’t always predict it.

The best advice I could give someone wanting to write a character with an illness is to research it.  I think visiting blogs and reading about people’s experiences is very helpful.  I’ve been reading blogs about PTSD to help me accurately portray a character that has it.  Because I can’t just say a character has PTSD and then write them as a normal person.  I have to get inside his head and see the world through his eyes, not my own.  I think I’ll talk a bit more in another post about the emotional impact of illness because that’s a fairly complicated issue.

6 thoughts on “Writing a Character with an Illness

    • I loved the post you wrote the other day about mental illness 🙂 I was just reading a short story where they gave a character stage 4 cancer, and then wrote the character as a normal person. I don’t think the writer was being lazy. I just think most people don’t really understand what it’s like to have a debilitating illness, and that it affects everything. So that’s what made me think of it. I think writers without any experience with illness can write realistic characters, but they have to do some research into the specific illness to understand how it affects an individual.

    • I think that’s awesome nerdyartaddict 🙂 The vast majority of the research probably won’t be used in the story, but it helps so much in creating that character and their perception of the world. I had a character that shot himself, and I researched gunshot wounds, treatment, hypovolemic shock, etc. I actually used only about 5% of what I had learned XD But I think it helped create a more realistic character and story.

  1. Thanks for this! I always feel paranoid when I write a character with an illness that someone who is actually going through that situation will read it and not think I’m ‘worthy’ or writing it. And in a way, I don’t feel worthy at all. I’m always wondering if I’m treating a topic with enough sensitivity / respect; I’d hate to be accused of acting otherwise.

    • Awwwww! I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to make it sound like only people with illnesses can write characters with illnesses :$ I think you are totally worthy of writing whatever you want 🙂 As writers we write lots of characters with jobs or issues that we don’t have. Many of us write of people with magical abilities even though we have none. Some women write amazing m/m erotica even though they are straight women. Peter S. Beagle wrote, The Last Unicorn, even though he was not a unicorn XD You don’t need to personally have or know of an attribute you give to a character. I think the key point I was trying to convey was to research it before you write. Some things need more research than others, obviously. Since unicorns don’t actually exist, you can kind of make a lot of it up, but it would help to know a few things about horses, I would think.

      Every illness be it physical or mental is very different. I have suffered from anorexia and depression, but I know very little about PTSD, which is why I’m researching it. I think the only benefit for me of having a mental/physical illness is that I understand some of the emotional turmoil that is common with illness. But it varies greatly depending on the disease, severity, and individual. That’s why I’m researching PTSD before I start writing a short story because anorexia is totally different from PTSD, and I’m not much more knowledgeable than the average person on the subject. And even if I research it, I still won’t know as much about PTSD as someone who has lived through it. So if someone with PTSD came along and gave me suggestions about how I could make it more accurate, I would be open to it.

      Someone flamed me really bad the other day on a fanfic story of mine and just went off about how horrible my writing was. They wrote out 2,000 words of hate. He felt he was entitled to a fanfic masterpiece XD Granted, he’s an arrogant jerk, but I wasn’t writing the story for him. If he found my crappy writing so offensive, he could have just stopped, but I guess that makes too much sense XD I started it 5 years ago when I knew nothing about writing, so yeah, the story has problems. But again, I was writing it for my own happiness, not his. I made a minor medical mistake that he probably wrote several sentences about how I was so wrong. It was about whether comatose patients are on ventilators or not. But there will always be people like him looking for any reason to shred your story. So write whatever makes you happy, and just do the best you can. I think it’s unreasonable for readers to expect perfection like that flamer I just referenced. I make mistakes all the time, and will continue to make medical mistakes. But I do make an effort to try to understand an illness that I don’t have experience with. I think the fact that you gave it this much thought shows you’re probably doing a good job at portraying characters with illness in a realistic fashion 🙂

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