Rule #42 of storytelling: In the event of a sick character surrounded by healthy characters, the sick person must die.
Okay, so maybe that's not a rule that's written down anywhere official, but it might as well be. Sick characters in books die. That's just how it is. It's heartrending and sad, but somehow we writers can turn it into something beautiful and poetic.
But what about the people who are sick and just continue to suffer throughout the entire book? That’s not very popular. Why? Because it’s ugly. It’s sad and unfair and difficult to romanticize. Illness is hard to write about and many authors don’t even know where to begin. So they simply never do.
And that needs to change. Why? Because it’s real. Many people suffer from chronic illness, and you know what? People with chronic illness are pretty darn awesome. They’re brilliant characters just waiting to happen. All you need is a jumping-off point. Here are 7 pointers to keep in mind when writing chronically ill characters:
2. Try not to kill off your character. Not only is this a cliche, but it's an extremely unhelpful one. Look at it this way: Imagine you have a chronic illness. You fight it every day. And every time you open a book with a character who has similar struggles, that character dies. How do you feel? Yeah. Not very good. Besides, one of the things that makes chronic illness so difficult is that there's no real end in sight. The mental and emotional ramifications of this are huge and can add a lot of tension to your story. Now, if you have a distinct reason for killing of your sick character, then fine. Just don't do it because it's a convenient way to evoke emotion.
3. Remember that chronic illness does not have to be the point of your story. I think this is one of the reasons why books don't utilize chronic illnesses more often. Writers seem to think that the character's illness needs to be the central part of the story. Not true. Think of the amazing possibilities for characters with chronic illness in stories that aren't about said chronic illness: The body guard who serves a king while using a magic potion to keep his epilepsy at bay. An assassin who fights chronic pain. The young lady in the Victorian era who is pursuing an education while dealing with what is later discovered to be lupus. I don't know about you, but I'd love to read those stories. While it's great to write books about people with chronic illness, it would also be amazing to see more stories out there where a character's sickness is not their defining characteristic.
4. Find the middle ground between angelic and spoiled. We've all seen it: The sweet, frail girl who is a complete angel and suffers quietly. Likewise, we're pretty familiar with the sick old coot who's bitter about his lot in life and makes everyone suffer alongside of him. I know this will come as a huge shock, but people with chronic diseases aren't like this. Find a middle ground. Make your character a human being, not an angel or a spawn of the devil.
5. Do your homework. And not just on the symptoms. Look up treatments, the social and financial ramifications, the emotional strain, and the end game (Do they die young? Get worse as time goes by?). Read articles, read books, follow bloggers who write about their life as spoonies, read interviews. Or, better yet, find somebody with your chosen illness and see if they are open to answering your questions or giving you pointers. Just be respectful and understand that they may be too tired to feel like dealing with us overzealous writers.
6. Find what keeps them going. What kind of strength does your character have? There are a lot of different kinds out there, as touched on in this post. Find out which one fuels them. And then find out why it matters: Why do they keep fighting this illness? What do they use to aid them? I know a lot of spoonies have different techniques to help get them through a rough patch: breathing techniques, recalling quotes or bible verses, clutching a good-luck piece, saying their ABC's backwards (which is impressive, by the way. I can't even say mine forward without singing the ditty that goes with it). Find your character's reason for living and find their way of living. You know the saying: Where there's a will, there's a way. Find the will, find the way.
7. No pity points. Just because your character has a difficult life doesn't mean that he gets to behave badly. I'm just going to say it: Nobody wants to read about a whiny, "woe is me" character. Oh boo hoo, he has chronic pain. What? I don't care if it's mean. Depression and emotional struggle is fine, but we don't need any more characters who are a pity party incarnate, and we most definitely should not dismiss such behavior simply because the character is sick. It's not a good message to send.
Now, I may be slightly biased, but I think people with chronic illnesses would make epic characters. They face obstacles every day and just keep going. If that's not great character material, then I don't know what is.
Do you think you'll ever write a character with a chronic illness? Do you have any tips? I'd love to hear them! What is your favorite book/series that features a character with a chronic disease? Let me know if the comment section!
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