Illness and Characters

When we think of illness, for most people, the concept of a child fighting leukemia, or an elderly loved one in a hospital bed comes to mind. We don't think of the other, shall we say, mundane illnesses which affect people day in and day out.

These thoughts, and how to portray them in books, have come to mind recently for a variety of reasons. Partly because on writing boards I follow on Pinterest there have been links concerning them. One of them, Mental Illness in Fiction: Getting it Right is on Dan Koboldt's page, and I found it enlightening considering mental illness isn't common in my family.

On the other hand, physical illness does run in my family. I have family with Fibromyalgia; I have family with chronic migraines. There are the normal heart and cancer issues, but in those cases (for the most part) prevention is key. Knowing someone has a family history of cancer or heart issues simply means the individual takes care of themselves and remain alert to warning signs.

Other illnesses such as fibromyalgia and chronic migraines are illnesses which someone has in the day-to-day world. We aren't sick, persay, but we have a condition. For example, I was diagnosed with hypothyroidism about seven years ago (it too runs in my family). This past week, that condition, which means my thyroid is underactive, was further diagnosed as Hashimoto's Thyroiditis. Whereas I only thought my thyroid was underactive, I now know my body doesn't like my thyroid. In other words, my body recognizes my thyroid as an alien entity and therefore wishes to destroy it. I suppose one could call it friendly fire.

Yet, I don't physically look sick. My cousins with fibromyalgia and chronic migraines don't look sick. If you didn't know they lived with those illnesses, you could walk past without second thought. It's in the daily activities with co-workers, friends and family that the repercussions are more apparent.

Fiction provides us a way to explore illness, whether mental or physical, in order to understand and enlighten. It's one of the aspects about fiction I truly love because it provides a way for me to understand what another lives with without asking deep questions to someone I meet on the street, and yes, I have been known, upon learning some little fact about a person to ask crazy questions. I don't mind if people ask me, so therefore I don't remember others dislike it. It's the back-firing of do unto others, aspect, I think.

Characters with Illness

How would I go about writing a character with Hoshimoto's Thyroiditis? First, I would recognize my own relationship with the disease, and realize not all have the same problems. For me, weightloss, menstrual cycles and exhaustion are the three primary repercussions I deal with. For others it might be pain, mood swings or depression.

The character with Hoshimoto's, most likely, would already have the diagnosis. If I was writing a story about awareness of the disease, I might have the character be recently diagnosed or become diagnosed with it in the story, but I tend to work later down the road. For me, it's a personal decision because what intrigues me more isn't the initial diagnosis, but how someone lives with their illness.

I think we can do a great disservice to people if all we focus on is the initial diagnosis, it's a similar view I have with romance novels. The initial falling in love is grand, but I want to see how the couple manages to still love each other after five, ten, thirty years together.

Researching Illness

What are ways you can write an illness you don't understand personally? Thankfully, for me, I do have a cousin with fibromyalgia who isn't afraid to discuss it. You might have a character with a disease and know no one who has it. One quick way to get an overview is to visit websites like WebMD which provide overviews. Doing the initial groundwork in research gives the necessary terms and parameters you need.

Secondly, type in Living with (insert disease here) into a search engine. Most of the results will come from blogs of people who have whatever disease you're looking for. Sometimes, the results will be few, sometimes many. The personal accounts can reveal the everyday toll people face. To give an example from my own life, I'm normally tired, not bone-aching tired of a long hard day, but just tired. Around two in the afternoon, I can (and sometimes need to) take a nap. It's more uncommon for me to not feel tired in the mid-afternoon. Since I sleep around seven to eight hours each night, my tiredness is the result of my Hoshimoto's disease. Try explaining that to someone who has never had to experience tiredness, and I can come across as lazy.

Ideally, you'll be able to find someone to talk with who has the disease. The individual will be able to explain different aspects of the disease and how it affects them. They might also be able to navigate some of the struggles people face from unintentional issues (such as people assuming I'm lazy when I'm just tired).

In some cases, there are support groups for certain diseases, and these are also a great place to find information, other everyday needs and the like.

The Character With ....

Whatever the case, don't make the character two-dimensional as though everything revolves around the disease, it doesn't. For me, I know when I need to stop doing something and take a nap, or back off an activity. I know what food I can't eat, and what I should eat. I've learned to pace myself throughout my day to remain productive. I define myself first and foremost as a writer and weaver, not a woman with Hoshimoto's. The diagnosis is more of an explanation (and truth be told, a wonderful excuse, much like my lactose intolerance).

In some cases, the character's illness could be an excellent tool to provide the needed shift in a story. The character has a gluten allergy and instead of going to the bakery, stops by another store for something to eat where she finds the missing clue.

Characters with disabilities, chronic illnesses and other items add layers to a story. They don't have to be debilitating, and while they most likely will run the gambit of emotional responses, most people, upon diagnosis, learn how to live with whatever it is they have.


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