Everyone gets sick. Show me a person who never knew illness and I’ll show you someone with a tragically short lifespan. Being sick every now and then is what makes us mortal—well, that and that pesky death issue. The thing is, when it comes to us, sickness is a curse.
When it comes to our characters, it can be a blessing.
Sickness can show that your character is real and vulnerable and well thought-out. It’s an additional character dimension that many writers overlook. I’m not suggesting that every character you write has some ailment or another, but using this tool judiciously can liven up your characters—sometimes all the way to the grave.
Here’s a look at how different types of illness can affect your characters.
Sure, they happen naturally, but they can also signify a keen dislike of some object. If Kathy hates dogs, why not make her allergic to dog hair? If Bob has hay fever, it could signify he hates spring and everything that comes with it.
You can also play it backwards: have Jenny love cats but be allergic to cat hair. Will she choose to suffer and live with a pet, or will she surrender to the sneezes?
Allergies can have minor to major impact on your characters, depending on their intensity.
If you give your character an allergy to thing X, make sure that character encounters X somewhere in the story.
A hero without scars has likely not fought a real battle in his life. Scars can signify past struggles, whether physical or medical, and enrich your character’s background. Make sure the scar has some emotional impact on the character, otherwise it might as well be a spot of dirt.
Sometimes you need to make your character slow down and be vulnerable. What better way to do so than infect the character with something mild? This limited-time sickness can help you showcase the character in a certain frame of mind, connect with others to get help, or serve as a karma-driven punishment for bad behavior.
Disabilities & Chronic Illness
Losing an eye. Losing an arm. These dramatic disabilities are much rarer than an allergy, and their impact on the character is much more profound. They usually have an interesting backstory, and they usually affect every area in the character’s life. How does the character deal with his disability?
Chronic illness might also reshape a character’s life, though it usually lacks a riveting backstory. On the other hand, it might have fatal consequences if not treated regularly.
Use illness of these levels only once in a story, unless the story is about a community dedicated to that disability or sickness. Research every effect it has on a person’s life, and weave those details into your story. Have the disability or illness help shape the person that the character is. If it’s new, show the old life and the new life constantly clashing as part of the story’s conflict.
Disabilities can also serve as atonement for major crimes and help endear a previously disliked character. Think of Jaime’s lost hand in A Song of Ice and Fire, or Mr. Rochester’s ruined vision in the end of Jane Eyre.
Mad people as villains have been written to death, but ordinary people can suffer mental illness just the same. A mild case of Bipolar Disorder might make a character much more colorful, and the swinging between high and down might drive some of the conflict of the story.
PTSD (Post Trauma Stress Disorder) can be a powerful way to show someone ruled by past horrors.
Tourette syndrome can provide your character with a wealth of special tics and catchphrases, as well as portray a person’s struggle to be accepted in their community.
Watch out not to exaggerate with mental illness. Some people might find it hard to relate to a character with mental illness, and some people might even find the experience daunting. When you present your character as suffering from mental illness, find smooth, subtle ways to show the inside of their brains to the reader. Bring the reader along for the ride which is the character’s life.
Don’t underestimate the power of sickness in a person’s life. Research every illness and take into account all the ways it figures into your character’s life, both physically and mentally. Those little touches will help you create a vivid character that will endure in memory.
Happy writing and good health to you!