Have you ever wondered what it would be like to live with a chronic illness? Have you ever struggled with how to write a character who struggles with one?
Sara Willoughby, a friend, and fellow Y-dubber has graciously taken time out of her busy post book launch schedule to write this amazing reference article on ways we can write believable characters who struggle with chronic illness. Sara has struggled with chronic illness for years and tells all about it in her new book, He's Making Diamonds, so she writes from experience.
A few weeks ago a friend asked how I was and it made me pause. How was I? How could I sum it all up real fast?
“I feel like a book character,” I told her. She sent me a hugging emoji. I didn’t even have to explain what I meant by that.
You see, at the time so many things were going wrong that it seemed like I was stuck in a YA adventure novel. (Yes, authors, I’m looking at you. You have a strange obsession with hurting your characters.)
Of course, as one of my best friends will tell me, it’s because life hurts, and we live in a broken world, and so any realistic or relatable book would have such things. She’s right, of course. But that doesn’t mean I’m not an angry fangirl at times.
One of the things so prevalent in our broken world (and that should be more prevalent in our fictional worlds) is sickness. I should know, I’ve spent the last three years chronically ill, to the point where I almost died. (Thankfully I’m on the mend now.)
Today I want to share four tips for writing characters who suffer from long-term illnesses. Each illness will be different, but there are some common things to keep in mind for a character with any type of illness . . . even a made-up one.
1. Don’t Forget They’re Sick
Perhaps this seems obvious, but if you are going to have a sick character, you can’t randomly forget they are sick and have them fight a battle one day with no consequences.
Yes, this will make for some inconvenient writing, but if you want it to be realistic, you have to remember that they are sick all the time. Not just when it’s helpful for an emotional scene or character arc. Every single action will require them to consider their illness and the effects it will have on them, from washing a dog to learning to sword fight.
Those of us who are ill don’t get a vacation from our illness, and if we neglect making room for it and “push through” (which we do sometimes) there are consequences to pay whether we like it or not.
That doesn’t mean you have to write the character spending every single day in bed. Each illness is different, and often illnesses a like a rollercoaster: one day those who are sick can seem almost normal, and the next they can be bedridden. It can change in an instant, or slowly over months.
Just don’t forget your characters are sick.
2. Remember that the Characters Aren’t Their Illness
Your character is a person.
Not just the sick girl or guy, but a human being (or alien or elf or what-have-you) that has emotions, a past, a future, and a life that are not their illness.
Yes, illness will affect all of those things on a deep level and the lines can get blurry. Your character may even not know this, but they are not their illness.
Just because you give a character a hard thing in life that makes them a “deeper” character, doesn’t mean they are well-rounded or developed. A character is so much more than just one aspect. It’s also important to remember that they aren’t just physical beings, but they are also mental, emotional, and spiritual.
3. Consider how Their Illness Affects Those Around Them
Again, this may be obvious, but illness doesn’t just affect one character, even if that character is the only one sick.
It will affect—directly or indirectly—almost everyone they come in contact with (and some they don’t).
Likely, they will need someone to take care of them when they can’t—a primary caregiver, even if the character is an adult.
It will deeply affect those who love them because it is hard to watch someone you care about suffer, especially when there is nothing you can do to help.
It will affect everyone.
And this can be a good thing: they have a bigger influence on those around them, and you as the author can do what you will with that.
But it can also be hard for both the sick character and the other characters both practically and emotionally. The sick character might feel guilty, or they might close themselves off, or perhaps they struggle to submit to help. Make no mistake: to some degree, it will affect those around them, and especially their relationships.
The question is how it will affect them.
4. Impart a Little Hope
As with any difficult or darker topic, it’s important that we writers handle it with discernment, care, and wisdom.
As you address the painful topic of illness, make sure you are doing it with sensitivity to your target audience, and with hope.
You don’t have to sugar coat things or make things seem inspiring or happy when they aren’t. That would be not handling the topic well. But offer a little hope. Even if it’s just a small ray of light in the midst of a dark battle.
Your character can make mistakes and fail and give up and never get healthy. In fact, I’d suggest you include some of those parts, it makes it more realistic and relatable.
Just add a little hope.
Writing a character with a long-term illness may be difficult. But we need more of them in fiction. Besides, we create worlds, how hard can one aspect of one character be?
Check out Sara's book on Amazon if you're interested in hearing even more about what it's like to live with a chronic illness.
Until next time!