What Do You Think About Physical Disease in a Story?

First to explain the video.  Excel Saga is a spoof anime and Hyatt (the repeatedly dying girl) is a spoof on the cliche ‘weak constitution’ or ‘anemic’ character.  These are typically girls in anime.  She keels over and hacks up blood throughout the entire series.  The subtitles don’t really matter and this was the shortest video I could find with her dying repeatedly.

My bout with the devilish Influenza (type not yet determined) has led me to wonder about something.  The use of disease in stories is strange to me.  Typically, you will see disease used in the following way:

  1. Area is quarantined due to an epidemic and the plot is to find a cure.
  2. Loved one has a mysterious disease and the plot is to find a cure.
  3. Hero has been subjected to a mysterious disease.  Must either find cure or complete a task to earn the cure . . . Yes, I’m watching Escape from New York.
  4. Character gets a mysterious disease over the course of an adventure and gains victory while suffering.  (I will admit to having a story about this one.)

One thing you rarely see is people getting common diseases unless it’s a sitcom or historical piece where the disease would be more dangerous than today.  I can’t think of a tale where the hero contracts the common cold at some point.  Not a crippling event, but something that could be interesting if done for a bit.  In fact, a disease is almost exclusively plot central.  The one story I can think of where a disease was part of a subplot is ‘Tombstone’ and Doc Holiday’s battle with TB.  I think that’s what it was since it’s been a while since I watched it.

Maybe the use of disease as a small plot point or a minor issue is simply too unimportant to bother with.  I’m curious what other people think of the use of disease in literature and if there is a good or bad way to do it.

About Charles Yallowitz

Charles E. Yallowitz was born, raised, and educated in New York. Then he spent a few years in Florida, realized his fear of alligators, and moved back to the Empire State. When he isn't working hard on his epic fantasy stories, Charles can be found cooking or going on whatever adventure his son has planned for the day. 'Legends of Windemere' is his first series, but it certainly won't be his last.
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38 Responses to What Do You Think About Physical Disease in a Story?

  1. MartyW47 says:

    It’s like any other element in a story, if it adds something to the depth of the character or over all story then it’s fine it can be a device to set up or put a twist into a story.

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    • I guess that’s where I get curious. I’ve read books where quirky events happen and have no major effect on story or character. It’s still interesting and gives some insight or a temporary wrinkle. Yet, it’s usually something unique. Really this is boiling down to an odd question:

      “Why does nobody get the flu or a cold in the middle of a long adventure?” Yes, I kind of want to see a hero get hit with the sniffles halfway through his adventure. 🙂

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  2. Kate Sparkes says:

    It was TB. Love that movie. 🙂

    I think common colds are just one of those things that get glossed over, unless it’s an obstacle/plot point (I can think of one romance novel where the protagonist got a cold, and her “he’s such a jerk I hate him” counterpart got a chance to show his softer side by caring for her). Kind of like going to the bathroom, which most books don’t address. And come to think of it, women in novels never seem to have to deal with monthly inconveniences. I got around that one by making it an annual thing in my world, but usually it’s just not mentioned at all. I assume people do get sick (and poop, etc.), but it’s not worth taking up page space to address it unless something significant develops from it.

    I don’t know that there’s a good or a bad way to do it (though I’ll admit that I’m glad the “teenager with terminal illness” sub-genre seems to have died down). If it serves the story, it should be in there. If not, it’s probably not worth running up the word count.

    I’d love to see a hero fighting off a cold or food poisoning on top of everything else they’re dealing with.
    (on the phone) “Mister President! We only have fifteen hours before the *vomiting noises* Sorry, before the BLAAAARGH OH DEAR LORD WHAT IS THAT? I mean, *sniffle* before the aliens… hang on…”
    Um… OK, maybe not. 🙂

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    • I’ll admit as a male author, I don’t want to attempt writing about the monthly inconvenience. I feel I’d screw up or make several women angry enough to come at me with pitchforks. At least that’s what a writing friend in college believed would happen.

      I would love to see a hero catch the flu or something that isn’t an exotic disease about midway through. All these adventures in exotic places and not one hero contracts something. I really get annoyed when they’re in the cold for a while and they never get sick. I’m actually thinking of giving one of my heroes the sniffles in a book. I have one slated for a magical disease, but that’s plot important. This other one will be more for humor and amusement.

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  3. tjtherien says:

    there is a lot of research when it comes to medical conditions so I tend to steer clear of diseases and conditions unless it is absolutely necessary for the story to progress…that way I can concentrate my researching on things imperative to the telling of the story…

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    • That makes sense. As I’ve mentioned in a few comments, I do find it odd when characters are in situations that promote getting sick, but they come away clean. I’m thinking a lot of a hero out in the blizzard, trudging to safety for hours, and they don’t even get frostbite.

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      • tjtherien says:

        I like my writing to contain an element of realism even in my most fantastical forays into fiction…so if I had a character out in a blizzard that long I’m thinking maybe a few lost toes and maybe an ear along with a greying of the dead flesh…

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      • I keep going for cold weather. I’m forgetting heat stroke and sunburns. James Bond never seems to use protection.

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  4. sknicholls says:

    I have often read about morning sickness in novels and I had to write about that in mine. It was difficult in a way because I have never had morning sickness. I think minor illness that everyone can relate to lends more realism to a story. Sometimes sickness is the most plausible outcome with what we put our characters through in any setting.

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    • Morning sickness does seem to be the most commonly used one. Authors tend to use it as the ‘big sign’ that a character is pregnant. Female character throws up before 8 AM? She’s always pregnant or had bad shellfish the night before. Sometimes both.

      Minor illnesses that relate to events could really up the realism. Colds during the season. Athlete’s foot is another one that just came to mind.

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      • sknicholls says:

        Imagine what you could contract trudging through a damp cave or a mosquito infested swamp, (or even a bad sunburn)…what a breading ground. I think I see more of the physical contractions of illness on TV than I do in books.

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      • TV loves to use diseases because of the physical symptoms. Maybe that’s it. Disease is a very visceral, visual event and it could be hard to keep it going with only words.

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      • sknicholls says:

        I do laugh though, every time I read a crime novel and someone gets shot and the pain lasts for about two sentences…the next day,,,the bandage is off and they are tackling a 6″2′ biker.

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      • I do have trouble with injuries in my book. People think I shrug them off too quickly, but it is tough to have a hero not take a hit in a fight. I try to think in terms of adrenaline and slow them down. Seems some people want those with injuries to lay down and cry for a while even if death is looming.

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      • sknicholls says:

        Oh definitely when in a life and death situation the need for survival will force one to press on. I guess what gets me is a bad bullet wound (like a gut shot or deep thigh wound), bad enough to warrant treatment in a hospital, and two days later the character is riding a motorcycle and lassoing bad guys like a rodeo cowboy. My nursing judgement makes me question such things.

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      • Yeah. I’m kind of glad I don’t work with bullets in my books. Though sword slashes have their own challenges.

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  5. Actually using the common cold as part of a story might be something interesting to do where possibly the hero, seemingly impervious to virtually anything, is brought down to his or her knees by the common cold. It may even be that it is fatal to them if a cure isn’t found. Anyway, I don’t see why disease wouldn’t be okay to use in a story, they sure can be as deadly as a bullet or a sword in real life so why not in fiction.

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  6. Papi Z says:

    Explosive diarrhea in your next book Charles. It could be an added weapon for Luke to use… albeit a gross one. Food poisoning is a common thing, I would think especially while on an adventure. I have had several bouts of food poisoning myself, and I would not wish that on anyone. But a character in a book could have it during the big fight scene. 😉

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  7. Might be a way to work some weakness into a character. The Doc holiday character was an alcoholic and TB sufferer. He sure got a lot of sympathy from the bar ladies.

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  8. Just imagine having to suffer the flu for a few days while on a quest… Doesn’t seem like it would appeal to readers, does it? We don’t like the flu, for one. It seems to sidetrack the story. And isn’t the hero above the flu? Never thought about this before. Great post. 🙂

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    • There’s also the cheat of healing magic.

      Honestly, I think it would be an interesting wrinkle for a hero to get weakened by a disease. Trudging on with body aches, fever, and chills because time is of the essence. It might come off as contrived, so it might require a special touch.

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  9. C.K. Hope says:

    I’ve always thought bookland would be a lovely place to live, no one gets sick, has to use the bathroom, wash their hands, brush their teeth, put things away (ie: she took her clothes off and climbed into bed – I get it’s implied the clothes are put somewhere and maybe it’s my Mom tendencies but, who cleans up after these people?)

    I’ve seen a few character in books get sick but it’s plot related, I think it would be interesting to give characters colds, flus, even strep throat for no reason other then it would be the realistic result for say, floundering around in the freezing rain for three pages.

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    • To answer your question, invisible clothing gnomes that jump from book to book. All authors get access to them, except erotica writers. They don’t use them because the clothes need to be strewn about for effect.

      Definitely need to punish characters for casually running around in the rain without a care. I’ve done that and I always got sick.

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  10. Sahm King says:

    I might be remembering this wrong, but I thought Rand al’Thor had come down with some common disease…or maybe it was Richard Rahl? I don’t think it was anything central to the plot, though.

    Only other thing I know of definitively is that I use something in the novel(s) I’m working on. I wouldn’t really call it a disease, but it’s common enough. Migraines. I have a class of character wherein migraines are a…kind of a taint of their power to foretell the future. But…well…it’s central to my plot, with one of the main characters.

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    • Migraines are definitely a debilitating thing. In fact, I do believe I’ve seen movies/TV/books try to use them. Not very well though. The ‘I have a bad migraine headache’ statement, but they’re still able to fend off 100 ninjas and pole vault over a shark tank.

      Trying to remember who Rand al’Thor and Richard Rahl are.

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      • Sahm King says:

        I think I might be able to pull it off…having plenty experience and all. 😀 I knew migraines would come in handy one day. Silver-lining!

        Rand al’Thor is the main protagonist of the Wheel of Time Series and Richard Rahl is the main protagonist of the Sword of Truth series. I’m thinking it might’ve been Richard Rahl…

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      • Haven’t read Sword of Truth stuff since high school, so I barely remember it. I tried Wheel of Time, but faded out of it around the 2nd book. I saw a friend re-reading the others whenever a new book came out and it felt like I was looking at a crackhead. My might still be reading nothing but Wheel of Time books even today.

        Gotta love silver linings.

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