Allergies, Asthma, & Ailments in Fantasy

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While filling out all the school forms for my son, I began wondering about allergies and asthma.  You don’t really see these in fantasy settings.  I’ve yet to read about an orc that is terrified of bees because of an allergy.  Any character that is gasping for air is usually doing so because they are out of shape or been running for a very long time.  It never seems to be asthma.  Many people live with these problems, which makes it weird that they never show up in fantasy worlds.

Maybe I’m overthinking this and these are quirks that don’t really come into play or simply can’t exist.  I mean, you have magic that could cure it and when was the last time an elf chowed down on PB&J.  There may be a character who sneezes, says they have hay fever, and that’s all you hear about it.  I guess the allergies make it too easy for a villain to take out a hero or vice versa.  Imagine Smaug being taken out by Bilbo Baggins flinging a handful of almonds into his mouth.  On second thought, I would love to see that happen just for the comedy.

So, what if you want to include allergies, asthma, and similar ailments that we deal with in the real world?

  1. Make sure it has a role with the character.  Like phobias, an allergy should come into play over the course of an adventure.  Not so much getting sick, but at least being faced with it and having to avoid it.  For example, a warrior is allergic to cats and finds himself battling a monster that is part lion.  Have them sneeze or get itchy eyes as an added difficulty.
  2. Be clear as to why such a thing cannot be cured completely by magic.  People will question why diseases still exist when you have magical healers, so you can imagine a similar issue here.  My reasoning would be that these are genetic issues that a person is born with instead of an acquired sickness.  So the cure would have to go deeper and alter the target.
  3. Try to create a potion, device, or something that a character with asthma can use during an attack.  It’s been described to me as slowly suffocating while having a panic attack.  You should have this come across as well as giving a way for a character to end the event without searching for a priest.
  4. Consider if a character with these issues would go adventuring or set off on a quest in the first place.  This could push such things to secondary characters, which might be a cop out.  Still, a person with asthma or allergies would take them into account when they decide on their future.

That’s really all I have for this, but my mind is still toying with the subject.  Do you have any suggestions for including these in fantasy?

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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59 Responses to Allergies, Asthma, & Ailments in Fantasy

  1. Reblogged this on Chris The Story Reading Ape's Blog and commented:
    We often read about heroes who have emotional issues from their past, or even certain fears, like Indiana Jones and snakes – but apart from Superman and his Kryptonite weakness, I can’t recall any who had allergies.
    Care to take up Charles’ challenge?

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  2. L. Marie says:

    Wow! Great thoughts, Charles! You’re right–I don’t recall seeing anything about allergies in fantasy books, though nonfantasy books cover them. I love the idea of a character with asthma. What a great conflict that would be.

    I found this post: http://paranormalromanceblog.com/2013/07/31/on-heart-of-briar-and-writing-a-character-with-asthma-by-lauran-anne-gilman/

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I love this idea. It would add a layer to your character, and could always occur at a horrible time. It’s my understanding that allergies occurred when transportation became prevalent. Native environments had centuries of familiarity in that area. Move someone a thousand miles and they have no immunities to that flora and fauna.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Léa says:

    An interesting point which of course I have over looked in the rough draft. Ah well, that is what rewrites are for, no? As one who has lived with allergies and asthma for most of my life, I may know a thing or two about it and see if I want to work it in or just be shod of it!

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    • I didn’t think of it until recently and my series is 11 books in, so I missed the boat for this one. Good luck adding it into your stories. I’ve only a pollen allergy, which seemed to get fifty times worse after I lived in Florida for 4 years and then came back to New York. Though, I know people with all sorts of allergies, which is a ‘good’ resource. When it doubt, ask somebody.

      This does make me wonder if allergies and asthma would be seen as a plague. At least magical healers would try to eliminate them more than reactive medicines.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Léa says:

        So Charles, for your next series… As for me, this is only my first book and I shall give it some thought. I just finished that premier read-through of the first draft so I’ve a way to go. There have been two blogs and a few collections of poetry but only the first book.

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      • I’m actually slipping an allergy thing into my next dystopian, action, comedy book. Just turns up in a chapter, but it’s a start. My next fantasy series focuses on vampires, so I need to think if allergies would be an issue. Unless being allergic to decapitation is a thing.

        The first book always takes the longest, but I think authors get the most joy out of that first attempt. It helps take the edge off for any future releases.

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      • Léa says:

        A vampire who is intolerant to the Rh factor? That could present a few issues.

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      • True. Though, I’m always hesitant to create a vampire with a blood-based allergy. I find it difficult to believe such a creature would live for very long. Would an epi-pen even work on something without a working circulatory system?

        Liked by 1 person

      • Léa says:

        It was just a quick response. C’est la vie! I have no doubt you will find one that works for you. Could the blood de jour carry its allergies to the vampire with some interesting consequences? No? Okay, I shall shut up and move on… 😉

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      • Not sure. These are fantasy world vampires, so it could be a certain type of blood. Like allergic to Dwarven blood or anyone who has had a healing potion in the last 24 hours.

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      • Léa says:

        If nothing else, you are looking at the possibilities. I’m afraid I am useless as I’m not really into fantasy. You will know when it comes to you and best wishes.

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      • I run into that issue a lot. Amazing how there seems to be a ton of fantasy out there, but fantasy authors are highly elusive.

        Liked by 1 person

      • Léa says:

        Really, that does surprise me! Even as a child I had my head in the adult section reading a biography and such. There were no books in the house I grew up in and I cut my teeth on the newspaper and my half-sister’s textbooks (she is ten years older) I was so desperate to read. I didn’t discover children’s books until my own came along and I didn’t want them to miss out.

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      • Fantasy seems more common for kids and young adults. There’s this idea that older adults need to cast aside things that are seen as childish. Sounds so boring.

        Liked by 1 person

      • Léa says:

        Not all! I know quite a few. Actually, they just shake their heads at me and tsk, tsk… 😉

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      • Yup. That’s pretty much the universal reaction.

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      • Léa says:

        Yes, but they are my ‘fantasy’ friends tsk-ing at me! If you write it, they will come! Best wishes.

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  5. Jan Hawke says:

    As an asthma/COPD sufferer I hear you, Charles! Even if we’d evolved differently and didn’t have a problem with our airways getting muddled with our digestive tract sometimes, inhaled and ingested allergies would still be a problem for us, so why it doesn’t affect humanoid fantasy characters is about as vexed as is having PTSD for all the berserker heroes that inhabit those worlds!
    I have read books where fitting, various addictions (like ‘spice’ in the Dune series) or disabilities such as blindness etc play a part in paranormal abilities but not common or garden anaphylactic shock – now that really would be a potent spell to cast on someone! 😉

    Liked by 1 person

    • As far as the PTSD goes, I think that might be more about the environment that these characters come from. They might have a higher tolerance for stress and trauma, but many of them do collapse at some point. Not sure what you mean by berserker, so I’m thinking more of the heroes that step into the role willingly and remain aware of the future hardships.

      I remember reading a study that the surge of asthma and allergies might stem from living in a cleaner world. It is possible that the older, dirtier worlds of fantasy lead to the inhabitants being hardier. This doesn’t mean they wouldn’t exist at all, but it’s possible that they wouldn’t be as prevalent. Human bodies are strange in the way that it needs to be attacked to become stronger against some things.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. In Out of Time, I have two characters with severe allergies. Only one has a serious encounter with an allergen, but the other (or at least, the child’s mother and sister) carries an adrenaline injector with them at all times

    Liked by 1 person

    • Good to have those around. I mentioned this before, but I wonder if the lack of a portable cure (inhalers, epi-pens, etc.) is why these don’t turn up in fantasy very often. One gets the feeling that those with severe allergies don’t last very long. I’m probably thinking more food than animal and pollen though.

      Liked by 1 person

  7. Mind you, mine are people in the real world – but in a time-slip historical fiction story. Does that count?

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  8. Interesting. As an asthma sufferer I think building it into a story can be a way to add one more strike against the potential completion of the mission. It gives the character another thing to worry about when they are involved in the action.

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  9. I’ve actually thought about this issue in the context of chronic illnesses like arthritis. Arthritis is partly a genetic condition, while allergies can develop in response to any irritant somebody encounters. So in one of my books, a healer had arthritis in one hip. She could always make the pain go away and restore some joint damage, but she still had arthritis and her symptoms would return in time. With a nasal allergy, an alchemist might have a potion to stop sneezing and sinus pain, but it could wear off later and then the character would start sneezing again.

    As to when/why allergies appear in stories, I’d say that generally people believe allergies are not serious and just involve sneezing and sniffling. Of course, we know there are lots of different allergies and many of them are life-threatening, but the gut reaction when you say “allergy” is that it’s a trivial ailment. I’d suspect many writers give their characters serious challenges and drama, so allergies or asthma wouldn’t fit that concept.

    Certainly, a villain might use allergies or asthma to weaken a foe. Perhaps they know about the cat allergy and make sure to hold a certain prisoner right near the lion pens. More often, it seems like allergies are used for comic effect. Maybe a powerful wizard sneezes around magic, making it harder for him/her to be effective. Or a party is trying to sneak up on an enemy and somebody has a sneezing fit.

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    • I’ve actually never heard of arthritis being genetic. I was always told that it’s caused by the joints wearing down as a person ages, so it’s physical activity over a lifetime that causes it. Figured that explains my dad with his hands since nobody else in the family had that.

      Good point on magic being only a temporary fix for something that’s chronic. Remembering ‘Merlin’ where several characters took potions for chronic issues. Only ever came up when the thing needed to be poisoned though.

      I guess pollen and animal allergies tend to be the first thing that comes to mind. Food ones are in a different category and come off almost as poisoning. Maybe they’re rarely used because it won’t be used in the story very often. A sniffling character can be done in passing, but a near-death reaction needs to be more than an ‘oops’. I’m remembering an episode of ‘Burn Notice’ where the main character is being hunted by a Russian assassin. He eventually finds out that the guy is allergic to peanuts, so he sneaks some into his food and shows up with an epi-pen to negotiate for information.

      Liked by 1 person

  10. Great discussion, and food for thought. I’m not a fantasy expert either, but I feel like I’ve seen something where the character is using an inhaler but I can’t put my finger on it at all. Again, I’ve not read much fantasy at all, but I recall in one of Anthony’s “Mode” books [okay, I looked it up: Virtual Mode] that I read, that the girl had self-harming as an obstacle to overcome. But, yeah, to make allergies and/or asthma an integral part of the character, I’m not sure I’ve ever seen it in fantasy. Tangentially and used ironically, a cold is mentioned in Eliot’s Wasteland poem (the tarot section, with Madame Sosostris). Probably sci-fi has used allergies and asthma more, as it’s typically based in a more technological world. Speaking of sci-fi, I recently watched one of the first season’s Twilight Zone episodes and there was a character who was, basically, a hypochondriac and was given (through a bargain with the devil) immortality; from that, the plot ensued. So, anyway, I’d imagine allergies and asthma as very hard to incorporate into so-called “high fantasy.”

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    • I’ve seen a few characters in genres with the self-harming. That’s fairly common for some reason. I think many people see it as a disturbing act that can cause shock and sympathy toward the character.

      Now that you mention sci-fi, I remember reading some YA a long time ago that had secondary characters. Can’t remember exactly, but the ‘nerd’ archetype tends to have asthma in certain genres.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Yes, exactly that: the geek/nerd/outcast always seems to be the one with asthma. I guess you could play it tongue- in-cheek, but I can see asthma as a great superhero addition, so maybe it’s more appropriate for comics and/or graphic novels. It certainly makes for a more dimensional (ie, flawed) character. It will be interesting to see what you do with your comic book!

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      • I think you have a great point there. Asthma could be an interesting weakness to play up. I’m reading a manga where one character has a disease that means he could die if he fights for more than 15 minutes. Time limits are a fairly common flaw in manga characters. Asthma could work in a similar way.

        Sadly, I lack the drawing ability and contacts to make a comic. 😦

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      • P.S. I happen to be a layman in infectious disease processes, and what you are referring to in one of your comments is gaining a lot of traction and is called the “hygiene hypothesis,” ie, that the more a person is exposed to allergens (not that they are kept in clean rooms or away from dirt and pets and so forth), the better his/her immune system will be able to cope with said allergens later in life. That is to say, absolute cleanliness is no longer next to godliness (but don’t let your kid lick the toilets at school but if they do lick the water fountain once in a while, probably not a huge deal. Ha! 🙂

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      • Thanks for the info. I remember the topic coming up when my son started school. His first year had him being sent home with a fever every day, so our research for a cause kept mentioning exposure. He also has a peanut and tree nut allergy, but I’m not sure this could help him.

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      • Yeah, I definitely have not heard it talked about much (if at all) with food allergies, just the nasal/environment type. I feel for you and your son. We’ve been there, too; we’ve just made it past kindergarten with the last kid. They both have allergies and asthma, but no allergies to any foods (that we know of).

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      • He has a little asthma, but that’s slowly going away. Though, it’s seasonal or something. One plus side, is that his allergy is mild and it doesn’t cause anaphylactic shock. At least when we discovered it by accident.

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  11. elenathrais says:

    I don’t know if it’s been mentioned yet, but in the series The Keys to the Kingdom by Garth Nix, the main character has severe asthma and the beginning of his adventure hinges on that fact. Granted, that’s the only example I think I’ve come across in years of reading, but it was nice to see a main character with an issue so common in the real world, so it did stick out.

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  12. PHS says:

    Reblogged this on Archer's Aim and commented:
    These are some good points by Charles Yallowitz. I used PTSD (or something close) in The Bow of Destiny. What about panic attacks? What about seizures? I’m sure there are a number of health issues that could be used in many ways to increase tension and push the envelop for more twists. Nice post!

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