Illness


Since I haven’t felt well of late, I’ve wondered how illness is portrayed in stories. Sometimes it feels like illness is hardly ever mentioned – like the science fiction story I’ve finished reading lately, where it progresses forward in a very play by play manner, and everyone is always perfectly healthy. No one ever suffered from anything that could delay, hurt them, exhaust them, or anything. It makes a bit more since, I suppose, in a science fiction universe where perhaps there is medicine to keep everyone perfectly healthy, but I still wonder if really that is even possible. To have this future where even sleep isn’t always needed, and one’s healthy is always superb. It just makes the book feel flat, unrealistic, and bizarre. I think there was only two or three scenes where someone was shot, but the injury seems to magically go away after awhile. A few people die, and that at least helped me feel a bit better since at least they weren’t immortal?

This second book I’m reading that I just started has someone suffering from a stroke by the ninth chapter. This plays a huge role in the plot and how the characters’ lives change by this event. The character who suffered the stroke has to deal with the real consequences, and there isn’t an awesome medical doctor who can magically fix the person into perfect health. Already, this story has gripped me because the tension here, the real consequences from the stroke, and how it has a profound effect on not only the person suffering from the stroke, but those working for him. It’s a really interesting glimpse into how illness can come into play in a story, and how it gives the world a bit more depth, makes it seem less like a healthy paradise and more like a gritty, true to life tale.

Two different portrayals, and the second definitely caught my attention far more than the first. It also makes me wonder how else is illness portrayed? What about mental illness? That is also a very legitimate and often debilitating category of possibly illnesses – physical illness isn’t the only illness one could have.

This in turn makes me wonder about trauma in stories. In our real lives, very, very few people can easily bounce back from severe trauma. Often people, who experience severe trauma, suffer from a variety of physical and/or mental illnesses – the most common being Post Traumatic Stress Disorder – yet stories often have a terrible time depicting it in any manner. People just magically recover. This just doesn’t happen in real life. There is no magical plot device that erases the pain, anguish, fear, anger, and/or grief from a traumatic event – not in real life, and I really don’t think we should just let our characters get that cop-out. Mental illness – and a lot of different physical illnesses – are already looked down upon and treated badly in our society, and the way it’s often neglected, pushed to the side, or diminished as not real just adds to the already sour outlook our society holds for such illnesses. Our literature doesn’t exist in a vacuum, and neither do we. How us, as people, view the world is often influenced by the society in which we grew up, by the books we read, the games we play, the media we watch, the schools we attend, the friends we make, the family we have, and so on and so forth. We often internalize a lot more than we may realize, and all this can add up. If multiple sources across the board are depicting survivors of trauma as able to bounce back magically, then we’re internalizing a false reality far more than many realize. The truth is most don’t bounce back, in fact, most struggle to heal from such trauma. The real struggles and pain of those people don’t need more apathy or pressure from society to just magically ‘get over it.’ They need support.

In the end, I think a lot of writers miss out on amazing opportunities to really dig deep into their characters, to really address how trauma – no matter what it is, whether from war, abuse, sexual assault, betrayal, horribly or painful accident… ect. ect. – affects their characters, the plot, and those around them. There’s so much potential there to really develop the character, and perhaps even push the plot along further, but I often find that there’s writers out there that just don’t even bother. They go the “magically shake it off and get better” route, which just diminishes what that character went through, diminishes the characters, and makes the story seem flat and unrealistic to me. As much as I may read to suspend my disbelief and escape into a new world to explore and tackle interesting ideas, I still like stories where characters not just seem real, but feel real to me. Magically bouncing back from all trauma or injuries, or magically always being healthy just isn’t real to me.

What’s all your thoughts? I realize this post is slightly incoherent in its pacing – I am still recovering from illness, but just ask for clarification, and I’ll clarify any confusing points.

Categories: Author, Characters, WritingTags: , ,

9 comments

  1. I agree that trauma and/or illness is part of life. From a christian/catholic perspective suffering can bring forth deeper wisdom along with an inner joy/peace of knowing throughout the period of suffering someone loves you eternally. A person who does not have such a knowledge will not be redemptive in their suffering as such become bitter/angry/hateful/evil etc…. This depth in a person is fascinating to me especially when brought out in the characters I am reading. How people cope with mental and physical illness of which I believe everyone has some of these aspects to there person due to our nature as living creatures with minds, is all part of the story. It brings value on a varieties of levels for each character. Those are all my thoughts right now. 🙂

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    • I wouldn’t really categorize angry as a bad emotion in suffering to be honest. When great trauma happens, a natural reaction after the shock dies down is for anger to follow. It’s human nature to wonder why things happened the way they did. It’s how you handle that anger that determines if it is healthy or not. Anger can be used in a good, healthy way, but that requires work, requires a support system, and requires seeking a way to understand one’s suffering.

      Another interesting thing about illness – either physical or mental – is there is so many different ways people may react. That variety gives the story a lot of depth as well.

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  2. You always raise interesting questions on this blog, Amber. I just finished rereading a young adult book by Joan Aiken which I really like. Three people in it were coping with illnesses which was consistent with the times the book was set in (late 1800s). Their illnesses were portrayed as terrible weakness (which was cured by fruits and sardines and olive oil and must have occurred due to a lack of vitamins); malnutrition; and a cold or bronchitis (which was cured by food, sleep, warmth etc). All of these were essential parts of the plot.

    If there is mental illness in a plot the only ones I remember usually led to tragedy. Examples: acute depression which led to suicide; schzophrenia which led to someone getting hurt or killed; the same with paranoia. I remember Charles Dickens had a novel which had main character who had a severe problem with anger and fear. The lady who was left at the altar; lived with the remains of her weddding dress and cake and ruined other’s lives so that they too would not be happy

    What about a person with mental illness who copes with the illness and has a positive outcome?

    Very interesting questions you raise, Amber.

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  3. I feel somewhat obliged to mention a game I’ve been playing recently. Katawa Shoujo is a dating sim type game in which the main character is a teenage boy diagnosed with a serious heart condition, who winds up at a high school for students who have various special needs. He winds up going out with the player’s choice of one of five girls from his school.

    I don’t normally play that kind of game, but Katawa Shoujo is shockingly good, and super respectful about its subject matter. The characters have disabilities while not being defined by them, and it’s nice to experience a game where people who are disabled are still considered perfectly valid romantic interests, and, for that matter, perfectly valid protagonists. Gaming as a medium is still quite young, and things like this are even more lamentably rare than in books or movies.

    What’s the name of the book you’re talking about where the character has a stroke, by the way? It sounds interesting.

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    • It’s the first book of The Faded Sun Trilogy by C.J. Cherryh. The character who has a stroke is a fascinating character. He already was mostly an intellectual that rarely interacted with people, but then when he has his stroke, it’s fascinating how they explored his character afterward, how he works with one side being paralyzed, and finds a way to do what he needs to do. He is still himself, and still keeps his command, and it’s pretty well done.

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  4. As someone who loves escapist fiction (which is uncool, much maligned, and automatically unrealistic as hell), I don’t really want to give up what makes me happy. And yet, you’re probably right about the relationship between no-therapy-needed in fiction and the dismissal of PTSD and such in real life. I’m not sure where that leaves the would-be escapist fiction writer.

    Then there’s another factor. I nearly died of Crohn’s disease and, as a result of that, have an ostomy. The two things I remember having the most immediate positive effect on me, while I was still recovering, was a statement on a message board about how kids often have the easiest time dealing with ostomies because it doesn’t occur to them that it should effect their life and so they just go right on living and my surgeon, on hearing that I was moving to Colorado, suggesting cheerfully that I could take up skiing. Reading about people struggling with even the very same problems I have just makes the problems feel insurmountable. Reading or hearing that people can just go on makes me feel like I can just go on. I don’t know where we factor people like me into the equation of what we depict in fiction.

    I guess the question I’m left with is how does one depict recovery so that it’s hopeful, even for people like me who tend to react to anything negative as OH DEAR GOD ITS ALL OVER DOOM 111!!!! (Hi there anxiety disorder with a side of depression.)

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    • Definitely good questions. Thank you.

      I guess I’m the opposite of you? Reading a novel where the person overcomes their PTSD or their depression by prancing through fields of flowers, or finding the perfect mate, or just by going on a journey where they just get over it? It’s those stories that leave me feeling worse, for then I’m left wondering why aren’t I just getting over it? How come I can’t just bulldoze my way through this? Is there something wrong with me?

      Would it work if it’s more of a background emotional subplot, which the character struggles with, but there is the main plot the character struggles with more? This way it wouldn’t get the entire screentime, but a few details here and there make it clear the character does have to work through it but since it’s not the focus, it’s more of a minor subplot that ends with them healed at some point.

      Though I’m not sure that would work for you? So we’re still left with the question of how do we balance the portrayals? To show recovery more honestly, but to depict it in a hopeful manner? I’m not sure I can answer that question fully. I’ll have to think on it some more.

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    • In truth, I mostly avoid stories about people with problems because I know they’ll depress me. But, yes, what about stories that aren’t _about_ people with problems, but about people who have problems while dealing with other things. *thinks* Most of those are horrifically depressing, too. (If I can use the word “most” when all I can think of are Buffy the Vampire Slayer: the series and Frodo’s character arc in Lord of the Rings.) Wait, I can think of one example that’s not depressing (mostly): the Vorkosigan saga. It’s telling that my favorite books are the lightest, but even in those there are people dealing with physical and mental problems. So it _can_ be done.

      If only I could figure out what the difference is. The Vorkosigan-verse people have senses of humor and succeed? Or am I mistaking my reaction for what the various stories portray? (That is to say, would another person look at me funny and say but the Buffyverse people do too? Or but Frodo does too?) I don’t know.

      Ironically, I’ve been trying to decide whether to at least hint at more realistic lasting problems in a story I’m working on in which something significantly bad happens to one of the main characters. Because, yes, even to this escapist over here who wants to hear positive messages, preferably in ten foot tall neon letters, there is something…off…about how impervious many fictional characters are.

      So it’s both good and bad to see someone else pondering this. Even if there is a part of me that wants to yell “Noooo, don’t take away my happy!”

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