1. achorusline
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    achorusline New Member

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    Character with chronic illness

    Discussion in 'Character Development' started by achorusline, May 11, 2013.

    Hi there,

    I'm currently writing a book where the antihero is a type-1 diabetic. This wasn't just arbitrary; it has certainly impacted her self-image, is a pivotal part of her backstory and contributes to her motivations throughout the book. However, it's never a main point and it's not unnecessarily dramatized. It's merely another trait and adds to her complexity; it's something with which she lives.

    I've noticed, though, that there's a notable lack of characters in novels with chronic illnesses, unless the illness is a central plot point, or the character is somehow suffering from or triumphing in spite of the condition. Very few books contain characters who are simply living with conditions like diabetes.

    My question is: how would a diabetic main character (or prominent secondary character such as an antihero), as opposed to one without a chronic illness, impact your perception of the character herself? Would it make the character more dimensional to you as the reader? Would it matter? Would that alone change your perception of the character? Be honest!

    Thanks for reading and hopefully answering!

    Peace.
     
  2. Eliemme
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    Eliemme Member

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    Hi,
    I think that chronic illness needs to be framed in the psychological history of the patience. Several MDs now recognise that many chronic illnesses have at least part of the roots in the "mind" (abusive relationship, perfectionism, etc.).
    Doctors that have written about that are Lissa Rankin, Gabor Mate, John Sarno.

    If the patient is unaware of the psychological roots of her diesease her new limitations will impact further to her self-image and mind in general, generating a vicious cycle...

    So, if I was reading a book with a chronically ill character I would expect some of these aspects to be discussed.
    Hope that helps
    E
     
  3. jazzabel
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    jazzabel Contributing Member Contributor

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    There are quite a few famous characters with diabetes, notably Wallander and Faith from Karin Slaughter crime novels. There are even more with chronic psychiatric conditions such as depression or OCD and then there are all the alcoholics and drug addicts.
    Personally, I don't think anyone "needs" illness to make them "deep" but I do feel that the characters I know who live with illness are interesting and I root for them strongly, perhaps because I can empathise with them more.
     
  4. achorusline
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    achorusline New Member

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    Great insight. Thanks.
    FWIW I definitely don't think a character must have a condition or disability to make him or her a complex character. That's just the case in this particular story. :)
     
  5. foiler
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    foiler Member

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    I don't think that merely having the disease would influence my perception of the character. The key would be, how does it affect the character's behavior? Personally, I wouldn't throw a disease on a character just to humanize them. Instead, I'd try to make the disease a manifestation of some deeper psychological flaw that's been bothering the character for years. For example, perhaps the character suffered some pain years ago, lapsed into a depression where they stated binge eating and not exercising. After years of it, they are starting to feel the effects of diabetes. I'd find this character more interesting because they are clearly struggling with something. The diabetes becomes a symbol of the character's inner pain. If the character is a hero, your audience is rooting for him to get back on his feet. If the character is a bad guy, the disease is symbolic that something is twisted inside. You might try starting with your theme, then choosing a psychological issue, and the issue leads to a physical illness. For example, if you're writing a "crime doesn't pay" theme, you're character might be carrying a burden of guilt for a crime they committed. To escape the guilt he turned to heroin. This character is an addict because "crime doesn't pay". The needle becomes a profound symbol that crime doesn't pay, his self-imposed "prison".
     
  6. TerraIncognita
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    TerraIncognita Aggressively Nice Person Contributor

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    All of the above.

    It doesn't impact my perception of them in any negative way. Chronic illness does not make anyone less of a person. It definitely has an impact on people psychologically in good and bad ways.

    1. Type one diabetes is not brought on by weight gain and lack of exercise. Also type 2 diabetes is not always due to weight gain. Thin people with poor diet can get it as well.

    2. I don't agree that using a physical ailment is the way to portray a twisted mind in a character.
     
  7. Xatron
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    Xatron Contributing Member

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    Why would anyone want to read about such a character? Already from your premise he is a coward, weak minded, weak willed, lazy, emotionally retarded and the list continues. If the reader meets the character before this change then do you plan to write about years and years of the character being like that? And if the reader meets the character while he is in this pathetic state, why would anyone sympathize with someone like that and care about what happens to him?

    Also a chronic disease like diabetes is not caused by psychological factors. Diseases caused this way are cured when the psychological issues are resolved and they are not really diseases but rather symptoms of the psychological problem. As TerraIncognita already said, I too am firmly against associating chronic diseases with a twisted mind.
     
  8. mammamaia
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    mammamaia nit-picker-in-chief Contributor

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    not necessarily... it would just be one more facet of the person, like hair color or build...

    only if the writer made too much of it so it becomes annoying...

    'change' it from what to what?... if you mean would it make me like the character more or less than i did before the condition was mentioned, no... why would it?... if you mean something else, please explain...

    i'm never not honest...
     
  9. achorusline
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    achorusline New Member

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    Okay! Thank you. And, thank you for your suggestions and caution; I would not use the T1D for its own sake, at all.

    Also, thanks to mammamaia for putting it pretty simply, that the T1D plain wouldn't matter. I guess that's what I expected in any case! :)
     
  10. TerraIncognita
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    TerraIncognita Aggressively Nice Person Contributor

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    Glad to help. :)
     
  11. mammamaia
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    mammamaia nit-picker-in-chief Contributor

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    ditto!
     
  12. Mckk
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    Mckk Moderator Staff Supporter Contributor

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    Well I remember Henning Mankell wrote about a guy who was suffering from cancer. It became very, very annoying - I got that he was thinking of death a lot and was terrified, but in the midst of investigating a crime, I just didn't care that much, esp there's no sign of suffering on the character's part but it's all just him feeling sorry for himself. Maybe I'm being harsh, I am fortunate enough never to have lived through cancer, nor do I know anyone close to me who's had to go through cancer, so maybe I just wasn't able to sympathise as much as I should've.
     
  13. T.Trian
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    T.Trian Overly Pompous Bastard Staff Supporter Contributor

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    I tend to sympathize with characters who have chronic illnesses because I suffer from chronic back pain myself (degenerative disc disease and a couple of herniated discs). I especially like it if it's obvious the author has done his/her homework. For instance, if the character had my condition or some similar condition that causes constant pain, it should affect the way the character moves, their sleeping arrangements, the way they set up their car, their office, most would be addicted to painkillers that affect the central nervous system because most people with such conditions have to eat them regularly, often for years on end. The meds are expensive, so they constantly need money for the meds, for fysiotheraphy and other treatments. Then there's all the emotional baggage that comes with life-limiting conditions: they make the character feel inferior to others because they can't do everything a normal person can, the constant pain and the side effects of the meds take their toll on the psyche, often in the form of depression or other mental problems etc.

    Then again, if the author makes too big of a deal of the condition when the main focus of the story/plot is something else entirely (like an action-adventure or some such), it can become annoying. It's a balancing act. It can also be very inspiring to read about such character if you suffer from similar conditions if the author shows how the character still overcomes the problems the condition creates in order to perform the tasks required of the character (like a detective catching a bad guy). Heck, it might even give some ideas to the reader, how to deal with their condition or how to find some relief from it.

    It's not quite the same, maybe, but I greatly enjoyed writing a mute character in one WIP, it was very interesting. I constantly had to question how she would cope with things I take for granted, especially because the story takes place in the past, so she doesn't have access to modern technological aids. I'm looking forward to returning to that character.
     
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  14. foiler
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    foiler Member

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    Why would anyone care about Ebenezer Scrooge? He was a bitter, cowardly, cruel, greedy, insensitive, seemingly heartless, nasty old bastard - when you first meet him. And yet, for some reason, you're intrigued with what was going to happen to him, and that's the only thing we're really trying to achieve. It doesn't matter if your audience likes the character; All that matters is that they stick around to see what's going to happen to him.

    Dicken's - through Scrooge's concern for Tiny Tim, and his affection for his nephew - gave the reader an indication that Scrooge wasn't a total lost cause. And in the end, when Scrooge finally did change, because the change was so drastic and profound, the ending was all the more satisfying.

    Here, I'll concede the point.

    I certainly didn't mean to seem insensitive about chronic diseases or people who suffer with them. I was merely trying to separate the disease from the individual, and use it to symbolize something that could be spun, either positively or negatively, about a character, depending upon how you wield it.

    But yes, I am ignorant as to the causes and sufferings of chronic diseases, so I'll admit I'm out of my league here. If I've said something that seemed insensitive, I certainly apologize for that.

    If communicated poorly, well, that's why I joined a writer's forum. :)
     
  15. jazzabel
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    jazzabel Contributing Member Contributor

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    Just to add, illness has been proven to be related to psychological issues, especially long-term stress, especially in the formative years, also repetitive abuse; and later in life, again, anxiety and depression ( not to mention more serious illnesses) as well as personality issues, all have been shown to trigger vast variety of illnesses, from infections and gastritis to autoimmune conditions etc. Furthermore, a lot of illnesses are exacerbated by psychological states. All that is separate from the psychological consequences of illness, which is also significant its own right.

    A branch of medical research, psychoneuroimmunology, is pioneering research in all this, it's been around for a couple of decades, and due to its advances, good doctors are all aware of the inseparability of the mind and the body. Unfortunately, many not-so-good ones aren't aware, or are just being prejudiced about it due to their own issues (I could write a book on the passive-aggressive hypochondria amongst medical professionals, that gives rise to most of the doctor-patient relationship problems).
     
  16. Xatron
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    Xatron Contributing Member

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    Scrooge wasn't a coward and he wasn't irresolute. His condition was a coping mechanism with the unbearable problems he had had since he was a child. He was an example of someone who overcame difficulties but didn't come out unscathed. He never gave up on himself but rather everyone fell short of his expectations. Since he had always had a need for money the only thing he knew was that people have to make money by any means and that made him cruel, greedy and bitter. He hadn't known happiness so he didn't give happiness any value. I actually admired Scrooge as a child and I still kind of do (in a very different way).
    What you were describing is a vastly different character. One that has completely given up on himself and is just waiting for death. He is a person who once faced with a difficult situation he cowered away and never tried to set himself straight.
     
  17. sanco
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    sanco Contributing Member

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    That really depends on how you look at it. Why does he have to be a coward? Why can't he just be someone who's accepted his fate?

    And on the topic of whether a character needs to be likeable is irrelevant. As long as their relatable, compelling, intriguing and multi-faceted, you could keep me reading. Heath Ledger's Joker is what made the movie for me, but I wouldn't wanna have a beer with the guy.
     
  18. Xatron
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    Xatron Contributing Member

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    Thing is he didn't give up because he got sick. He had already given up and that contributed to him getting sick.
     
  19. foiler
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    Hmm... That's very interesting. Here's what I wrote...

    "For example, perhaps the character suffered some pain years ago, lapsed into a depression where he started binge eating and not exercising. After years of it, he started to feel the effects of diabetes."

    ... and from those two sentences, you formed the impression that this character has completely given up on himself and is just waiting for death? From just those two sentences, you feel this character is just cowering away, has never tried to straighten himself out, and has no hope of ever coming out of his funk?

    Frankly, I don't see how you drew all those conclusions from those two lines, but I'm very interested in how you got there. Did you know someone like this? Please understand, I'm not trying to be a wise guy or anything. As a writer, I really would like to know what you saw in those two lines that made you feel this character was absolutely hopeless, with no chance to change.
     
  20. TerraIncognita
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    TerraIncognita Aggressively Nice Person Contributor

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    That's also the conclusion I drew from those sentences.

    It's heavily implied that he's given up. For the average individual (barring extenuating health complications) binge eating, depression, and not exercising at all together is indicative of some pretty heavy psychological issues. Binge eating isn't just being a bit overindulgent. It's eating until you're sick from it or near to it. Most people are active (again with the exception of larger physical complications) and it's odd for someone to be sedentary. Weight bearing exercise, such as walking, strengthens bones and muscles and it's pretty important to have some sort of activity if possible. Depression is not simply feeling blue. It is like a black hole that empties people and makes them feel hollow and numb. So, all of those together are pretty serious.


    Not exactly. Being cowardly is stuffing your feelings down and refusing to face the reality of your life or circumstances. Acceptance is acknowledging the circumstances or feelings in question and doing the best you can with what you have. Accepting your fate is not giving up on your life it's making new dreams and new plans to fit in with your new normal, whatever that may be.


    I'd call it a lack of understanding rather than being insensitive. Which is normal for any circumstance you've not experienced. I can't claim to fully understand the challenges others face if I've never been in their shoes. That's part of life. You learn and you apply what you've learned. :)

    I do appreciate your apology even though I don't feel you did anything wrong. I am a bit touchy on the subject since I have chronic pain. I also have a relative who is diabetic due to doing a poor job of taking care of their health and it's definitely due to overarching psychological issues. It's difficult to watch to say the least. It is frustrating for me when I'd love to be able to fix my health issues with lifestyle changes and I see someone essentially throwing their health away. So I've seen both ends of that. So again, a touchy subject in general for me.

    I also have a low tolerance for people drawing conclusions about circumstances they don't understand. I've had a lot of issues with acquaintances and strangers due to my illness being "invisible". Just generally people who drew negative conclusions about me without knowing anything. I know that happens to lots of groups.. it's rough to deal with that on top of everything else. I know I can get a bit prickly about it as a defense mechanism so I try to be aware of that and realize some people don't understand it and it's nothing personal and not everyone is trying to be hateful or inflammatory.

    I do appreciate your willingness to listen to others who have more knowledge about those particular circumstances. I find that refreshing when people are open to learning.
     
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  21. Mauthos
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    The only issue I would have is that from the character's point of view the fact that they were suffering from diabetes may not really concern them overly, unless they had bad control.

    I am a T2 diabetic and when I was first diagnosed it was a shock and I spent a great deal thinking about it. Then as I sorted my diet and took my medication regularly and controlled it well it just became part of who I was and I don't spend that much time dwelling on it.

    Even when it became worse and I was instructed to start using insulin the only new thing I had to deal with was learning to recognise and deal with a hypo, which I had never experienced again. Sure, I watch what I eat and sometimes crave sugary snacks but the diabetes has not and will not define who I am it is just part of me now and that's it (apart from the 6 monthly checks up I have to attend which are annoying but necessary).

    Oh, and for your information, I am not overweight, my diet was relatively healthy and when I was diagnosed I was training 6 times a week without fail to a high standard (was serving in the military at the time) and so was very fit. Now as a civilian I still train regularly as well as teach martial arts and that helps to control the diabetes - basically what I am saying is I did not fit the stereotype of one who develops diabetes. I was also diagnosed at an odd time, I was 27, and it is unusual for a white male of under 40 to develop T2 diabetes. Therefore, I put in some research and discovered that my real father (who I do not know), his twin and their mother, my paternal grandmother all had a type of diabetes - so mine was hereditary.

    Anyway, if I can help in anyway regarding the diabetes and your character, feel free to ask me any questions you may have.
     
  22. foiler
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    TerraIncognita, Thank you for reply. I'm glad I didn't put you off entirely. :)

    It's true that I have no knowledge of chronic pain, and I'm sincerely sorry that you suffer with it. I hope you've found a way to manage it. I can say that I was once morbidly obese and I've lost 115 lbs. Unfortunately, I do understand depression, food and addiction. I'm not proud of that, but I also don't see those things as something that can't be beaten. Through my own experience, I joined organizations and saw lots of people turn their lives around. So yes, I guess you're right; people interpret the depth of despair based on their own experience.

    As writer's, this certainly raises a challenge, and it relates back to your original question. This is actually pretty fascinating. Apparently, I wrote something that you and Xatron took as hopeless, but in my mind, based on my own experience, I didn't see that situation as hopeless at all. You see chronic diseases as a challenge, but since I have no actual knowledge or experience of it, I drew conclusions from stereo types.

    Without knowing our reader's experience, how can we choose an illness that they won't interpret as too severe or depressing? Apparently, if I had started a story with the character I described, even though I didn't see it as hopeless, a good percentage of my audience would be turned off to it.

    I guess what we can interpret from this is that these types of illnesses and suffering are deeply personal and sensitive topics. Based on experience, they imply different things to different people. They are double edge swords; they mean a lot to the people who know about them, but they can be easily misunderstood by people who don't.

    I guess you can approach this from different ways. From a marketing stand point, it would seem to me that giving your character a chronic illness or severe health problem is risky because those who have know or have actual experience with it can draw conclusions about it that you may not want them to draw. On the other hand, those who do have first hand knowledge of it will recognize a writer who knows and understands what their going through. From a writing stand point, if you have first hand experience with a chronic illness or a severe health impairment, than you're probably writing about something you know intimiately, and beating it is something you feel passionate about. When you feel that deeply about something, you're off to a great start.

    So my opinion, based on what we've seen here... I'd write about any chronic illness you know well. The people who don't understand it, well, they aren't going to be your audience. But the people who do understand it, those who know it first hand, will recognize and relate with your character much more strongly. I understand marketing considerations, but if you don't write about something you feel passionate about, you're probably not going to turn out anything all that marketable any way.

    TerraIncognita, I thank you - sincerely - for enlightening me on several things in this discussion. :)

    Please be well.
     
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  23. TerraIncognita
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    TerraIncognita Aggressively Nice Person Contributor

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    I haven't ever heard of that before. Thanks for the info though. I like to try to stay educated on health issues so I don't wind up inadvertently being a jerk about it. :p


    Sure thing! Well, thank you I appreciate your words. :) I do the best I can. Most of it is managing my stress and paying attention to my body when it's telling me I need to stop and rest. I don't do too well with medications and nerve pain isn't overly responsive to medication anyway. I do the best I can and try to take it one day at a time. I have funks and bad days but everyone does.

    That's really good! I'm happy that you're dong better! I don't think there needs to be so much shame and stigmatization of things like that, to be honest. Stigma keeps people from getting help and defeating things and they let it defeat them which makes me sad. I always try my hardest not to look down on people. I had an eating disorder in my teens at the height of my chronic pain and lack of diagnosis for so long. It got where I was in a deep depression and felt hopeless. As I started losing my mobility food became the one thing I had control over and so I did. It didn't hurt that I had almost no appetite with the amount of pain I was in. I'm happy to say I've not reverted to the behavioral part of that for five years. The mental part of it is more challenging but I'm working on it in therapy. :)

    I've had many issues with anxiety and depression throughout my life. It's pretty well controlled for the most part now. I didn't seek help and hid it for so long because I worried about what people would think. I know if I'd talked about it sooner it would have saved me a lot of torment. I feel like it's important for people to feel safe enough to speak about these things so they can get help and not have to muddle through it alone!


    This is true. I saw it as hopeless because in my own experiences when I was in a valley it felt insurmountable. I thought that was just life from then on out. I think it struck a chord with my old way of thinking about things so it came across that way to me.


    You can't. That's the thing. You can't write to please everyone else or your story will be horrible and boxed in. Chronic illness and mental illness are both depressing topics and they are very serious. I've had people who bailed on me when I was going through some of those valleys between mental and physical problems. Some people can't handle it.


    Very true.


    I'd say that's the pitfall of all art forms. Art is highly subjective and different people will get different things out of it. I'd worry more about writing something that you feel strongly about telling and less about how marketable it is. In all reality writing is not a very lucrative career except for a lucky few. So I agree that's a good attitude to have about it. :)


    You are most welcome! I'm glad to help. :) Thank you. I do my best.
     
  24. sanco
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    sanco Contributing Member

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    I don't see how we're disagreeing. Although, I would beg to differ on the assertion that accepting your fate is this real positive "let's make the best out of it" situation.

    With the diabetic, it would be an interesting reversal if his illness actually made him appreciate the value of life and he turned it all around.
     
  25. foiler
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    I like that!
     

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