Writing About Illness and Disability

My career as a medical writer has enriched my fiction, because I’m influenced by the patient journeys I read and write about at work every day. In my novels, I’ve written stories about characters with a range of medical and mental health conditions, including bipolar disorder, alcoholism, total hearing loss and multiple sclerosis. I’ve come to recognize how much drama, stress and conflict an illness can bring to a family—and to a dynamic story.

Whether it’s a parent battling cancer or a young man learning to cope with paralysis after a car accident, writing characters with health challenges can require research. Authors must ensure that facts are correct for the most part, and that the attitudes of affected characters are realistic and not based on assumptions.

Relying on accurate sources
As a medical writer, I know web sites like Wikipedia and chat rooms might provide a start—but they aren’t really reliable sources of accurate medical facts. There is a lot of bad information out there, so take what you read with a grain of salt. Good sources of health information on the internet include the sites of government agencies (like the CDC or NIH), hospitals, and national patient support groups. You can also access articles from the newspaper or medical journals. Look at several sources before drawing conclusions.

Photo by {artist}/{collectionName} / Getty Images

Photo by {artist}/{collectionName} / Getty Images

Get feedback from real sources

You may find inspiration in videos that patients upload to You Tube—not for medical facts, but rather for real-life anecdotes and emotionally-charged stories about coping with an illness. It’s important to understand not just what steps patients have to go through as they move toward recovery or acceptance, but how they feel about it and what obstacles they face.

It’s also helpful to find early readers with the illness or situation you are writing about, as a reality check against misguided assumptions. For example, many people with physical challenges do not see themselves as disabled, but rather as differently-abled. People are surprisingly resilient! They become members of supportive communities that are essential to them. Make sure you understand the full experience of what you’re writing about.

Don’t go for the easy solution

Does anyone who is paralyzed want to read about a character who is miraculously able to walk again? Probably not. For many illnesses and disabilities, there is no cure. There is only management of symptoms. But that doesn’t mean those characters cannot experience joy and comfort in their situation as they learn to live with their challenges. People don’t get “fixed” thanks to a new relationship or their loving family. Rather, they adjust and change just like other characters.

Make sure characters are multi-dimensional

In the same vein, no one wants to be defined by an illness or physical challenge. Infuse every character with many contradictory facets, and they will remain true to life. Love, pride, sadness, secrets—whatever else your characters must struggle with, their illness or disability is just one of many aspects to their lives. A physical or medical challenge can break down character, or build it up. But it might not be the most important factor in a character’s journey.

Recognize that the story trumps all

At the beginning and the end of John Green’s novel The Fault in Our Stars, he includes an Author’s Note where he asks readers not to find fault with the way he characterizes cancer and its’ treatment. He reminds readers that the novel is fiction, and not meant to be taken literally in every detail. I agree with this approach. While you want to be realistic enough in your depictions that readers aren’t questioning the truth of it, it’s important to also give yourself a little room to dramatize and create the best possible story.

Photo by {artist}/{collectionName} / Getty Images

Photo by {artist}/{collectionName} / Getty Images

Example: creating a life-and-death emergency

In my novel Something Worth Saving (Kensington Books, 2018), I wanted to write a scene where the reader could watch two characters, Mark and Kate, fall in love without having them confess anything out loud. I wanted their feelings to be demonstrated through their actions.

At work, I was writing about anaphylaxis and learned that a severe allergic reaction can be a sudden, unexpected life-and-death situation—from which a person can walk away unharmed in the end. It seemed like a perfect vehicle for my story.

In my novel, Mark is attacked by a swarm of bees and has a severe reaction. As he watches his friend Kate attend to him, he begins to see how much she cares about him. And because of the shock, he opens up and tells her more about his past. I’m happy with the scene because it not only captures the immediacy of a serious medical situation, allowing for a dramatic moment, but it’s also infused with romantic tension. By the end of the chapter, the emergency has passed—but both Mark and Kate have changed internally.

A well-informed, open-minded approach to writing about illness and disability will ensure that characters are true to life and help craft a poignant story that inspires readers.

On WritingSandi Ward