Sick of It

Drama depends on a protagonist driving a story forward. For that reason few books cover a part of life that fells the best of us. If any type of illness is covered, it is likely to be mental illness or similar topics such as alcoholism or drug use. The pounding headache, the upset stomach, the violent ejections of phlegm, these are banished to the sidelines as unpleasant lapses. Maybe that is a reflection of an author’s personally despising the lost hours lost to misery. Imagine: lying in bad, with the entire day awaiting, and your head is so clogged up, you just want to drink tonics and sleep.

Another reason may be that what happens inside you while ill falls in the same category of descriptions about mental states that many authors find so difficult to capture. If you can’t run off a string of interior monologue in general, how are you supposed to describe that strained feeling that seems to knit your eyebrows together? The revulsion of seeing your own blood on a Kleenex?

The lack of excitement engendered by staying home in bed seems to be a missed opportunity in other respects, however. The idea of blockage mirrors the obstacles we encounter in the course of our everyday lives. Illness is an analogue of life is a bitch, and that can lead to all sorts of explorations. The parallel of vomiting and moral turpitude is easy to draw, as is a migraine with guilt. The constriction of the lungs echoes the fear of expressing oneself in public, and coughing equates with futility in pursuing an aim.

Adding an interlude of sickness can be a way of revealing character. How does a noble warrior in any field handle the common cold? Is he helpless like a baby, glad to shed his mask for a few gasping days? Does she welcome the feelings because they justify her perpetual hypochondriac complaints? Is he annoyed because the illness interrupts his busy agenda? Does she welcome the chance to stay home with the kids, even if she is feeling lousy?

When regarded that way, as an impediment to whatever glory the character is trying to attain, it functions as a mechanism of opposition, and that is what any writer wants in a novel. What does the process of being laid low bring out in the character? As a reader, I’d be curious to find out.

Exercise: Illness can also be used as a tool in fomenting tension. A character who is falling in and out of antibiotic drowsiness is vulnerable. A person who cannot get out of bed is helpless before an attacker. In other words, any character who is not thinking straight creates an electric current of unsteadiness that keeps a reader on the edge of his seat.

“It is in moments of illness that we are compelled to recognize that we live not alone but chained to a creature of a different kingdom, whole worlds apart, who has no knowledge of us and by whom it is impossible to make ourselves understood: our body.”
—Marcel Proust

Copyright @ 2018, John Paine

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Copyright © 2012 John Paine. All rights reserved.