Blessed be, all! Next week will be our final check-in for the month, but tonight’s topic comes from my favorite and most diligent research bug: my wife. She’s been up to her eyeballs in resources lately, compiling lists of herbal remedies and when and where they might have been available. Ah, the things you have to consider for historical fiction!

But wait, you say! You’re writing fantasy, so anything goes! Or the story you’re working on is far-future, and their technology is much more advanced than ours. Well, that may be so, but you still have to consider how health and medicine work in your world. Here are a few things to keep in mind:

  1. Magical/technological advancement. You’ve come to a point in your story where your character has taken a serious wound and you now have to find a way to save them. No matter what the injury, they’re generally going to have an easier time of surviving if you have more/better treatments available. If you’re writing in a world before the advent of antibiotics, you might have to worry about sepsis and infection.
  2. Availability. Let’s say your far-future dystopia has the capability to heal wounds with fresh-grown skin in minutes by applying this topical aerosol. The liquid binds to the wound and, through the wonder of medicine you’ve devised, the healing process is nearly instantaneous. That’s great!
    But. Who has access to it? Is the spray tightly controlled by the government? Do the rebels have to make do with linen bandages? Do ordinary citizens, even, get to use it, or is it prohibitively expensive? Could they use it if they had it, but they’re in the middle of the woods and can’t get to a facility? Maybe you can only use it once or twice before it stops working, so you have to exercise discretion.
  3. Cultural stigmas and personal objections: Just because a character can be healed doesn’t always mean that they will be. Perhaps the culture has a deep-seated mistrust of this other group and won’t allow their sickness to be worked on by them, even if they’re the only healer around. Maybe they had an addiction to narcotics and won’t take painkillers for fear of relapse. These sort of scruples are a great way to add some tension to even a mundane injury like a broken arm.
  4. Recovery time and aftereffects. Your character will need time to heal completely from their injury. No matter their training, they probably won’t be running on that pulled hamstring. Be realistic in the amount of downtime your character will need to get over their injury or illness, and then see that they get it. Or, if they can’t, show how it’s still affecting them because it hasn’t properly healed. Even afterward, there may still be lingering signs: scars; weakness; loss of mobility. Don’t forget –and don’t let your reader forget–what the character has been through, or the conflict will fall flat.
  5. Mortality:  Vim and vigor will only take your character so far; medicine and even magical healing shouldn’t be a miracle cure. Sometimes characters just won’t realistically survive. Don’t pull your characters back from the brink if it’s reasonable that they would go over. It will break the reader’s suspension of disbelief at best or make them feel cheated or emotionally manipulated.
    Or, if you really must have the character survive, consider making the injury less severe. It can still be a close call, but pulling back on the scope can make all the difference for your reader.
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2 thoughts on “Five Things: Illness, Injury, and Medicine

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