May 3, 2011
My Character is Sick–How to Show (Not Tell) Some Illnesses
This is my all-time popular post. Read on and you’ll see why:
Fiction writing is about communicating as much as possible within the story line. Every writing class you take will exhort you to show not tell. As Samuel Clemens said,
“Don’t tell us that the old lady screamed.
Bring her on and let her scream.”
You will often have your characters become sick in the novel. It creates drama. It helps the reader feel empathy for the protagonist or enmity for the antagonist. Maybe it serves the plot line. Here are some ideas you can use if your character is sick:
- Dark urine with a very strong odor.
- Low urine output.
- Dark, sunken eyes.
- Emotional instability.
- Loss of skin elasticity.
- Delayed capillary refill in fingernail beds.
- Trench line down center of tongue.
- Thirst. Last on the list because you are already 2 percent dehydrated by the time you crave fluids.
Scorpions are all poisonous to a greater or lesser degree. There are two different reactions, depending on the species:
- Severe local reaction only, with pain and swelling around the area of the sting. Possible prickly sensation around the mouth and a thick-feeling tongue.
- Severe systemic reaction, with little or no visible local reaction includes respiratory difficulties, thick-feeling tongue, body spasms, drooling, gastric distention, double vision, blindness, involuntary rapid movement of the eyeballs, involuntary urination and defecation, and heart failure. Death is rare, occurring mainly in children and adults with high blood pressure or illnesses.
Treat scorpion stings as you would a black widow bite.
Deaths from snakebites are rare. Snake venoms not only contain poisons that attack the victim’s central nervous system (neurotoxins) and blood circulation (hemotoxins), but also digestive enzymes (cytotoxins) to aid in digesting their prey. These poisons can cause a very large area of tissue death, leaving a large open wound. This condition could lead to the need for eventual amputation if not treated.
Bites from a nonpoisonous snake will show rows of teeth. Bites from a poisonous snake may have rows of teeth showing, but will have one or more distinctive puncture marks caused by fang penetration. Symptoms may be bleeding from the nose and anus, blood in the urine, pain at the site of the bite, and swelling at the site of the bite within a few minutes or up to 2 hours later.
Breathing difficulty, paralysis, weakness, twitching, and numbness are also signs of neurotoxic venoms. These signs usually appear 1.5 to 2 hours after the bite.
See the image at the right for an image. After your character is stung, be sure to follow these instructions to relieve the itching and discomfort:
- Cold compresses.
- A cooling paste of mud and ashes.
- Sap from dandelions.
- Coconut meat.
- Crushed cloves of garlic.
The black widow spider is identified by a red hourglass on its abdomen. The initial pain is not severe, but severe local pain rapidly develops. The pain gradually spreads over the entire body and settles in the abdomen and legs. Abdominal cramps and progressive nausea, vomiting, and a rash may occur. Weakness, tremors, sweating, and salivation may occur. Anaphylactic reactions can occur. Symptoms begin to regress after several hours and are usually gone in a few days.
The brown recluse spider is a small, light brown spider identified by a dark brown violin on its back. There is no pain, or so little pain, that usually a victim is not aware of the bite. Within a few hours a painful red area with a mottled cyanotic center appears. Necrosis does not occur in all bites, but usually in 3 to 4 days, a star-shaped, firm area of deep purple discoloration appears at the bite site. The area turns dark and mummified in a week or two. The margins separate and the scab falls off, leaving an open ulcer. Secondary infection and regional swollen lymph glands usually become visible at this stage. The outstanding characteristic of the brown recluse bite is an ulcer that does not heal but persists for weeks or months. In addition to the ulcer, there is often a systemic reaction that is serious and may lead to death. Reactions (fever, chills, joint pain, vomiting, and a generalized rash) occur chiefly in children or debilitated persons.
Tarantulas are large, hairy spiders found mainly in the tropics. Most do not inject venom, but some South American species do. If bitten, pain and bleeding are certain, and infection is likely. Treat a tarantula bite as for any open wound, and try to prevent infection. If symptoms of poisoning appear, treat as for the bite of the black widow spider.
I know. Not a lot, but these are the only illnesses my characters have come across in my novels so far. Would you share yours so we-all can develop a database?
For more descriptors for characters and settings, click here.