As a mandate, “Do no harm” is all well and good for doctors, but as Kurt Vonnegut once said, writers must be sadists, tormenting our characters “so that the reader may see what they’re made of.” Whether you want to torment your characters with a disease, or inflict upon them a career in medicine, research is going to be very important. Here are four resources I’ve used and found invaluable in my writing.
1. Mayo Clinic
The Mayo Clinic’s website is a great starting place. It’s well researched, the articles are short, concise, and well organized. They’re written so anyone can understand them, and practical enough you can get an idea of whether your character should be coughing up blood, shaking uncontrollably, or simply suffering in silence. You’ll get an idea of your character’s prognosis so you can start outlining the days until their untimely death or uncertain recovery.
If you don’t know the name of the disease afflicting your unlucky victim–I mean character!–the Mayo Clinic has a handy symptom checker. Just tell the computer what’s wrong, and it will quiz you for details about the symptoms and at the end, hand you a shiny new diagnosis. It’s like a robot doctor you can see at home, perfect for characters without good health insurance.
2. Medline Plus
My parents are both physicians, and at the dinner table they often had conversations in an entirely different language, sentences so peppered with medical jargon as to be indecipherable. To get into the head of your doctor or nurse, you’ll need to become familiar with at least a few terms. Medline Plus has a quick interactive course on some common medical terminology complete with a final quiz. Just like medical school, but without the soul crushing stress and financial ruin.
Medline Plus also has a handy encyclopedia that covers not only most prescription drugs, but also quite a few supplements. Whether your character pops sedatives or is a New Age vitamin junkie, you can get a sense of what those drugs will do to their body. Which brings me to my next resource…
This forum is one of the best resources I’ve found for writing a drug-addicted character. People who have struggles with addiction use this anonymous forum as a place to share their experiences. The first thread I found on this site was one discussing what it was like to do heroin. The people posting were frank, honest, brave, and surprisingly poetic, and I’m incredibly grateful for the stories they posted. The understanding I gained made my character come to life.
There’s a wiki here with definitions for terms like “speedballing” which can be useful for someone who stayed sober through high school because she wasn’t cool enough for the other kids to bother with peer pressure.
One note: You’ll see people write sentences like, “so, SWIM was shooting up the other night.” SWIM stands for “someone who isn’t me,” and is often used in place of the pronoun I. It’s a way people try to avoid self-incrimination.
4. National Institute for Mental Health (NIMH)
If you’re like me, you just can’t write a character who doesn’t have some kind of neurosis eating away at them. Whether it’s PTSD from a traumatic childhood (which I wrote about here) or panic attacks that spur on the plot, psychological disorders are an excellent way for the friendly sadistic writer to torment her characters.
NIMH is a great resource for getting a handle on what these disorders really look like. It’s written sans medical jargon, and clear lists of symptoms can help you decide exactly how your character should be acting and feeling.
NIMH is a wonderful starting point for delving into the disturbed psychology of a character, but you can certainly go deeper. Next week, I’ll have a list of psychopathology specific resources tailored for writers.
In the meantime, are there any great resources I’ve missed? Is there any specific topic you’d like to see covered? Let me know!