The Art of Writing Medicine – Introduction

I think everyone gets a strange mixture of feelings when reading characters who do the same things we do. When a character in a piece of writing has the same hometown, or the same hobbies, I always get excited to see how true the details ring – never wanting the story to get bogged down with the shout-outs, mind, but interested enough to see if the writer knows what they’re talking about. It’s always the most fun, though, when someone has the same job as me.

You see, I’m a physician. And people love to write about physicians, about medicine; in fact, we’re one of the great tropes of genre fiction. Sci-fi, thrillers, even romance novels love to have physicians in them. It’s a perfect setup! If you’re writing a noble protagonist, who better to be selfless and caring, dedicated to healing the sick and doing good works for all? If you want a slick, smarmy villain, who better than the thoughtless physician who cares nothing for patients, deep in the pockets of the pharmaceutical agency or some other sinister cabal? We do half-crazed pretty well, with all kinds of pretensions to playing God; mad doctors have been a staple of science-fiction and fantasy since Frankenstein and Moreau. A dashing love interest for the romantic hero or heroine – who wouldn’t want to snag a rich doctor, probably good with kids and not too bad on the eyes? The physician is one of those great tropes in fiction that can go any way you please, hero to villain to anything in between.

Even when we aren’t the focal point, doctors make great Fifth Business, as Robertson Davies might have said. Physicians can be great plot propellers, even if they aren’t main characters – who better to provide exposition to a sudden health crisis, or be forced to reveal some terrible secret, or be a focal point that the heroes must find to heal an injured comrade. Really, a physician can be almost anything in the story, and done well, there’s almost no role that we can’t fill.

Done well, though – there’s the problematic thing.

As with any field, medicine can be a hard thing to write. There is a lot of detail involved, and getting something wrong can turn a knowledgeable reader into a ruthless editor. This is no different from computer science, or history, and it can depend on the scale of the error; getting the name of the surgical instrument wrong is a far cry from an unrealistic portrayal of childbirth or a head injury. As well, getting the details right doesn’t help if the scale of detail swamps the reader. I once wrote a story where a crucial plot point depended on the reader knowing how chromosomes divided during reproduction, and while I think I did a good job explaining the process, it still was nearly half a page of a cytogenetics lecture. It can take a lot of skill to do this properly – or to realize if there’s a better way to explain it altogether.

My next few posts will be dedicated to the art of writing medicine. Sooner or later most writers have some medical plot point or physician character, even if minor. In my next post we’ll talk about some of the common pitfalls that writers experience beyond just getting the medical science wrong. After that, we’ll take a look at how to write a good physician character, how to write believable medicine in your fiction, and we’ll even look at how to use it in “realistically unrealistic” ways for those of you who like your medical science mad. I’ll talk about other health professions in fiction beyond the physician – after all, multidisciplinary teams are the norm these days – and finally, we’ll look at some interesting ways that medicine could be used beyond the routine tropes of fiction.

I’m looking forward to this Grand Rounds of Fictional Medicine, and I hope you are too.

5 responses on “The Art of Writing Medicine – Introduction

  1. Colette

    I am intrigued and looking forward to your next post. I realized after reading the first few paragraphs, I think I have some kind of physician or medical aspect, from an aspiring doctor protagonist to side-characters to driving-the-plot premises, in every single story I’ve written. Great subject!

  2. leigh

    I work with doctors every day, and you are absolutely right about the various parts they can play in a story. I think one of the most interesting aspects of physicians is how much trust people put into them, or how much people are paranoid about them. It seems like it’s one or the other, which is great fodder for complicating a story in interesting ways.

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