by Chantal Boudreau
Suffering from a cold myself at the moment, I find myself reflecting on how illness is one of those factors of realism a reader might hope to see in fantasy fiction. Fantasy is often based on medieval culture where illness was abundant thanks to less than sanitary living conditions and limited medical care. Poverty meant crowded living quarters where the malnourished and overworked couldn’t avoid ill family members. Livestyle led to epidemic plagues and a lower average life expectancy.
Granted, characters in the typical fantasy tale aren’t necessarily the type of person exposed to these conditions. Royalty, or heroic figures from noble stock would be less likely to succumb to illness than the ordinary peasant, but including illness in a story allows a writer to explore realistic aspects from a more fantastical angle. How would illness be treated in a realm where magic is available, for example? Would it impact the lives of rogues, warriors and wizards in a significant way?
One of my favourite science fiction novels involves a time traveller who ventures into the days of the bubonic plague, Doomsday Book by Connie Willis. I consider this book a part of the inspiration behind the magic plague I introduced in my Masters and Renegades series. The ailment only afflicts those who wield magic and is the central theme of my second book in the series, Casualties of War. Not only does this illness make the practicing of magic dangerous, but it serves as the source for biological warfare – another way of applying real-world concepts to fantasy stories.
If you look at the type of illnesses that tormented soldiers in the trenches during real wars, you might expect similar obstacles for fantasy warriors entering massive battles. Trench foot, caused by standing in mud and water for long periods of time, parasites (trench fever was caused by body lice,) dysentary and shell shock were all real problems, but how often to they occur in fantasy fiction? Not all characters, like my dark elf, Urwick, have the mindset to tolerate combat. It’s refreshing to see such things realistically depicted in the fantasy we read.
Consider the weather conditions that questing characters would have to face while treking through wilderness. Getting drenched might make a less physically hardy wizard or rogue more susceptible to the flu or the common cold – perhaps even pneumonia, but how often does a wizard actually fumble a spell because of sneezing or congestion? It might actually add an element of comedy relief to a tense situation.
An illness need not land a character on the brink of death to add flavour to your story but it could be a welcome touch of realism. I definitely think it would be something nice to see, now and then.
And maybe then somebody could actually offer up the answer as to whether or not wizards get sick days…