How Do Your Characters Handle Adversity?

A while back, I wrote a post about using the lemons life hands you in your writing.  Maybe it’s time to expand on that idea.

The past two weeks, I’ve been helping my sister after she underwent major surgery.  As we discovered what she could and could not do, how she felt after normal daily activities, and how her friends and co-workers react to her new reality, it’s been a learning journey for both of us.

A couple of days after I arrived at her home, she began feeling a bit better each day, allowing me time to think about how we write health and lifestyle problems into our character’s lives.

From the relative who always has a horror story worse than my sister’s to the co-worker who went through the same surgery a few years ago and shared what to expect at every stage of treatment and recovery, there are endless opportunities to learn human behavior in my sister’s situation.

If you’ve ever been through a life-changing health crisis, you’ve probably assessed the reactions and levels of support you encountered.

Watch how one person pushes fear to a tiny corner of their mind to take control in every way they can.  Another may do hours of research and work with their doctors, while someone else may leave every decision in the hands of the “experts.” 

Does an invalid turn into someone you don’t recognize?  Is she sweeter and more understanding of others?  Or does her illness make her bitter and angry?

Family members may over-compensate by trying to do everything for their loved one.  Others pretend to ignore what’s going on, deciding if they don’t acknowledge the seriousness of the situation it won’t exist.

Do they step in and take care of daily tasks the patient can no longer handle?  Do friends and family show up and just listen without offering unsolicited advice or judging the patient’s health-care decisions?  Or do they avoid her because they have no idea how to react or talk to someone going through a major health crisis?

Next time you write an accident or ill health for your characters, think about how that character reacts to his diagnosis.  Does he fall apart and wait for the worst to happen?  Or straighten his back and take control to the extent possible?

How does her method of coping change her personality or habits?  Does a life-changing diagnosis force your character to analyze her life and change her career, her goals, or her dreams?  Will your character’s illness or disaster lead her to find her true voice?  And once she does, how do friends and relatives react?

As I mentioned in that past post, life presents unlimited chances to flesh out characters as your understanding of humanity deepens.  Take advantage of this new knowledge to enrich your stories.  Your readers will recognize echoes of their lives in the characters you develop and will fall in love with them.


If you’d like to work with me this year, I have a few spots open through the end of the year.  Email me at and let’s start a conversation about how I may help you attain your writing dreams.