Like natural disasters, disease and other illnesses can also be a great change device for your fantasy novel.  It’s another “get out of jail” card for your characters or a way of killing off a few that you no longer need.

Although you can think up fantasy diseases where people break out in purple welts and die laughing, it can be worth researching real health issues as you have a wealth of information available to you.  For example in George R R Martin’s Game of Thrones series, one of his characters very obviously has gout but is happily scoffing buckets of oranges (which aggravates this condition).  So he’s used a real disease but lets the reader figure out why his character is suffering so badly.

Plagues are another way of injecting change into your book.  If you look into the history of various plagues like the bubonic plague, “sweating” illness, plague of Athens, the Spanish ‘flu epidemic, etc. you’ll get to understand the various symptoms of such diseases, but also:

  • How people reacted to the disease (e.g. increased crime, warfare, persecution).
  • What people tried to do to survive it (e.g. fled into the countryside, locked themselves away).
  • How the disease was “treated” (e.g. some of the more bizarre black plague treatments were to place a live hen next to the swelling or to drink your own urine).
  • Whether people felt that their god/gods had it in for them because of their sins.
  • Who they blamed for the disease (e.g. the Sweating sickness was blamed on the foreign army of King Henry VII, while the Athens plague caused religious mayhem because they felt they’d been abandoned by the gods).
  • What happened to the dead (e.g. left to rot where they fell, mass graves, funeral ‘bonfires’, boarding up houses).

I’ve used various health problems in my writing as they can push your novel in a completely new direction.  A life-threatening illness in one character can push others to act in haste, or make them shun people whom they love.  A plague can cause chaos, uncertainty and violence.   A serious health issue can make a character’s life incredibly restricted.  It can be a very powerful plot device.

True, disease isn’t a nice topic, but people do get sick or suffer debilitating problems in real life so it’s something you can draw from in fantasy writing to help your readers engage and empathise with your characters.  If you think about the people you know, how many different health problems do they have?  Maybe in your fantasy worlds you can find a cure.

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