JT Ellison

I’ve sprained my ankle.

No, don’t all of you send flowers at once. (I like roses and
red gerber daisies, by the way…)

Seems like an innocuous little injury. When I was on the
track team in high school, sprains, aches, pains, torn muscles, skinned knees –
all that was a daily occurrence, nothing to give a second thought to. You iced,
then you taped, and you went on with the show.

But now, well, I’m in actually pain. I’ve got it wrapped, I
have it elevated, I’ve taken some Advil, but that nagging soreness won’t go
away. From hobbling around, the head of my left quadricep muscle is inflamed,
moving into my hip flexor, so now my entire leg hurts. We won’t go into the
visions of blood clots and strokes (hypochondria, anyone?)

And all this got me thinking about my characters, and
readers perceptions of characters.

A while back, a thread appeared on DorothyL about characters
being sick. One or two people got exceptionally vocal about it too, asserting
they hated when a character catches a cold, or hurts themselves. Now, in my
first manuscript, my character had a cold that progressed into a sinus
infection. But here in Tennessee, that’s something that happens to EVERYONE.
The doctors have an esoteric label for it, something not just anyone would have
thought of. The Tennessee Crud.

You catch the Tennessee Crud about twice a year. The docs
shoot you full of Cortisone, give you a Z-pak, Musinex, and some of that nifty
cough medicine with codeine in it, then send you on your way.

Being a relatively naïve young writer, I felt that adding a
bit of realism to my novel was a good thing. So I wrote the Tennessee Crud in,
giving it to my main character, homicide Lieutenant Taylor Jackson, who despite
feeling like absolute sh*t, must work to solve the murders. Serial Killers
don’t seem to care if you have a cold, they just want to make their next kill
and move on with the story.

Apparently, that wasn’t such a good idea. Readers, at least
those who took the time to chime in, HATE when a character falls ill. As they
do street directions, but that’s a whole different beast.

Now, that book isn’t getting published, so I don’t have to
worry about offending any readers. But the dichotomy surprised me. While it
wasn’t a big deal to many readers, to some, it was downright offensive.

I’m curious what the reasoning is behind this feeling. Is it
that you want a main character who’s strong and virile? Is it annoying to be
reminded of your own failings and weaknesses?

As I sit here, nursing my own aches and pains, I think of
poor Taylor, who suffered so mightily (and for no reason) with her cold in the
first book, and feel a little closer to her because she isn’t infallible.

So tell me, what do you think? Can a character’s humanness
get in the way of the story?

Wine of the Week: This wine blew me away. It’s called Taltarni Shiraz, from Australia.
Rich, fruity, beautiful. Highly recommended.
And since Hubby and I will celebrate our 11th anniversary tomorrow, how about some celebration wine? Piper-Heidsieck

17 thoughts on “Achoo!

  1. Iden Ford

    JT so sorry to hear about your andke and your vastus lateralis. All I can say is riding a stationary bike lightly for about 20 minutes per day will increase the blood flow to the traumaitzed areas and probably speed the healing. Very light gear so you do not stress the muscle tissue, just warm it. Anyway in my wife’s third novel, Poor Tom Is Cold, Murdoch starts out with a toothache which he eventually has pulled. The neat thing about this is that he gets to go to the dentist 1895 style and he is given laughing gas. His dreams while under the gas are hilarious and gives what is a sombre story, some comic relief. This scene was included in the original television adaptation, as did the whole toothache thing, but alas ended up on the cutting room floor as the producers opted for him having another dream sequence instead where he is having sex with the coroner (female) on an autopsy table. Very interesting as you can imagine. Anyway, Maureen did some interesting research into the history of dentistry in Canada by going to the archives for dentistry in Toronto. She is most accurate with her research. She also decided to try the laughing gas route when she went to have a tooth filled and that is a whole other story which is too long and funny to write about. Get better soon, Iden

  2. Neil Nyren

    I find it pretty astonishing that any sensible reader would have that kind of reaction to a hero’s illness or injury. Invincibility happens only in comic books (and not so much in them any more!). Just ignore ’em. Get better! Neil

  3. Naomi

    I just started reading Ross Thomas’s CHINAMAN’S CHANCE last night, and it starts off with a main character tripping over a dead pelican and spraining his ankle! Of course, I’m only a few pages in and it may not be what it seems to be.

    Anyway, hope you are on the mend real soon and happy anniversary! My girlfriends and I had a BV chardonnay (I think it was 1996) recently–something about it being the wine that would be served at a function before the Emmy’s. Ah, Hollywood.

  4. guyot

    My two cents (which is really worth only about 1.3 pennies):

    Readers who bitch about things like inaccurate street directions, music choices, or characters being sick are, well, readers with too much time on their hands.

    And despite what it may seeem like because of places like DorothyL, these readers are the minority. I promise you that.

    So screw ’em. If a reader would truly stop buying your books because you had a character being sick, that reader would stop buying your book for a million other reasons.

    Because they’re insane.

    Write what you have to write. Never, never, never, never, never try and write to appease everyone – because guess what? You can’t do it. Can’t be done. Not a chance in hell.

    If your writer’s gut tells you to give your character a cold, or cancer, or even to kill the cat, do it! Once you start compromising as an artist, you are no longer an artist.

    You may think it’s no big deal to lose the nagging cold you wanted to give your protag. But that humanness, that very detail may be something that connects with a reader. Or a critic. Or a bookseller. That you actually put some thought into your character, actually created someone REAL, and not just reported about yet another cardboard character wandering through some cardboard plot.

  5. Jody Crocker

    So sorry to hear about your sprain. It’s not any fun. Tennessee Crud sounds a lot like what I get about twice a year, except mine is precipitated by my allergies. Same treatment, though one year I also had to have a lung treatment with a nebulizer. I think having the protaganist (or others in the story/book) deal with illnesses & injuries adds to the realistic touch. Just think about James Stewart’s character in Rear Window. There’d be no story without the injury.

  6. Pari

    J.T.,Well, hells bells. I’m sorry to hear about that ankle. May it heal quickly.

    When I first read that “Tennessee Crud,” I thought of the song: “Tennessee Stud.”

    So, sing this to the same tune:

    “The Tennessee Crud was strong and mean.A nastier cold, you’ve never seen.But it has the truth. It hits you like a scud.You’ve never seen anything like the Tennessee Crud.”

    Regarding characters getting sick or having physical failings, I’m with the other posters so far. You write what you need to write.

    Frankly, I’m annoyed by the super characters who never get sick and recover quickly from injuries. It’s amazing how often you read about a character getting beaten up and in the next scene, she’s leaping a building and stopping a train in her Manolos.

  7. Elaine

    Sorry to hear about your ankle! But look at the bright side-you don’t need it to type. I’d have gladly traded a sprained ankle for the tendonitis I had in my left hand for three months.

    I can’t imagine a reader having a problem with a protag having a cold or the flue, or what-the-hell-ever. I mean, they can handle murder and mayhem, but not a cold? Spare me that reader please.

  8. B.G. Ritts

    The handful that complains does not necessarily represent the many who don’t. Besides, if we followed the squeaky wheel everywhere, we’d never get any sleep. (I hope that makes sense — it did when I first had the thought.)

    Write it your way — and the few, the loud, the squeakies can be writing their rants while the rest of us enjoy the book.

  9. Alexandra Sokoloff

    Oh, sweetie! I’m so sorry you’re injured. It’s a bitch and a half not to be able to walk. But don’t be stupid and try to do too much too soon (says the queen of stupidity.) READ and WRITE and eat bonbons.

    P. Guyot says everything that needs to be said on the character weakness issue.

    Feel better soon. XX

  10. Tasha Alexander

    JT, you take care of that ankle!!!!

    And write your characters sick or well–so long as you make me care about them, I’m not going to complain about their health (or the lack thereof).


  11. Bryon Quertermous

    That’s pure bullshit. I love realism in my characters including the flu and injuries and other foibles. When Ed McBain was starting the 87th Precinct series he said he wanted to crack the invincible cop stereotype by giving his characters head colds. I don’t think that hurt his career any.

  12. G. T. Karber

    Here’s the way I see it: your protagonist catching a cold is annoying, because we’re going to constantly see references to it.

    It’s why they drop the entire concept of Blade receiving serums to keep him human in the sequels. Now, I’m not going to say that the sequels were any good (they were okay), but had they continued along the lines of Blade’s anguish at having to receive increasingly larger doses of medication–it would have gotten downright annoying.

    I think readers don’t like head-colds because they feel unnecessary. They don’t change the events of the story or anything, and yet they are constantly referenced (sneezes, headaches, and the such). That’s just excess material that, like directions, doesn’t need to be mentioned.

    Giving the protagonist a headcold is like making your reader live with one the entire time he or she is reading.

  13. patry

    I agree with G.T. Garber. If it doesn’t say something about the character (maybe he’s a hypochondriac, or a klutz) or further the plotin some way (he’s trying to chase down the criminal, but has a sprained ankle) then I, asa reader, don’t need to know about it.

    Happy anniversary! The wine sounds divine…

  14. circuitmouse

    “…hate street directions?!?” Wouldn’t that give James Joyce a start. More and more, literary tourists are retracing every step of their favorite protagonists… just ask Sue Grafton –or better yet, the Santa Barbara Convention and Visitors Bureau. But woe unto the author who mucks with the geography, because you will be the ones to hear from readers, whether the deviation from reality was intended or not.


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