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My Character is Sick–How to Show (Not Tell) Illness

Your character's sick. Make the reader feel it.

Your character’s sick. Make the reader feel it.

Fiction writing is about communicating as much as possible within the story line. Every writing class you take will exhort you to show not tell. As Samuel Clemens said,

“Don’t tell us that the old lady screamed.
Bring her on and let her scream.”

You will often have your characters become sick in the novel. It creates drama. It helps the reader feel empathy for the protagonist or enmity for the antagonist. Maybe it serves the plot line. Here are some ideas you can use if your character is sick:


  • Dark urine with a very strong odor.
  • Low urine output.
  • Dark, sunken eyes.
  • Fatigue.
  • Emotional instability.
  • Loss of skin elasticity.
  • Delayed capillary refill in fingernail beds.
  • Trench line down center of tongue.
  • Thirst. Last on the list because you are already 2 percent dehydrated by the time you crave fluids.

Scorpion Stings 

Scorpions are all poisonous to a greater or lesser degree. There are two different reactions, depending on the species:


Photo credit: Grovlam

  • Severe local reaction only, with pain and swelling around the area of the sting. Possible prickly sensation around the mouth and a thick-feeling tongue.
  • Severe systemic reaction, with little or no visible local reaction includes respiratory difficulties, thick-feeling tongue, body spasms, drooling, gastric distention, double vision, blindness, involuntary rapid movement of the eyeballs, involuntary urination and defecation, and heart failure. Death is rare, occurring mainly in children and adults with high blood pressure or illnesses.

Treat scorpion stings as you would a black widow bite.


Deaths from snakebites are rare. Snake venoms not only contain poisons that attack the victim’s central nervous system (neurotoxins) and blood circulation (hemotoxins), but also digestive enzymes (cytotoxins) to aid in digesting their prey. These poisons can cause a very large area of tissue death, leaving a large open wound. This condition could lead to the need for eventual amputation if not treated.

Bites from a nonpoisonous snake will show rows of teeth. Bites from a poisonous snake may have rows of teeth showing, but will have one or more distinctive puncture marks caused by fang penetration. Symptoms may be bleeding from the nose and anus, blood in the urine, pain at the site of the bite, and swelling at the site of the bite within a few minutes or up to 2 hours later.

Breathing difficulty, paralysis, weakness, twitching, and numbness are also signs of neurotoxic venoms. These signs usually appear 1.5 to 2 hours after the bite.



See the image at the right for an image. After your character is stung, be sure to follow these instructions to relieve the itching and discomfort:

  • Cold compresses.
  • A cooling paste of mud and ashes.
  • Sap from dandelions.
  • Coconut meat.
  • Crushed cloves of garlic.
  • Onion.

Spider Bites

The black widow spider is identified by a red hourglass on its abdomen. The initial pain is not severe, but severe local pain rapidly develops. The pain gradually spreads over the entire body and settles in the abdomen and legs. Abdominal cramps and progressive nausea, vomiting, and a rash may occur. Weakness, tremors, sweating, and salivation may occur. Anaphylactic reactions can occur. Symptoms begin to regress after several hours and are usually gone in a few days.

The brown recluse spider is a small, light brown spider identified by a dark brown violin on its back. There is no pain, or so little pain, that usually a victim is not aware of the bite. Within a few hours a painful red area with a mottled cyanotic center appears. Necrosis does not occur in all bites, but usually in 3 to 4 days, a star-shaped, firm area of deep purple discoloration appears at the bite site. The area turns dark and mummified in a week or two. The margins separate and the scab falls off, leaving an open ulcer. Secondary infection and regional swollen lymph glands usually become visible at this stage. The outstanding characteristic of the brown recluse bite is an ulcer that does not heal but persists for weeks or months. In addition to the ulcer, there is often a systemic reaction that is serious and may lead to death. Reactions (fever, chills, joint pain, vomiting, and a generalized rash) occur chiefly in children or debilitated persons.

Tarantulas are large, hairy spiders found mainly in the tropics. Most do not inject venom, but some South American species do. If bitten, pain and bleeding are certain, and infection is likely. Treat a tarantula bite as for any open wound, and try to prevent infection. If symptoms of poisoning appear, treat as for the bite of the black widow spider.

I know. Not a lot, but these are the only illnesses my characters have come across in my novels so far. Would you share yours so we-all can develop a database?

For more descriptors for characters and settings, click here.

19 thoughts on “My Character is Sick–How to Show (Not Tell) Illness

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  3. Apologies, Jacqui, I may have said this before [and I know it may not be much to your accomplished writers/contributors] but I find your writing advice like ‘a new toy to a boy’ and I accept them like religious mantras. Showing makes the writing so much pleasurable and surely reading enjoyable too. And your piece will add to my writing pleasure and make it more lively/believable. The side effect of your post will act like a warning signal to me when I start telling again. Love. Arun


  4. Thank you to all of Jacqui’s readers. You’ve opened my eyes to all kinds of experiences and possibilities, even if they are sickly. The day my computer got hooked up to the Internet, (about 14 years ago) several dozen friends and colleagues emailed to welcome me to the world of the information highway – and it is so true!


  5. You forgot the Funnel Web spider I had one crawl over the sliding door the other night, lucky this one was docile. If they release toxic venom and you don’t treat it serious like a snake bite, it can be deadly.


  6. None of my characters have become sick like this, but I can add one to the list. I was stung by a black wasp about 15 years ago (I’ve never been able to find out what sort of wasp it was on Google). It got under my shirt and began to sting me on the abdomen, I reached in and grabbed it (I was actually in the passenger seat of a moving car at the time, the driver slowed and I jumped out while the car was still moving). It stung my fingers and thumb as I was trying to pull it away from my skin. I eventually got it off me and threw it on the ground. It had a long black ‘barb’ at the back that was as big as it’s body (probably half an inch long). I didn’t go to the doctor, but I had shocking pain and big red lumps where it bit me. *** But the weird thing was that I had horrific and vivid nightmares for about three nights after I was stung and I think it was from whatever poison it had put in my system. This is something writers don’t normally think of when their characters have some kind of bite or poisonous sting – the after-effects from receiving a dose of insect venom can have other side effects that may last for days. Anyway – enough from me 😀


    • Thanks, Connor. I was researching nature-oriented injuries for a character who lived outside and this is part of what I came up with. They’re amazing, aren’t they? Then, I had to find natural cures! That’s a whole ‘nuther post.


  7. You’ve exposed your characters to some horrific conditions! One of mine died of typhus and another of pneumonia. Both cases were in poor and under served communities before and during WWII. In another book, a character dies of complications of stroke.


    • Well, mine died from being trampled by a Mammoth. Lucy’s intended mate–remember him? Ah, fiction…

      I’m trying to remember who died from stroke. Does anyone die from Alzheimer’s (any sneak peaks?)


      • I didn’t let the crit group read about the stroke. We could discuss privately who it is that dies of a stroke, if you really want to know. People don’t really die of Alzheimer’s but of the complications from the disease. And yes, there is a death, but the crit group won’t read that chapter either.
        Then of course, there is Tootie.


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