Fantasy novel question: What's a good (bad) illness for the son of a macho man?

Another thread about Skald’s novel-in-progress! Wow, that only makes ten billion! :wally

As some of you may recall from my days as Fabulous Creature, I’m working on a fantasy novel. (Technically speaking it’s a mixture; the first half is an urban fantasy set in the 1980s, the second half is a high fantasy set in an alternate world). I’m in rewrite at this point, and I’ve decided I need to add some ambiguity to a character. I’d appreciate some input from the group, if you don’t mind.

First some background. One of the story’s two protagonists is a boy named Andy. As the story opens he’s 10; for the majority of the action he’s 14. Andy is the son and namesake of a Marine gunnery sergeant who is lost in a plane crash before the action begins. Andrew Senior’s body is never found, and Andy never relinquishes hope that he is somehow still alive. He wants to shape himself into the image of his father; to his mind, being a leatherneck–which to him means an honorable, brave person who protects the innocent and helpless–is what every man should aspire to be. Consequently he puts forth no small effort into taking care of the story’s other protagonist, Hannah. After her husband’s death, Andy’s mother, Beatrice, collapses emotionally, leaving his older sister, Rosemary, in charge of running the household and raising Andy. Andy and Hannah both adore Rosemary.

Four years after his father’s death, Andy’s mother, Beatrice, remarries. Her new husband, George, was Andrew Sr.'s CO in Vietnam; Andy Sr. saved his life during the battle of Khe Sanh. He has a son, Christopher, about Andy’s age. George brought the family news of Andrew Sr.'s death, told Andy the story his father’s heroism during the war, and is the first of Beatrice’s suitor’s both Andy and Rosemary approve of.

Naturally he’s a son of a bitch.

By means of various plot convolutions I won’t go into here, George betrays the family. Specifically he is allied with the same evil wizard who murdered Andrew Senior. In exchange for a service provided by said wizard, George stealing a fraction of Rosemary’s soul; this assault leaves her dying. Andy and Hannah must go on a quest to cure her.

Still with me? Good. Now for the reason for this thread:

In my original draft, George betrays the family simply because he wants magical power the wizard can provide. Looking over my manuscript I’ve decided I don’t like that; I want to make his character and actions more ambiguous. I’m opting to do that by changing his motivation. Rather than simple magical power, George will be seeking healing for his son. Christopher will be suffering from mundane ailment that the wizard can cure – but the wizard is only willing to do so in exchange for the fraction of Rosemary’s soul. George, in this view, is genuinely fond of Andy’s family – but simply cares more for his own son. He tries to be a good stepfather to Andy (and even, initially, Rosemary), partly because that’s what he wants to do, partly out of guilt.

Which brings me to my questions:

1. What ailment(s) should Christopher suffer from?
2. How serious should this ailment be?

My initial idea was that Christopher is confined to a wheelchair because of an accident; in this concept, he was crippled in the same accident that left George a widower. On the other hand, it might be better if Christopher has some other problem that seems bad to George because it prevents the boy from being an athlete. Andy and George get along very well, not least because Andy is athletic and is so interested in becoming a Marine himself. If Christopher has asthma or some other problem that prevents him from being the jock Andy is – but nevertheless will neither kill him nor prevent him from leading a full life – does that make George’s actions more ambiguous, or less? In this view, in other words, George is trying to fix his not-really-broken son, because Christopher isn’t what HE imagines a boy should be.

If anybody can name a specific medical problem that Christopher could suffer from, they should feel free to do so. Thanks in advance, Dopers.

Depends on how you want your audience to react to George. If you want him to be sympathetic, AIDS from a blood transfusion would seem the obvious choice. Gives a very strong motivation for any bad things he does.

If not that, then Multiple Sclerosis or Cystic Fibrosis or something like that, where Chistopher is in a real life-threatening situation. Some sort of paralysis (say from a car accident) would also work.

The more trivial the disease, the bigger a jerk George becomes. Killing people to cure his son’s infected hangnail, for instance, is going to make George completely unsypathetic.

So, ultimately, how do you want the reader to react to the character?

Juvenile ALS perhaps? It doesn’t progress as rapidly as classic ALS, so patients may linger for many years. ALS is a cripplingly degenerative neuromuscular disorder, and since some people are more familiar with it as “Lou Gehrig’s Disease,” this might lend a bit more poignance to the father’s desperation as he watches his son’s health and athletic prospects slowly withering away. Additionally, juvenile ALS is a variety of familial ALS, so the dad might also harbor a sense of guilt that his own genes might ultimately be responsible for his son’s condition. On the other hand, Physicist Stephen Hawking has had a remarkable career despite suffering from ALS, so the condition is not necessarily either an immediate sentence of death or a bar to great human accomplishment, except in an absolute physical sense. Plus, from a storytelling perspective, I think that ALS doesn’t convey the luridly melodramatic “movie-of-the-week” quality that AIDS has acquired over the years.

Another thought: Since a wizard is involved to begin with, perhaps the son could instead suffer from a purely “magical” disease, one that medical science has no knowledge of or hope of curing? This would seem to present a couple of immediate advantages, in that you could just make up the disease’s rate of progression and any symptoms you like to fit the story, and it also provides a solid justification for why the father would turn to magical help to begin with.

Skald the Rhymer. You seem to be bouncing back and forth a bit between Christopher “having an illness” or “being maimed.”

I thought your asthma example was a good one, actually: if you have to go the disease route, asthma requires very little exposition and it would be very dramatic to have his son suffer an attack. On a primal level, it’s hard as hell watching your child gasp for air. It’s also the kind of PC-resistant disease that can ripe for teasing, teenage embarassment and ridicule by bullies. The disease was recognized in antiquity and it’s very likely otherworldly magicians would have developed an effective cure for something very similar, though it’s unlikely they would call it by the same name we do. If late Earthly 20th century medical science can’t provide an effective treatment to eliminate chronic asthma, the arcane and dangerous promise of magical cure on an alternate world might. Other illnesses good for their requisite dramatic possibilities include epilepsy, blindness, deafness, leprosy(!), cancer and narcolepsy.

However, I liked your first idea, that his son was injured in the same accident that left George a widower. If George feels guilty or an unaddressed grief that he somehow failed his wife, perhaps he feels he can redeem himself by curing his son. Really severe injuries cannot be cured, they can only be endured and adapted to. If his son lost an entire limb, or full use of a limb, conceivably the only route available to making him healed and whole again is a mystic one. As far as I know, there is no cure or surgical procedure for the complete restoration of a severing of the achilles tendon muscle in the ankle of a foot; the result will be a moderate-to-severe limp, which would impede a person’s imagined military career and athletic performance. Christopher would really have an “Achilles heel” – one that his father seeks to cure.

I think I would be tempted to go with a leukemia–something that modern medicine often can cure but there’s still always that doubt about whether they can cure this case this time.

Interesting question!

He’s the son of a macho man? I suggest he gets beat up by either the Village People or a pro wrestler.

Now, seriously…Hmmm…thinking of the last fantasy I’ve read–some of which might be high fantasy and the rest comic (all written by John Morressy)–you want either something magical (in which case the sky’s the limit, but I suggest you make it interesting) or something not curable and misunderstood until the 20th century. Though I agree the question is how mundane do you want it. Cancer of any sort isn’t very mundane while something like near-sightedness is probably just boring. I like the cripple idea.

I’d be more inclined to go with something supernatural. The Wizard has captured a piece of the boy’s soul somehow, which will kill the boy if not restored to him. Or, the wizard has some of the boys blood, which he’ll use to whomp up a demon to take control of the body. No requirement to stick to a mundane illness in a supernatural setting, especially since there’s apparently some connection between the two realms.

Hmmm…my first thought is that the disease/conditions should be something that the father passed on to the son. Like some recessive genetic condition that doesn’t actually effect George, but struck his child.

Or maybe congenital Syphilis—George was an asymptomatic carrier, and passed it onto the son in utero. It wasn’t discovered and cured until after he was born, and by then enough irreperable physical damage had been done to cripple Chris. (Maybe something neurological—there’s a lot you can do in that regard to leave someone effectively incapacitated, but not a complete vegetable or lunatic. Just read some Oliver Sacks to get an idea.)

So with that, you’d have another coupla angles on George’s motivation—guilt over causing, and a desire to put right, the disease he gave his son; and/or shame over the constant, glaring evidence of the “bad blood” produced by such a macho, body-proud man. Not only has his son been left a crippled weakling by an “unclean” disease, but it’s entirely George’s fault.

My thoughts, anyway. Eh?

Hemophilia?

Hermaphroditism.

A macho man would not want his son to have girly bits down there.

Somthing like transgendered or gay may be fun to play with - particularly given the associations, personal feelings etc.

What about something congenital that shows up only later in life (Parkinsons?) - this would leave the way open for your evil betrayer to die a horrible death.

What if instead of a disease he gets help to avoid something awful in his son’s future? And then you can be really mean by having your betrayer “betrayed” - or you have have something in the story about fate being “pre determined” and we can only change our own fates - not someone elses…

Epilepsy.
You could make the boy have mild epilepsy that is just minor absence seizures, or major epilepsy with grand mal seizures, you could make him responsive to drugs, or resistant to them, he could even have awful side effects from his medications which his father is trying to save him from. You could even make George’s actions the only alternative to brain surgery.

If you wanted another route- the boy could have had severe epilepsy, and either have had a seizure which caused a severe injury (e.g. a seizure while standing on a balcony-> fall-> paralysis/brain damage) or even that Andy has brain damage following complications from neurosurgery for his epilepsy, a surgery which his father insisted he have.

Lots of scope there to change things around to fit your characters, and epilepsy is relatively common so information would be easy enough to get.

Severe epilepsy would prevent the son from playing contact sports, swimming and driving, and a military career would be out of the question, so it would be enough of a dent to Goerge’s ego to make it work.

With epilepsy you can also choose a cause to suit your plot- epilepsy can be caused by prematurity, a head injury, hereditary forms are known (it could be from George’s side of the family, or Andy’s mother) or it could be idiopathic.

Simply for the flexibility it allows you, I think it would be a good choice.

I had a dream similar to this in that I traveled through a pyramid (think US dollar, eye and all) and came out through a cave half way up a huge cliff, this side was at war…Ended up in a “resort/spa” where everyone was deformed/mutated/alien, everyone was nice except the soldiers, they were assholes…The “enemy” attacked, it was a massacre…The enemy wasn’t so alien looking…
Anywho, I should dig up my old “Dream Journals”.

I vote for 2 of the above----Supernatural/Magic and Something in the Future.
(Maybe tooo Harry Potter vs. Something Wicked This Way Comes, but you asked for opinions and or suggestions.)

First of all, this is an excellent premise for a story. I’m starting to powerfully feel some of the characters already. I strongly hope that this story is seen through to completion so that I may write it.

There are a few ways of going about this. The first one would be to have Chris injure himself on a stolen motorbike while trail riding. Right there is an indication that Chris would have the potential to be a masculine man, the fact that he was brave enough to steal a motorbike and at least proficient on it enough to get away and ride on for a while before crashing. So the initial “bad news” that the parents would hear would almost be “good news,” as in, “well at least he was hurt riding a motorbike and not getting his ass kicked” or “at least he’s into motorbikes instead of stuffed animals.” The injury would be some kind of paralysis that could be easily cured by the wizard. The paralysis acts as a lock, and the wizards’ powers would hanceforth act as the key. Releasing the lock would allow Chris to grow to the full force of his masculine potential, hone his skills in riding and mechanics, by implication get bigger, stronger, adopt a mechanically masculine attitude as well as enjoying weightlifting, motorcycles, sports, and spiking his hair - the precursors to military service and possibly becoming an officer.

If the motorbike in question, the Chris crashed on, was stolen from Andy, new issues are introduced. Was Andy saved by what Chris did (Would Andy have crashed that same bike the next day if Chris hadn’t? [this would have to change the source of the crash to mechanical failure and not rider failure, exonerating Chris from any possible lack of skill.) If this is the case, there may be guilt on Andy that his friend met his fate on a bike that Andy should have maintained better. Also, the “should have been me” survivor’s trauma.

This has introduced some new dynamics which could lead off in many new and interesting directions. Instead of trying to write your story for you, I’ll just give you some paths you may now want to follow.

Also, you should rent and watch The Great Santini and it will help you internalize these military-family and father/son issues.

Someone in another forum was trashing me for my love of R.Crumb’s writing and my claim that it is genuine and highly insightful philosophy. What I have recently posted here has reminded me of something wrote called the Chinese Curse. He described his father, Charles Vincent Crumb, having fought in the Marines in Shanghai, and supposedly having committed atrocities there. He recounts how the Chinese on the streets of Shanghai cursed his father, they shouted centuries-old traditional curses at these young Marines, who months earlier had been at home playing football or helping their family on the farm - and that while the American Marines knew nothing about the curses being hurled at them, that the curses carried extremely heavy spiritual meaning to the Chinese.

Robert Crumb believes that his father was indeed cursed, and the curse was that none of his sons would ever be “real men” and that they would be utterly useless as soldiers. They would NEVER live up to their hard-ass, marine-colonel, all-american father. This has been proven right. Charles, a wimpy and weak kid whose only escape was his drawing, and who was a homosexual pedophile; he would later committ suicide. (Charles Crumb had some of the most beautiful drawings of all of them.) Robert, who was socially awkward, physically weak, and a coward when it came to women. And finally Maxon, a freaked-out weirdo, given to epileptic siezures and sexual exhibitionism, living on the San Fran streets and in flophouses, and supplementing his income with petty crime. Three boys who were useless to become a part of the regimented and all-American lifestyle that Colonel Charles Vincent Crumb fought for in three wars. Cursed by a prostrate Chinese beggar who lashed out at Col. Crumb, representative of the gigantic U.S. war machine, in the only way he could.

These kinds of stories are so powerful they move me to fucking tears. R. Crumb writes lots of them. Anyway, that is another insight into this particular father-son/military combo here.

I too would suggest “Gay” as the disease, and then show your readers it is not.

But considering this is fantasy novel, create a new disease:

The boy is suffering from Jopai - his muscles will only develop until he is 18 and then quickly degenerate until he cannot move, and then not speak, and then his heart muscle will be the last to give out and he will die, all in the course of three months. Only the wizard can cure Jopai, and he needs [fill in the blank] to do it.

Or you could take this real illness: porphyria, an allergy to sunlight that causes exposed skin to burn, blister and scar. In extreme cases symptoms can include migraines, nausea, vomiting and chronic pain. Some sufferers can even stop breathing. With this disease, the boy would be forced to only go out at night, or on cloudy rainy days. I suppose he could thrive in the UK, but otherwise, he would be in deep trouble…

Ultimately, it depends on how much of an SOB you want George to be, or how much conflict you want your readers to feel over him. I’m thinking of this on a scale of sorts:

1–Trying to cure something that doesn’t need curing (Christopher is gay, for example). No conflict. George is a villain.

2–Christopher suffers minor impairment that will prevent him from following in his father’s footsteps, but with proper treatment, his malady will not prevent him from living a mostly-normal life. (Asthma or a permanent limp, for example.) George is still a villain. Most people, especially parents, would sympathize with his desire to see his child healed, but his response is too extreme to elicit much in the way of conflicting emotions.

3–Christopher is seriously impaired. Whatever is wrong with him won’t kill him, at least not directly, but it will make his life very difficult. (Maybe he’s been blinded or partially paralyzed.) This level introduces some substantial conflict. In the abstract, George is obviously still in the wrong, but readers will generally recognize how painful this decision would be.

4–Chistopher’s ailment is slowly killing him. He might or might not live to adulthood. Either way, he will have a short and difficult life, and it will get much worse before the end. Now it’s a life for a life, and you’re putting people on the spot.

5–Christopher’s ailment is degenerative and invariably lethal, and though the wizard can cure the disease, he can’t reverse any damage it does before he cures it. (Think variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease.) The disease is at a very early stage, and if it is cured, Christopher could live a normal life. It can progress quickly, though, so George is under time pressure, and is less likely to consider the consequences. If it were your son, how far would you go? Would you stick with your decision? How did George’s military experience influence his decision?

Honestly, I think I’d stay away from an arbitrary magical ailment, unless it’s the result of George meddling with the Fabulous Plane somehow. Either he had prior contact with the evil wizard, who deliberately infected Christopher to establish a hold on George, or George acted as a carrier for a magical illness. The former sets up a possible triple-cross, but may be too overused at this point. The latter offers guilt-trip possibilities and maybe some personal fear–what if the disease is just dormant in George, and may affect him later? Either should probably only happen if Christopher’s malady post-dates George’s involvement with magic.

A permanently disabling injury is a good suggestion, but I’m not sure I like the stolen bike idea. I’d prefer to have it result from an activity that George encouraged Christopher to engage in–a sport, maybe. Alternatively, it could be something dangerous Christopher attempted in order to impress his father. If you want to be absolutely brutal about it, George could accuse his son of being “spineless” in response to some minor display of wimpiness…only to have Christopher end up paralyzed by a spinal cord injury incurred while trying to prove him wrong.

It should definitely be some kind of injury after having been doing something foolhardy and dangerous - and not being born with a disease, which is more cliche and common an archetype in literature and film. This would create more moral ambiguity (being born with something absolves the child of any sort of responsibility for his condition.)

How about good old demonic possession? The wizard needs to use a bit of the girl’s soul as bait to draw out the demon from the boy. Once it’s clear of the boy, he can bottle it up and use it for some other purposes, but meantime, the girl’s down about a quart, soul-wise.