10 Steps to Inventing Your Own Disease – part 1

There may be many reasons for a writer to wish to write about disease and illness. You may wish to elicit some sympathy for a protagonist, or inject an element of pathos. You may wish to threaten your fictional populace with an invisible menace, or give your supervillain something to cackle about. You could use a real disease of course, but which one? Is there a disease that will give your villain mouth ulcers, flat feet and luminous green skin? (answer – no!)

No problem! Just invent one. But where to start?

First an example from the case files of Urban-Smith.

At this juncture Bricker the butler reappeared with a silver tray bearing three glasses.
“Crème de fromage, Sirs?”
“Thank you, Bricker.”
De Wolfmann senior, Urban-Smith and I each took a glass of the thick, yellow liquor. Urban-Smith gave his an appraising sniff.
“Hmmm,” he mused. “Mild but tangy, with a hint of butyric acid. A vintage Roquefort, I’d say. An 85 or 86 perhaps?”
“A 91, sir.”
We sipped at our drinks, enjoying the smoky flavour and the salty finish.
“Are you not partaking, Professor?” I enquired.
“Sadly, I cannot. My stroke has left me with pan-sensory fromagic inattention. I cannot see, smell, hear or taste cheese of any form.”
I nodded. “Yes, I have heard of the condition. It must be a terrible burden.”
He shrugged. “I have become accustomed to it, and Antoine’s cooking is such that one never has cause for complaint. Still,” he mused, staring past me with a wistful look upon his face, “sometimes I yearn for the touch of an Edam.”


1. Symptoms

What do you want to happen? Do you want the victims to change colour, become invisible, froth at the mouth?
Here is a list of common disease symptoms that you may wish to delve into.
Systemic; Fever, lethargy, malaise, weight loss, night sweats, flushing, pallor
Musculoskeletal; pain , swelling, deformity
Respiratory; nasal discharge, cough, shortness of breath, wheeze, stridor (inspiratory noise due to upper airway obstruction)
Cardiovascular; chest pain, palpitations, breathlessness, collapse, arrhythmia (altered heart rhythm), cardiac arrest
Gastrointestinal; nausea, vomiting, diarrhoea, abdominal pain, abdominal distension, rectal bleeding, melaena (black, tarry stool due to bleeding from stomach), haematemesis (vomiting blood), belching, hiccups.
Urological; blood in urine, painful urination, inability to pass urine, incontinence
Neurological; confusion, headache, drowsiness, fitting, coma, numbness, tingling, pain.
Psychiatric; mood changes, hallucinations, delusional thoughts

If you really don’t like your character, why not give them ALL of the above. At the same time.

2. Aetiology

What is the CAUSE of the disease? Is it an infection? Due to exposure from a chemical agent? An inherited syndrome? A disorder of the immune system?
This is a list of the commonest disease causes, with examples.
•  V: vascular – stroke
• I: infective/Inflammatory – allergy, infection, dermatitis (in fact anything with “itis” on the end)
• T: traumatic – fracture, head injury
• A: autoimmune – rheumatoid arthritis, overactive thyroid
• M: metabolic – diabetes, porphyria
• I: iatrogenic – ie medically caused, eg medication side effects, complications of surgery
N: neoplastic – cancer
I: idiopathic – this means cause UNKNOWN

3. Risk factors.

Is it associated with smoking? Too much masturbation? Exposure to loud children?

4. Diagnosis.

How will your disease be diagnosed?

• History – The symptoms alone may be enough to clinch it, especially in the case of a psychiatric condition.
• Examination – for example greenish discolouration to the skin associated with rapid muscular hypertrophy and hyperstimulation of the adrenal system can only mean Hulkism.
• Investigations – This may include blood tests, urine tests, scans, xrays or tissue biopsy
NB if a finding is specific to one disease only, it is said to be pathognomonic, eg the unmistakable high- pitched shriek of bansheeitis.

5. Classification.

You may wish to have varying degrees of your condition, ranging from asymptomatic, to fulminant or rapidly progressive.

Part two coming soon…..

If you would like any assistance with inventing your disease, and don’t mind me blogging about it, please contact me.


About Dr Rupert Harker

I am the author of the Urban-Smith mysteries and Intelligent Design series of books.
This entry was posted in Writing a novel and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to 10 Steps to Inventing Your Own Disease – part 1

  1. Pingback: 10 Steps to Inventing Your Own Disease – part 2 | Paranorensics – where forensics goes bump in the night

  2. Pingback: Is there a Harker in the house? | A Very British Haiku

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