Friday, August 19, 2011

Is There a Doctor in the Book?

I am a big fan of doctors in books.

I'm a hypochondriac, so I'm a big fan of doctors in general. I know some hypochondriacs hate them, because they associate seeing a doctor with being ill. I love them, because I associate doctors with making people better rather than with illness. And with discovering new illnesses I can worry about. And with giving me good news ('You're still not dying, Ellen, now don't trip on the way out. . .').

But I especially love doctors in books. I rarely read books with a medical setting though, so most of the fictional doctors I like aren't busy being doctors. They're doing something else novel-worthy, and quietly doctoring away off the page (presumably telling people like me they aren't dying).

So why do I love fictional doctors so much? What does a doctor in your book represent to the reader?

We make more assumptions when we hear someone is a doctor than we do about any other professional. A doctor, we believe, is capable. They have undergone a long and difficult course of study, so we assume they are likely to be intelligent, hard-working and dedicated. They are qualified to do things that virtually no other human being can do, so we feel respect, some awe, some envy. They've probably been trained to handle emergencies quite well, and - crucially - we assume that they are compassionate people. We respect doctors, we trust them.

All of which makes for a very interesting contrast if we're reading about, say, a doctor who makes poor moral choices (like Nicholas Garrigan in Giles Foden's The Last King of Scotland) or a doctor who is a horrible old git (like Gregory House) or a doctor who is a serial killer who eats people (Hannibal Lecter in The Silence of the Lambs). Can there be anything more scary than a doctor - trusted, respected, and knowing more about how your body works than you do - who turns out to be evil?

But leaving aside scary doctors, who chill me more than almost anything else in fiction, what about all the other doctors in novels, who don't eat people? They're still really interesting. To make a character a doctor is to force your reader to jump to certain conclusions automatically, and once a reader has their expectations in place, it can be a great deal of fun to challenge them, or to reinforce them, or to completely subvert them.

In Paul's novel, his main character, Nathan, has a helpful doctor friend named Cynthia Keller. She finds herself plunged into a world she doesn't understand, but always, in the back of my mind as I read, I'm thinking 'Cynthia is a doctor, if anyone gets hurt she can help!' Which means that I have a heightened sense of fear - if anything happens to Cynthia, it weakens the people around her more, because she has the capacity to help more than the next person does. She is an interesting character to have around - but she's a very interesting character to potentially lose.

What professions do you like to read about? Do you have any favourites?


  1. Funny you should write this, one of my POV characters in the new project is a Doctor ... except it's another world, the social standing is very different and he's a bit of a jerk - but yeah, Doctor! :) In fact for the first few thousand words he's just known as The Doctor :D

  2. I like the fact he's known as The Doctor :) Hope the project is going well.

  3. My favorite would have to be firefighters. Just love the heroes who risk their lives for others. Definitely a wonderful character. And they are hot looking in their boots, lol.

  4. You're making me think hard about doctors in novels. I'm coming up blank. I must've read at least one. Does the therapist in Ordinary People count? I thought that character was done very well.

  5. Agreed, Donna - I think the helping professions are all very interesting. And yes, there is the uniform issue but that's for another post :)

    Theresa, I blanked myself when I started writing this, the only one I could remember was Nicholas Garrigan because I read Last King of Scotland a week ago! Funny how the mind goes blank!

    Therapists are definitely interesting - have you read August by Judith Rossner? Another Judith who writes good therapists, maybe it's in the name :) I haven't read Ordinary People but I have a copy upstairs, I'll add it to my list :)

  6. Glad you like Cynthia. I hadn't considered how threatening her could raise the stakes for the reader.

    I like seeing doctors and other skilled professionals because it adds a new level to the story. These characters can be allowed to shine by giving them challenges that are beyond simply physically defeating an enemy.

  7. Interesting! Mr TR is a doctor, and SO unsympathetic when it comes to complaints. Bah.

    I like to read about musicians, actually.

  8. :) Talli, I bet Mr TR has just met too many patients like me. I think I try the patience of even the most saintly doctors!

    I can see why musicians would be interesting - I also like actors and singers, because as a writer I'm fascinated by people who can be creative with other people's words.

  9. My favourite fictional doctor will always be John Zoidberg.

  10. Ah, the bones. I always forget about the bones!


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