Writing About Doctors
Characters get sick, get shot, fall from cliffs. They imbibe interesting poisons, bathe with hairdryers and are pulled at the last second from disasters in abandoned factories, windmills and crypts. The list of ills to which characters are heir is limitless. But a few survive, necessitating scenes in which a doctor must say… something.
Then there are characters who actually are doctors, not infrequently created by writers who aren’t. These fictional docs require backstories, professional personæ and a halfway believable familiarity with the medical world.
In both instances we (non-medical) writers fall back on our own experiences with doctors for dialogue and presentation. This can be problematic if we’re writing a character’s last moments in an oncology unit (Will she finally disclose the name of the twins’ real father before she flatlines?) and our sole medical contact for the last eight years has been with a veterinarian. The character expiring in the oncology unit isn’t there because she didn’t take her heartworm pills, and our fictional doc can’t stand around with a syringe somberly suggesting euthanasia. Searching for anything resembling accurate information that’s also comprehensible, we may read novels about doctors by doctors (in which the renegade good doc invariably pits her/himself against the arrogant, alcoholic/drug-addicted, philandering, embezzler bad doc who happens to run the hospital) or biographies of doctors (“Dr. Livingstone, I presume?”) It’s all very time-consuming and rarely provides the sort of quick, authentic, insider detail that can give even a minor character legs. And who has time to do much research on minor characters, anyway?
But eureka. Through the usual strange set of circumstances, a Bellevue social worker named Kari Wolf recently insisted that I read a book called Singular Intimacies by a Bellevue doctor named Danielle Ofri. This surprisingly open chronicle of the doctor’s professional arc has been widely reviewed, and this is not a book review. This is a gasp of relief. Because Ofri’s book is a wry, realistic, sometimes-scary and/or heartbreaking but always honest Rosetta Stone for writers who need to write about doctors. Just think – one book! And check out the link (in Blogroll) to Ofri’s NYT columns, also a goldmine of interesting and useful-to-writers information.