Character Motivation: Pain and Illness


One of the more difficult challenges you face when you create a story is that the hero needs to be smart enough to get out of a jam, but dumb enough to get into it in the first place. I wonder if an illness could be used to explain the lapse.

I wrote about character motivation before. You can read a couple of my earlier discussions at the links at the end of this post.

I’ve thought about the possibility of illness as a motivation for a character’s behaviour for a while now.

Can Illness or Pain Affect People’s Behaviour?

Illness and pain have affected many of my own decisions. More that once I made bad decisions because some pain or illness distracted my thoughts. I remember meetings where I agreed to something I later regretted because I just wanted the meeting to end so I could go home to bed. I expect that other people have done the same thing.

I read recently that up to a third of people have to cope with chronic pain. Not everyone reacts the same way. Pain can lead some people to become very selfish, while others may have the opposite reaction and develop greater empathy for other people.

“The Crying Woman”

I can think of only one character I created where pain or illness could impact their decisions. The character Johnny in “The Crying Woman” has an illness. When I wrote the story, I didn’t consciously think about that as a motivation for his character. I did use it as an explanation for why the character Mary didn’t recognize him.

In the story Johnny shows a lot of empathy. When I wrote the story, I thought this was based on his previous experience with Mary. It could also be that with his experience with his illness has made him more aware of the struggles that other people have in life. This must be a factor, since his situation is much worse than hers, and yet that doesn’t diminish his empathy.

Other Stories

Pain and illness do show up in many stories.

  • There are stories where pain or illness are obstacles that a character needs to overcome.
  • There are stories where pain or illness is used to create empathy for the character.
  • There are stories where pain or illness is used to remove a character from active involvement in the story.

I don’t remember any stories where pain or illness is used as a character flaw to cause a character’s bad decision. This may represent the limits my own knowledge. There may be many stories where pain and illness are important factors in a character’s behaviour that I am just not aware of. Maybe other people can name examples.


This strikes me as a missed opportunity. As I noted above, many people have to struggle with pain and illness in their lives and these pains and illnesses directly impact their decisions.

I don’t want to become an evangelist and push others to use pain and illness for character motivation. However, in future, I will be open to these as motivators in my own stories.

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