Medicine and Medical Practice in Fantasy Cultures – Guest Post by Allie

Welcome back to another worldbuilding post! This one is a guest post by my best friend Allie, who was kind enough to write up a post about something that she loves and is great at: medicine. Specifically, of course, fantasy medicine. So, without further ado, let me turn you over to her!


Thank you for this opportunity to guest post on your blog, Ariel! Lord knows I have a hard time posting enough on my own blog, but I love helping others out, especially on a topic I enjoy ranting about for hours on end: medicine! 

One thing I’ve noticed people struggle with is successful—or even believable—medicine in books where info isn’t readily available (and sometimes even when it is, but that’s another post). Most of the time this means fantasy, sci-fi, dystopian, steampunk, or anything involving magic, but other genres can also fall victim to some of the biggest issues most people have with writing a functional medical system. 

The first question to ask yourself is: How much of a focus will medicine/your medical system be in your story? If you’re looking to write a character who’s involved in the medical field and/or will be spending a lot of time in a medical setting, then you’re going to need a more in-depth understanding of your set-up than someone writing a character who only scrapes their knee and needs some healing salve and a bandaid. This will determine how much understanding and development your system will need. You don’t need to write a novel if the assignment is a 500 word essay. From here you can go onto the next questions and decide how deep you want—or need—to go with each of them. 

The next important thing to consider is any and every aspect of your setting. There are a lot of parts to this one, so bear with me. The best part is: this is almost all worldbuilding. Worldbuilding you’ve hopefully already established. (And if you haven’t, there’s plenty of aid to be found here on this blog!) The first thing to consider is the world your story takes place in and its level of technology. Are you in a high fantasy world that still uses a combination of plants, magic, and prayers? Are you writing Basically Star Trek But Different where you can wave Not A Tricorder over someone and instantly know what’s wrong and can just press a button to fix it? Are you writing a dystopian world where everything is just fixed with metal and cybernetics via a repurposed android factory? Know your world, and, by extension, know what’s both available and commonly used. Something being around and something being a common remedy is a distinction you need to make. You need to have it make sense with your established world and characters and even their belief systems

This leads us into the next important thing to consider: the peoples living in your world. Are there only humans? Cool, proceed, you have the whole internet and human history to figure things out with. Have other sentient species? You’re going to have to understand their unique anatomy before you can go any further. In some cases, you can treat them like humans with pointy ears/a tail/the bottom half of a fish, but other times (and honestly 10x more cool in my opinion) you’ll have to take into account new anatomy, customs, and needs. Does your elf protagonist have the very rare gene to produce a binary cardiovascular system? Perhaps your half-alien is missing a heart altogether or your cyborg is a mix of various different systems and metals. Know the anatomy and practices of your creatures and different races. How extensively you’ll need it is determined by how much you’ll use over the course of your story. 

Now you know your world and you know your races; now take some time to consider how those things will interact. What plants react with what species in what way? Are some things useful to one race but incredibly dangerous to another? Will different species need different doses of medicines based on their anatomy? Will some species have an organ that another does not and need an alteration in treatment? (Think of that one scene from Doctor Who where Martha does chest compressions on both sides to accommodate the Doctor’s two hearts.) Knowing your level of technology and the overall familiarity of each race by location will help with these kinds of things too. Is your medical staff trained in many different anatomies or do they just specialize in one? Does it depend on the region? (answer: yes.) Does it depend on availability of certain resources? (answer: also yes.) If so, what are those resources? 

The last vital thing to consider is what your society believes about medicine. Do they take things as new and technologically advanced as they can get, no matter the effects or repercussions? Do they have repercussions? Do they still stick to old tried-and-true ways? What about their religious beliefs and how those affect their thoughts and habits toward the handling of the body? Taking into account thoughts, feelings, and mental health and spiritual health practices are things I don’t often see discussed casually in a book. Same thing with gender or racial biases. Keep these things in mind as you write, even if the book isn’t about them. If you have a society that believes only blue-skinned males have the capacity to be doctors, reflect that, or show the shock of it being something different. Keep in mind the society you’re writing about, but don’t be afraid to bend those rules if you’re so inclined. 

Finally, one last tip: pulling things from thin air can totally work. I know it sounds crazy, but seriously, sometimes you don’t know about a situation until it happens. After all, sometimes stories write themselves. But I follow that up with: PLEASE write it down and use it again. Don’t have things that exist because they’re convenient, especially if they don’t make sense with the culture or are never seen again and given no explanation. Most things are way more fun when they make sense, and your readers will feel smart remembering something useful. 

Creating a world from scratch is super fun! Just remember not to neglect some of the smaller details. In the right circumstance, they can become vital to a scene, or even a character’s life. 

 

Happy building!

~ Allie (Of Rainy Days)

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