Disease in Fiction

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Hello, my readers. Today let’s discuss something that’s been on all our minds recently. Yup, that’s right—diseases in fiction. Right now, the world is in flux over the Coronavirus. It has created a bizarre, paranormal society where we’re all confined to our homes, some of us without jobs. The Coronavirus is like this invisible antagonist, challenging all of us right now.

“Plagues are like imponderable dangers that surprise people…” —Gabriel García Márquez

This makes one think: how would such events play into fictional stories? What examples do we see in published works for diseases in fiction?

—A List of Fictional Viruses—

Below is a list of diseases in fiction. These should give you ideas of how authors design them, both in fantasy and science fiction.

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1. Greyscale

If you’ve read Game of Thrones, you’ve run into this ailment. It’s a horrible disease that cause a person’s flesh—and later internal organs—to harden and die. Necrotic flesh coats the victim’s body, offering the appearance of cracked stone.

2. White Blindness

In the book, Blindness, by Jose Saramago, the disease robs its victims of eyesight. The protagonist is a woman who is immune to the ailment. Able to witness the world around her, the heroine must guide her comrades to safety.

3. Inferno

Created by Dan Brown, the Inferno virus renders people infertile. Used by the antagonists as a waterborne agent—and later an airborne one—this disease serves as a potent vector for conflict.

4. Nanoprobe Virus

No so much a biological virus as a form of nanotechnology, the Nanoprobe Virus is used by the Borg in Star Trek to gradually assimilate organic life forms. Victims become drones for the Borg Collective as nanotechnology slowly takes over their bodies.

5. Tyrant Virus

Also known as the “t-virus”, this disease defines the Resident Evil series. Developed by the Umbrella Corporation, the virus was designed as a eugenics project to cull world population and build an army of bioweapons—namely zombies. Umbrella eventually designed variants of the t-virus that affect victims in different ways.

6. Flare Virus

Found in the Maze Runner movies, the Flare Virus eats away at a person’s brain until they become mindless zombies. Like the Tyrant Virus in Resident Evil, the Flare Virus was designed by scientists to reduce world population.

—What Does a Disease/Pandemic Do to a World?—

Diseases are—surprisingly—versatile and useful in fictional worlds. An author, if clever, can use this disease as a plot device to strengthen characters and move the story forward. Disease can also be used to create conflict and established a degree of worldbuilding.

1. An Invisible Antagonist

Heroes can defeat a villain they can see and touch—but what about an antagonist that is invisible? Nothing evokes fear in a character like impotence. Finding a cure, or elixir, may be the only hope in defeating this intangible opponent.

2. Atypical Conflict

Diseases in fiction offer an unusual form of conflict—even better if the disease afflicts characters that the hero cares about. Mental illnesses can add further depth to the conflict, as the victim may experience situations that alter memory or cognition—even turning them into an aggressive mutant or monster. Now the hero may have to fight a loved one, offering moral conflict in the protagonist’s conscious.

3. Worldbuilding

A pandemic forces a society to explore its resources, introducing the reader to what’s in the fictional world. An economic slowdown—like we see in the real world—causes shortages of goods and services, forces people into a different state of mind, and encourages innovation in characters.

In short, a virus exposes the innards of a fictional world and allows a reader to become intimate with it.

—Summary—

Diseases in fiction—whether biological, artificial, or magical—drives plot and character progression in a fictional world. It creates atypical conflict that exposes the underbelly of a society—not just in the protagonist—and allows the reader to dissect the morals, financial resources, and technology of an afflicted civilization.


Thank you reading, as always! During these troubling times, perhaps we can derive some meaning from the Coronavirus and how it is exposing our society. Like the heroes of old, we too can defeat this invisible foe and establish a stronger, more orderly world if by learning from our own mistakes and what habits we have buried throughout the years. That said, maybe this virus can be seen as a good thing—a source of inspiration and growth for the human spirit.

Stay safe and healthy out there. And remember, we’re all in this together. 🙂

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