family health history ideas process tips writing

Writing: Using Health Intake Forms for Character Development

Forms are on my mind recently, partially because I finished filing our taxes and partially due to a project at work.

I have filled out a LOT of forms in my life. From tax forms to social services forms to grant applications to healthcare forms, all ask for some intensive and often highly personal information. After you’ve filled out the same information (name, address, phone, email … etc., etc., etc.) for the twelfth dozen time, you almost don’t have to think about what you’re writing.

Thing is, forms do a great job of encapsulating a portion of your life in a small amount of well-defined space. Healthcare intake forms, for example, provide your doctor or clinic with a quick snapshot of your and your family’s health history and the current concerns you may have about your health. Some chiropractic forms even have diagrams where you can circle the areas you’re experiencing pain and achiness. There are even brief forms to gauge whether you may be suffering from depression.

Health or the absence of it play such an important role in our lives that they can affect our outlook or what we manage to accomplish. Each person has one physical body with which to sense the world, a body that is the culmination of our ancestors but is uniquely our own.

As the body and health are critical to the development of character in real life, they can also serve as a starting point for developing characters in fiction.

I recently watched “The Whale,” a movie about Charlie, a morbidly obese man suffering from congestive heart failure. [https://www.imdb.com/title/tt13833688/] The movie had me crying often because of the emotional pain Charlie (played by Brendan Fraser) was feeling. My Grandpa Stan died of congestive heart failure and I never knew, until watching the movie, what symptoms the disease entailed.

This is an example of a story where the health of a character drives the entire plot, but why not have a story where a character’s arthritic knees or eczema feature in the story?

This brings me back to health intake forms. You could use one of these forms to create a character, giving them not only a current health issue to deal with in the course of a story, but also providing backstory through the health history of their family.

These forms start at the very beginning, asking a couple of crucial questions: Name and birth date.

When I’m writing a story, I have to know the name and age of my character. These can take me some time to establish, but it’s worth the effort for how they shape the entire story.

I also want to know how my characters physically occupy space in the world. A health intake form would help me to sketch out these details, as well as give me a guide for the various types of illnesses that are common (heart disease, diabetes, cancer, asthma, etc.). The forms may ask for past surgeries or traumas, possible pregnancy, mental health issues, the amount of alcohol consumed, or whether someone smokes, any of which could drive the plot of a story.

There is an especially in-depth health intake form from a San Francisco clinic here: https://www.healthright360.org/sites/default/files/new_patient_medical_history.pdf.

You can find additional forms by searching for health, medical, or chiropractic intake forms online.

If you give this method of character development a try, let me know how it goes.