The plight of fantasy healers

Bernie Anés PazWritingLeave a Comment

The concept of healers is something I’ve always found interesting in literature, and especially in fantasy. This was true even before I trained as a combat medic and spent five years working in an Emergency Room, and that experience has only deepened my interest.

I’ve found that characters who are healers are also often side-characters, are pacifists or otherwise unable to protect themselves, and are generally kind-hearted and good-spirited people. They’re rarely the hero of a tale or central focus despite having many of the traits of your typical hero, and their magic tends to be powerful but is rarely realistically flawed.

This portrayal has always struck me as wrong and even illogical, and that feeling has only been worsened by my experiences in the medical field. So, let’s cover some of these major flaws and why I think they don’t make sense.

(Im)Practical Use

The most obvious issue I’ve read with healers in fantasy is the practicalness of healing in the first place. Even modern medicine has limits (many of them) and some of our most powerful medications have some pretty serious side-effects/downsides.

As a former combat medic, I can also assure you that healing is extremely limited in a combat environment, even today. Ultimately you’re a glorified EMT with far less ability to actually save someone. The one thing you can mostly prevent is blood loss and that depends on a lot of things. Aside from that, you basically act as a minor source of medical knowledge and maintenance. That usually means things like judging pains, blisters, and wounds and deciding whether they are minor enough for simple care (sutures, bandages, rest) or whether they require standard medical attention from somewhere like a field hospital or garrison clinic.

Basically, healing really isn’t very practical in a combat environment. The standard protocol is to delay death long enough to get them to actual medical help. Fantasy downplays some of this; the magical healing potion and instantaneous restorative magic aren’t unfamiliar to most of us.

This probably lends to the reason why healing characters are rarely major characters. Most of them are far off, somewhere safe, treating the sick. Heroes only stay with them long enough to get healed, then move on. Those that travel with them usually have some kind of more effective healing ability but having a healer right there usually means you’re in a situation in which it’s all about protecting the healer; so long as they live they can save everyone else. The popular idea of a protag revolves around action and consequence, so sitting around and hoping to be saved probably doesn’t make for the best protagonist.

My advice:

  • The “protect the healer” mentality isn’t wrong. Combat medics are treated the same way and are often in the center of a squad formation with the commanding officer or sergeant. It can work, just remember they’re not just a thing and that healing while fighting is going on is rarely practical. Have them do stuff. Medics usually shoot back with everyone else, so, yeah.
  • For someone who ends up getting hurt often (assassins, soldiers, heroes on a grand quest), healers are probably a big part of their life. Consider putting more effort into their relationship. The healer-patient thing is pretty big in reality. In the U.S. military, medics are respectfully called “Doc” and are treated as gods by regular joes. It’s also weird that when a castle or city is sieged or attacked that no one thinks about the healers.
  • If they can’t stick to the same healer for one reason or another, like traveling, consider making one of your reoccuring characters a healer. Kaladin, one of the protags from Stormlight Archives, is a really great example of this. His character isn’t specifically a healer (he’s a former surgeon gone soldier), but it’s still a huge part of his persona and past.

A Mask of Kindness

Another concept I’ve seen done weirdly in fantasy is also ironically a pretty simple (to point out) one. Think very carefully about what your healers do for a living before you decide to make them the typical altruistic pacifist.

If your healer cures only minor wounds or has a very easy time healing people, then this may be somewhat logical (and boring). Most of the time, however, healers don’t always succeed. The strain of someone desperately depending on you and then failing isn’t easy to deal with. I’ve had parents pounding on my shoulder, calling me all kinds of terrible things, while I quietly removed my hands from what was now an 8-year-old corpse. Those kinds of things rarely become easier, and that’s why you find a lot of tired, hardened 20-year+ nurses. Well, if they haven’t become full-on emotionally apathetic, which you sadly see sometimes.

In the end, your healer will probably need to be someone who is very resilient and mentally/emotionally strong or someone who only sees healing as a scientific or mercantile interest (the “logical to a fault” kind of character works well here). Someone who is painstakingly nice wouldn’t make a very good healer. They would quickly be crushed by failure or be easily manipulated through their kindness and emotions.

Consider the urban fantasy healer. If everyone knew they were a healer, then everyone would be vying for their attention. Besides wondering the best way to fairly reach the sick (they can’t heal the entire world, so who gets priority?), that character will also have to worry about being manipulated.

Would they heal a kid who skipped the waiting list because their parents walked him up to the healer’s door and mortally stabbed them? Would they heal a villain or allow themselves to be swayed from “wasting” healing on the poor because a loved one was being used as leverage? What if they themselves were poor and thought to use their powers to make a little money for themselves? Does that make them a terrible person? What is the right price for someone’s only hope?

These are the things no one thinks about when it comes to a healer and that’s not even the whole of it (I’d imagine a healer in these positions would have to deal with depression at the least). Healing itself is also already very strenuous activity physically and mentally, and that’s without factoring in the social impact. Too many stories have villages afraid of the local mystic healer and as a result, they quietly accept whatever help they get, which, thanks to the hermit life of the healer, usually isn’t much. That’s a lazy workaround; being too afraid of something to see its value. It works though, I guess. But it’s also part of what you might need to consider.

So, my advice:

  • Death is hard, but for a lot of people, it’s the aftermath that is worse. Survivor’s guilt, the weight of failure, dealing with those left behind. Sometimes there’s even professional fallout (failing the king, for example).
  • A healer is a person, and a person isn’t a simple one-sided object. Try to remember that. Realistically, if someone has been a healer for a long time and are the love-the-world kind, then they’re usually broken inside. That can make for a very compelling character. Likewise, if they’re young and naive, that probably won’t last; they’ll learn about the inevitability and ugliness of death and the general hopelessness it represents more quickly than most.
  • I honestly think healing ability itself makes a compelling character trait, especially for emotionally conflicted characters. I mean, it’s there already. Kaladin from Stormlight Archive is a fantastic example of this yet again, though his depression is a bit over the top in my opinion. Don’t be afraid to make your barbarian or assassin a healer of some kind.

Medical Magic and its Narrative Price

This is another biggie I see done oddly all the time. It’s probably better to avoid magical healing if you’re not going to spend time really thinking about how it works. If you’re focusing on a healer or healing in general, then you need to also think about it as much as you do the rest of your magic system.

The best way to do this is probably to combine regular healing knowledge with alchemical or magical replacements for modern science. Magic that can sense broken bones and allow the healer to set them, for instance, instead of just magically healing the broken ribs. This forces the healer to actually have some kind of medical knowledge and skill and gives them a chance for failure. It makes the magic a part of them instead of the healer being some kind of dispenser.

Another problem is a healer that is peerless and never fails unless they’re specifically foiled. Usually by some magical illness or Uber Wound that requires an equally legendary cure. Often some rare animal components like a unicorn horn or a plant that grows only once a million years beneath the light of a bleeding moon.

Yeah, don’t do that. It’s been done. It’s also pretty tacky.

Another huge issue is what I call the Superman Effect, which is also tied to the above. If your healers are just so good that they can mostly heal anything, then you need to give them some kind of nuanced weakness. Please don’t do the literary equivalent of kryptonite, which is often what something like an Uber Wound becomes.

This has been done better in some cases than others. For instance, mages that must take wounds, or the pain of wounds, on themselves. Or, more commonly, extreme exhaustion that limits how many they can save (and then they put themselves in danger while doing it).

You also don’t have to make your healers weak and in need of protection so that you have conflict. If that’s the only way your characters are threatened (because otherwise, the healer can just make everything right again), I’d argue that you’re already having a problem with your healers and healing system. It’s okay to make your healer capable of fighting. That’s what combat medics do.

If anything, it’d make your story more interesting. Watching your buddy die but being unable to reach him is hard. During combat medic training, we were forced to watch a video in which a marine was shot by a sniper. Another marine went to save him and was shot by the same sniper. A third tried, and, yes, also got shot by the same sniper. This was shown to us to explain why we can’t always just go rush to the aid of someone despite what our gut tells us.

Sometimes all you can do is sit there, listen to them calling for you, and watch them die. If you don’t think that doesn’t make for a compelling character moment and you just want to focus on protecting the naive, kindhearted pacifist healer (who’s probably a woman, to boot), then I don’t know what to tell you.

I don’t have any real advice for this. Magic systems aren’t easy, let alone creating a compelling narrative structure. It’s my honest belief that perfection is boring. Everything should be flawed. Villians should not be wholly evil, heroes not wholly good, plans imperfect, emotions conflicted. Magic should be the same, and healing even more so.

Washing away the blood and gore

Flawed healing and healers probably make some of the best characters when done right, but we still rarely see them in the spotlight. I do have some takeaways though.

This probably doesn’t need saying, but don’t automatically make your healers women. Yes, nursing is still mostly a woman-dominated profession, and the concept of nursing itself comes from mothers nursing defenseless babies. That doesn’t mean much in the end, however.

Lastly, please don’t magically heal crippling wounds. It’s so tacky and upsetting to a lot of people, whether or not they themselves are crippled. It underplays everything revolving the wound and regulates it to a simple plot device. Like sexual violence and the darker kinds of regular violence, you need to do it well and show the longterm impact on the character. If you don’t think you can do that, or don’t want to, or don’t have the time to, then maybe don’t have your character’s arm ripped off. Just an opinion.

Anyway, hopefully this was of some help to you on your own writing journey.

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