Writing Inspiration: The Caregiver did it?

photo by E. Jurus

Last week was something of a wash for me productivity-wise, as I’ve been serving in the role of part-time caregiver to an elderly aunt, largely because of my pharmaceutical and medical knowledge. In one of my many past careers, I worked as a pharmacy assistant in several retail drugstores, and I learned a lot.

The role of caregiver is a tricky one, and can be very time-consuming. I’ve been happy to help out, though; too often our elderly are treated as nuisances with one foot in the grave, and are mis-medicated if someone with experience isn’t around to pay attention to how they’re reacting to their prescriptions.

I’ve been a caregiver several times during my life, but this time it’s made me think of the role from a writer’s perspective. Caregivers hold a unique role that can be used for good or evil, and that’s become fodder for all kinds of misadventures in literature. This quick blog post, then, is another with the theme of Writing Inspiration.

A caregiver, in its simplest form is defined as “someone who is responsible for looking after another person” (Collins Dictionary). Think of the power this puts such a person into – are they responsible people who lovingly take care of their charges, or do they create mayhem by twisting young minds, poisoning food or messing with the medications they’re handing out?

For writers, this opens the door to all kinds of delicious suspense. The caregiver may be nice outwardly and have a dastardly hidden agenda, or alternatively crusty at first glance but with a warm heart.

Nice caregivers often find themselves at the mercy of either members of the household or the extended family. As children we were all introduced to the abused but ultimately triumphant Cinderella, forced by the death of her father to serve as maid to her malicious stepmother and spoiled stepsisters until she meets the Prince and marries him.

In adult literature, the role has often been embodied in the form of a governess for children, a housekeeper, or a nurse for an ailing patient. These kinds of caregivers have become some of the most compelling in the history of novels and film.

Think of the title heroine of the great gothic story Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte. Jane starts out life as an orphan with the typically harsh childhood of the very poor in 18th century Britain. But she’s a smart, resilient survivor who eventually gains a position as governess for the capricious female ward of Edward Rochester, the brooding owner of Thornfield Hall. Foreshadowing a common trend in gothic novels, the master and the governess fall in love with each other and decide to flout all the social rules of the era and get married. But there have been indications of a dark mystery in Thornfield, and Jane is soon to find out what that is, to her horror.

In the 2019 smash hit movie Knives Out, the nurse of the victim (the wealthy patriarch of a very dysfunctional family) is manipulated from all directions as she desperately tries to keep herself out of trouble.

One of my favourite novels, Rebecca, by Daphne du Maurier, features a classic sinister housekeeper, Mrs. Danvers, who loved the late Mrs. de Winter (dead first wife of Maxim de Winter) to a point verging on infatuation, and proceeds to make life miserable for the second Mrs. de Winter. Throughout the book, the reader wonders just how far Mrs. Danvers is willing to go, while the mystery of how Rebecca (Maxim’s beautiful and glamorous first wife) really died remains up in the air. Although the young and naïve second Mrs. de Winter is the ‘heroine’ of the story, the characters who’ll remain in your head the longest after you finish the book are both the mysterious first wife and her obsessed caregiver.

In the gothic horror novel The Turn of the Screw by Henry James, there are two sets of caregivers: the new governess at Bly Manor, and the ghostly figures of the former governess and groundskeeper. What makes James’ tale so gripping is whether the two ghosts are actually there, or exist only in the new governess’s paranoid imagination.

And so the multi-faceted caregiver character continues to inspire novelists and screenwriters to this day. It’s just so much fun to wreak havoc either with or by the caregiver, whether they’re the main character or a fascinating subsidiary character. Enjoy plotting how you might use such a character in your story!

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