Oh no! The main character has been injured! Help! Getting hurt is an experience we can all relate to, whether it is a paper cut or something far more disabling. The experience of a character and how they react, as well as how it impacts on the story is a vital part of a novel. Ouch!
Let’s start small. A burn, cut or blister can all impact the action. I read an apocalypse style novel recently, and in the escape from the immediately violent city dwellers, the well-equipped heroine got a blister on her heel. Wincing in sympathy, I continued as she fought off a rapist and headed to the woods. However, the blister vanished, never to be mentioned again. Did this annoy me? Yes. Firstly, she was supposed to be a prepper, so having boots she had never worn was a lack of foresight, plus we all know blisters don’t disappear. Certainly, she had a lot on her mind, but things like blisters are not easily forgotten, they tend to take over thought as they are painful and get worse. That small detail was enough to make me give up reading the book and hence the series. Details matter.
The effect of a small injury differs with genre. A sci-fi novel may have a magical hypospray that fixes it instantly. A romance may use it as a way to show the sympathetic nature of the hero or heroine. A fantasy, well, a sword and sorcery barbarian would hardly notice a small injury. However there is a good chance for infection and later delirium or they may encounter a witch, exchanging sexual favours for healing as Conan often did. It’s a good chance to slot in a bit of world building, with sterilising a knife to lance something, using flax linen torn from clothes, or even a handful of broad-leafed comfrey or plantain leaves or some herb laced poultice.
Major injuries are a bit harder to handle, as they can slow or stop the pace of the story. Do they need time to recover? Where? What do the rest of the characters do in the meantime? In Stephen Donaldson’s Covenant series, he was injured quite often, and each time the healing was a revelation in terms of plot, problems, or the use of magic in the Land. Quite often an injury became a sacrifice for the greater good. The old healer in the forest died treating his poison and broken ankle. With the giants, Pitchwife caused the death of his wife’s father as he saved the ship. Horror in death was tempered with the joy of sacrifice life for the rest of the ship. With a healthy dose of survivor guilt.
Injuries can be a way to show character. In an action adventure, injuries are expected as part of the plot, yet can become quite unrealistic. Many action movies have stepped way past the realism line, with a face punch going from one to dozens and they are still upright. Normal people can’t relate to that, and it becomes entirely unrealistic superhero stuff. There is little chance to show how being hurt affects the characters as they shake it off, maybe bleeding a bit for show. They become plastic figures and lack depth.
The best movie for a real treatment of injuries in the Die Hard series. We can flinch along with John McClane as he runs barefoot on glass, and later we see the horrifying glass extraction. There is a is a nice bit of foreshadowing in the action starting so fast he can’t pause to put on shoes, and then the dead bad guy is the wrong shoe size. We know lack of shoes will mean something nasty. He also looks wrecked by the movie end and gets in an ambulance. We can sympathise, but also that he is so tough he presses on in pain to be the man that is a hero.
The reaction to an injury is all interesting. How do the others react, or are they facing it alone? Do people panic, or start tearing off their shirt for a bandage? Reacting in a competent way makes any further hard choices more believable. The flip side is someone panics. They may go into shock or faint at the sight of blood. If this is the beginning of a novel, then there is a good chance to show character growth. Alternatively, the character may be a weak part of the team and get killed by panicking at danger, or possibly redeem a villain with an unexpected sacrifice. In Stranded by Theresa Shaver, the teenagers were stranded at Disneyland by a grid down EMP. One character progresses from a makeup obsessed girl to one that kills her rapist and eventually is a complete badass by series end. Another starts as popular and successful sports star, and once this is stripped away, revealed as an incompetent panicker and dies.
So it is well worthwhile exploring the role of injury in a novel. Everyone is affected, including the reader. How the author exploits that can turn a novel from entertaining to gut wrenching realism, which is remembered long after a superhero is forgotten.
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