I want to talk about health issues. Not real ones (other than my bad back – later) but the dreadful afflictions visited by authors on their characters. This is all part of my doomed Campaign For Realistic Injuries.
Picture the scene: the hero has fallen off a cliff, broken an arm, been shot twice and clearly needs to lie down for a week or six until it all feels better. In reality, that is. In the story the hero keeps going, climbs back up the cliff with only one arm working, holding onto convenient tufts of grass or hardy vines with his teeth.
Just recently, my other half was having a little rant – standard questions that pop up on writing discussion groups, such as what sort of injury can I inflict on my main character to keep him out of action for a day. This stuff is important, you know? Vital plot devices to control the timing without requiring the hero to step out of character, because a delay caused by dropping by Mum for a cup of tea doesn’t cut it unless our hero hasn’t spoken to Mum for thirty years and now the situation is desperate because she’s down to her last teabag.
So, a day off for no other reason that the hero needs to be late for something. Or only arrive at the last minute. How about a headache? One of those can slow me down for a day, even two if it’s a bad one. Any takers? No? Not dramatic enough? A muscle sprain, then, will that do? No? How about toothache… no I’m not taking the ****. A proper toothache is worth a dozen headaches.
I know, you think you need more blood…
Let’s hear it (tympanic membrane injuries permitting) for the Campaign For Realistic Injuries.
The whole thing would have passed me by as an amusing comment, but I pulled a muscle in my back – a classic, real injury, with only one visible symptom: I couldn’t quite stand straight. It sounds silly and I had to stare in the bathroom mirror for a while to convince myself – I had to concentrate hard to stand with my feet, hips and shoulders in line. It didn’t obviously hurt (unlike walking, turning, breathing…), but as soon as I stopped trying, my posture slumped with my hips to my left.
A real and realistic injury – the hero walked a bit funny. It lacks something. Let’s face it – there is nothing heroic or sexy about a bad back. All I did was heave hay bales around on the Monday, fire-wood on the Tuesday, trimmed hedges on the Wednesday… and spent Thursday through Sunday unable to move and dosed to the eyeballs with ibuprofen. (So it’s a bit over the top if you only want to to delay your hero for a day.)
I had a mobility issue. Walking was fine for short distances in small, slow steps, provided I didn’t turn to the right. Left turns were fine, right turns would trigger a muscle spasm and the sort of pain you can’t do anything about, just endure until it goes away – impossible to really remember or describe. So there I was, sitting on the sofa, barely able to move, time on my hands (or time on my arse) and a whole bundle of related items came together.
Not so long ago, my other half pulled a muscle in her neck, with a similar outcome – days spent immobile on the sofa. Sitting in the same position, I had a new, intimate and unwelcome understanding of what she went through as it healed. So, you want an injury that means your hero is going to be a few days late for the big show-down with the Avenging Horde of the Evil Dread… go with a muscle sprain. If you opt for broken bones, penetrating wounds or other spectacular damage, that had better be for a few weeks delay… or maybe months.
And seriously, climbing back up the cliff and holding on with your teeth…
I mentioned toothache – if you haven’t had a proper toothache, you have no idea. I was on a training course a few years back and noticed a twinge on the Friday afternoon. On the Saturday there was pain. On Sunday I started eating a pillow. That helped to distract from the total failure of the pain-killers. On the Monday, with foam-filled furnishing getting scarce in the house, I got an emergency dental appointment – infection and inflammation of the nerve, trapped inside a tooth with nowhere for the inflammation to go… That was one significantly disabling toothache.
So, try to picture the scene. Your hero has made it to the showdown, swinging their sword/battleaxe/magical doodad, one hand holding his aching jaw, eyes tight shut because the pain seems different like that, and stopping every three fiends to let the pounding head settle down.
As coincidence would have it, we have been following a documentary series on Royal Marine Commando training – if you want a prototype for your indestructible hero dragging himself through hell and into the fight, these are the guys. One particular incident stood out in the context of disabling injuries – the recruit who failed one of the big, final tests (a timed route march carrying a heavy pack) and collapsed just short of the finish line on the retry. The training team were absolutely willing him to finish, and watching it from the comfort of the sofa, it was impossible not to be rooting for him to succeed. He really wanted it, but just missed… because he had a fractured leg.
Just in case you missed that… fractured leg. Now, if you were writing your hero, finishing a gruelling march with a fractured leg, who would believe it? Of course, there is a really serious caveat on this – the recruit was putting everything he had into reaching the finish line in spite of a fractured leg, an utterly mind-boggling piece of determination, but even if he had made it across the last few hundred meters (rather than being carried away for medical attention), the Avenging Horde of the Evil Dread would have had him for breakfast. Disabling injuries for your action hero need to stop a bit short of a broken leg.
Realistically, even if you do choose a pulled muscle for your disabling injury, pick the muscle carefully. Lower back is a dicey one, upper back is tricky, neck and shoulder can give significant mobility restrictions…
So, the Campaign For Realistic Injuries. Lets have a few more nasty bruises, ragged hang-nails and troublesome splinters… or perhaps a migraine. I’ve had one migraine in my life – pain, nausea, visual disturbance, the full works. That’s pretty disabling while it lasts, although it’s a toss-up whether it was worse than the toothache.
Let’s get real, this is fiction we’re talking about. There’s no place for realistic injuries. Unless you’ve experienced a good back injury, or a proper toothache, it doesn’t mean anything unless the hero has lost at least six pints of blood, an arm and the love of his/her life. But perhaps the next time your hero needs a day off, give a thought to a nasty outbreak of boils or a couple of bee stings. Please?
OMP Admin Note: Mark Huntley-James writes science fiction and fantasy on a small farm in Cornwall, where he lives with his partner and a menagerie of cats, poultry and sheep.
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