Last week, we explored plot armor and how to incorporate it into your writing with a sense of realism.
This is something of an offshoot.
I originally intended for there to be a section within that initial post discussing injuries in relation to plot armor, but it ultimately made more sense to cover that topic on its own.
So here we are.
To recap the aforementioned post, plot armor is a layer of protection given to fictional characters, most often the protagonist, in order to keep them alive and, thus, keep the story moving.
Because it would totally suck if your hero didn't make it past their first encounter with the villain on page 49.
Plot armor has a habit of minimizing the damage sustained by a character. It's why you might see a character recover from a significant fall as if they merely tripped or be able to pull an arrow out of their shoulder and shake it off long enough to keep fighting. Some of this can be attributed to that sweet rush of adrenaline, but the line between that and believability can be blurred.
The way injuries are written in a story can be the difference between plausibility and a reader rolling their eyes.
Let's cut to the chase and talk about causing damage.
Research the Wreckage
When it comes to characters not being as injured as they theoretically should be, there are two reasons for this.
The first is, as we've already touched on, plot armor. If a story depends on a protagonist's existence to continue, it creates an invisible shield of sorts protecting that character from severe damage. They might walk away bloody and bruised, but they're likely getting out of otherwise un-survivable scenarios alive.
Secondly, characters might fare unbelievably well in hazardous situations if the wounds sustained are not researched well enough.
As is the case with nearly anything you could include in a story, taking your time with research will make your characters' injuries feel realistic.
Some of how you write about pain or wounds may come from personal experience. Some things are common sense, so to speak, like a character being in a great deal of pain after being struck by a hammer.
But if you haven't endured the same as your characters, it's a good idea to dive into the internet.
Writers joke about fears of the FBI confiscating their computers and being alarmed or disturbed by their search history. When you're looking up what happens to a human body falling three stories compared to five or how long it takes to bleed out from a knife wound to the gut, that might raise some eyebrows.
The potential of having to explain yourself and assure folks that you aren't planning a murder IRL is better than readers finding your story unbelievable as a result of insufficient research.
When looking into writing injuries, I like to consult credible sources like medical texts if I can find them as well as doing image searches to get a sense of not only the impact and what the injury looks like shortly after it happens, but also how things might progress as it heals.
In Bound to the Heart, Henry winds up in an altercation that gives him a black eye and a bloody lip.
I spent a good amount of time looking to how shiners heal and change over time. The first scene he's in following the fight, the bruise is pretty dark; a few chapters later, set a bit over a week after the incident, it's gone from a deep reddish-purple to a yellowish color. There's also a scab on his lip he's seen chewing at now and then.
Additionally, if you're working with a historical setting, consider how things would have been diagnosed and treated back then. You wouldn't have your Viking going in for an x-ray and having a cast put breaking a bone in battle!
We've all heard tell of those dark corners of the internet and image searches gone awry. If you have a weaker stomach, definitely make sure to put on parental controls and other settings if you need to!
When a loved one is ill or injured, a common inclusion among get-well messages is wishes for a quick recovery. After all, who wants to spend weeks on end feeling crummy or in pain?
One thing I've seen a number of times in fiction—and have been guilty of, myself—is a character recuperating much more rapidly than they would in reality.
Some books have reasonable explanations for this such as magic systems and healers with special abilities. If it makes sense within the rules of the world you've established, go for it.
But when a story is set in our world, either contemporary or historical, seeing characters bounce back after a couple of pages can take me out of the story. As with a should-be-severe injury being too mild to be convincing, healing too quickly reminds the reader that the work is fiction.
Some writers will skip over the healing process with a quick line like, "Gavin had to stay in bed for three weeks before he was well enough to return to practice." Like I've already mentioned, pausing your story while your character rests up can put a damper on things.
But it's better than making light of the healing process or, worse yet, ignoring it altogether.
In a now-ancient opinion piece from the blog's earlier days, I discussed my feelings towards a particular Glee plotline and why, all these years later, I feel Quinn should not have survived that car accident. One of the key points in that post was her recovery.
Quinn ends up in a wreck caused by her texting and driving. The episode after, she returns to school in a wheelchair. There's an arc spanning over a few episodes of her learning to adapt to her new condition and becoming closer friends with Artie, a member of the Glee club who has been using a wheelchair for many years.
But then it's revealed in the prom episode that she is able to stand. By Nationals, she is back to dancing on stage as if the accident never even happened, and the whole thing is hardly brought up again.
And that's what you missed on Glee.
It's no secret that I'm not a fan of this storyline. But maybe I would have been if it were handled differently (as is true for a lot of Glee in hindsight, but I digress).
By rushing Quinn's recovery, it felt a little too good to be true.
It felt like fiction.
I understand why the writers did it. They wanted Quinn to have that "happy ending" and while it is possible in some cases to regain the ability to walk after being paralyzed, that isn't the reality for many people in circumstances similar to Quinn's—especially in just a few short weeks.
Glossing over her recovery and any residual physical issues does a disservice to the challenges faced by so many people every day. Misrepresentation is not just going to be seen as unbelievable for readers, it can be harmful.
If a character in your story suffers an injury, make sure to give their recovery appropriate attention both in research and in portrayal.
Consider treatment options available to them and how long it would take to return to full health—if that's possible in their given situation. In the event they do not recover fully before the story takes off again, take into account how that might affect them going forward.
A Parting Caveat
When a character gets hurt, chances are the author is going to go into some detail conveying the injury to the reader. This could be anything from describing a searing pain from a burn, blood spilling from a gash, or the sensation of the wind being knocked out of them.
I'm someone who winces and occasionally gets queasy when injuries are written so vividly, and that's honestly often to the benefit of the story. Those are the details that pull me in as a reader and make the story feel real.
A number of factors can impact the way an author chooses to write about injuries, including personal preference. They might also have varying degrees of squeamishness; after caring for young children, you might become less disturbed by vomit but still be made woozy at the sight of blood.
Genre norms can also influence injuries in fiction, both in their severity and their portrayal. Romances tend to focus on emotions and actions rather than descriptions of injuries. Mystery novels may pay more attention to the facts of a murder, noting where wounds are and getting into specifics like depth or probable weapon.
Grit and gore of that nature would be out of place in a romance, just as a heavy focus on how a detective officer feels with only minimal information about the crime scene wouldn't fall within genre expectations.
It's also better to avoid using complex jargon. Most readers have a general knowledge when it comes to medical terminology, but they may not be familiar but specifics. There are some times in which incorporating a doctor's vernacular can work well, such as in a story featuring a character who is a medical professional and we're there for be more likely to used that kind of language. However the general audience may not know what you're referring to in those instances. Confusion can be distracting and pull them out of the narrative.
Don't let the impact of the scene be lost in medical mumbo-jumbo!
Understand what your typical reader is anticipating when writing injuries. This way, you won't catch them off-guard.
Characters getting hurt is par for the course. It can build suspense and be the basis for a triumphant comeback on the protagonist's part, tug at the heartstrings when a fan-favorite suffers, or be the thing that finally brings a villain's reign to an end.
No matter how much plot armor they've got on, severe wounds handled like a paper cut can throw your readers off. Minimized damage and glossing over recoveries can do harm to your story.
Even if you want to tone down the descriptions, handling them realistically will spare you from the rolling eyes of discerning readers.
Take care when bringing the pain! You'll thank yourself later (even if your characters would hate you for it).