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Stories will not be written easily. A story without a heart is dead, and the only place it will get a heart is from the author.

Injuring Characters: How much is too much?

Injuring Characters

When we talked about realistic injuries, I mentioned briefly how some people over-injure their characters. Instead of going into it on that post, I said that it was a topic for another time. That time is today.

Before starting writing this, I did a Google search with the words “How often should I injure my characters?” When that failed to bring up any satisfactory results, I switched around the words, used only certain words without any proper sentence structure, tried more specific questions and came up with—

Oh, you guessed.

—absolutely nothing.

I found several pages worth of why you should hurt your characters, how to write realistic injuries, how to describe hurt characters, how to deepen characters through injuries, and many other things, but I didn’t come across how often you should injure your characters. Maybe Google just doesn’t like me today, or maybe I picked the wrong words to search for, but even before today, when I’ve been on hundreds of writing sites, I don’t remember ever seeing any article on how often you should injure your characters. So today, I write this post to right (admit it. Puns are running through your head at this very moment) that wrong.

When most writers start out, they’ve already done quite a bit of reading, so they know that injuries are usually considered good things in stories. You injure your characters, you get a reaction from your readers. It seems perfectly simple, so when they start writing, the earliest stories are peppered with random injuries. In my first story, within the first two thousand words I had two characters injured; one fatally so. Cue miraculous healing. (That is another topic for another time.)

Even now, I sometimes struggle with finding the balance between injuring characters at the correct times, and going overboard with injuries, though now I have the opposite problem. After I realized that the characters were just getting injured too many times, I may have developed a slight phobia of injuries in my stories that even now I have yet to entirely break free of.

I never intended to eliminate injuries from my stories. I write fantasy and science fiction, during which characters have to go through some hard, dangerous times in which they have a good chance of getting hurt or killed. There were times where if I didn’t injure my characters, it would have been too convenient and illogical, something every author must avoid. I was faced with two decisions: Injure the characters—and what if I was injuring them too much?—or change the plot.

After a little while of considering the question, it brought me to my first conclusion regarding this subject.

Injure your characters when your story demands it. 

Don’t randomly injure your characters. Injuries are major things, and so they need to be caused by something in the plot and affect later events.

Occasionally, it’s best to change events so that your character won’t be injured. At several points, I’ve decided to change a part of my story because I needed my character to be able to walk immediately afterwards instead of having to spend the next three months recuperating. That’s all right; when you need to keep your character up and about, by all means, change things so that your character won’t be injured, but please don’t resort to the evil henchman without the ability to aim. Don’t under-injure your character to make it convenient for yourself or the character in question if it’s only doable using cheesy, unrealistic means.

But there’s another question for the topic, and one that more authors struggle with. What about over-injuring? 

First off: Don’t give your character injuries that would end up killing them. Research your injury choices and use logic when you decide how hurt your poor lad or lass is going to end up.

We authors like getting a reaction. When we’re new, we use injuries in an attempt to get a reaction (every now and then along with other reasons), and though we don’t really care to admit it, we occasionally still use injuries as a way to get a reaction. Who doesn’t like to hear readers gasp over how your character was just, in rapid succession, whipped, tortured, thrown off a bridge, half-drowned, and then nearly killed when their enemy attacked the hospital they ended up in?

Every author I know is made happy when people react like that. The problem is, after the third nearly-deadly event your character goes through, the readers don’t feel like giving a reaction anymore. Yes, the character is in a life-threatening predicament—again—but they’ve gone in and out of those dozens of times. Why be concerned now?

In my experience as a reader, the best injuries where I’ve seen done are the ones that happen rarely. When, three episodes into a television show, we first see the character battered, it’s more powerful than when he’s hurt in every single episode. If your character is injured every third pages, or even every chapter, people will stop caring. It will become old and no longer carry the heart-pounding tension it could have.

Deciding when, where, how, and especially how much to injure characters can be difficult. There’s a lot of options to consider and sometimes you have to decide between two good things that could happen in your story. When we randomly throw in injuries, the reader can be irritated at the fact that you expect them to be worried again. I cannot count the times when I’ve been irritated by an author because they’ve once again managed to hurt their character just to get a reaction, and they expect us to buy it. When a well-timed injury comes along, it’s lovely.

Have you ever struggled with when and how much to injure characters? What did you decide?


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32 thoughts on “Injuring Characters: How much is too much?

  1. Hannah on said:

    LOVE IT. LOVE IT. LOVE IT. Seriously, this is such a fantastic post! 😀

  2. Good post, as usual. I agree that sometimes, less is more. With TV shows, I also think less gore is often more. If the show has blood splattered every five minutes, a guy who is bleeding isn’t very powerful. However, if they’ve had very little blood and someone’s got a blood stain on their shirt, you know things are dire.
    I struggle with injuring my characters too. In Country in Chaos, the medical expertise was a bit low, as in veterinarian working with minimal supplies low. This meant I couldn’t injure characters badly without them being down for an extended period of time, or worse, dying from the injury that is no longer treatable due to the lack of medicine.
    In my space opera, I can get by with worse injuries and I intend to do so. I find the idea of having more science fiction quite freeing since it allows me to do what the plot demands without so many constraints.

    • I agree about television shows…Though, in some cases, there are some television shows that show less blood than they should. (I’ve watched a television show where a person was shot with an arrow in the back. The person died. The person lost absolutely no blood. Explain this to me again, writers? :p)

      You might try doing something smaller, like bruising your characters rather than cutting them. Bruising requires less medical attention, but can still make people pretty miserable. It can also cause internal bleeding, though, if I remember correctly.

      Science fiction is always fun for that very reason. It’s a whole lot easier to get away with injuries when you have a higher level of medical expertise.

      • Bruise example: I have an enormous bruise on my left forearm from practicing knife defense at the dojo last week. It’s ugly and initially it was sore when it I had my arm propped on my notebook to type up scribble. A week later, it’s still brown, the bone area underneath is still sore if hit, and the muscle gets weak fast if I hit it on something. (Knife defense this week was far less effective because hitting that muscle made my whole wrist area weak where last week I didn’t notice I’d bruised or hurt it until about half hour into practice and the repeated hits had formed a knot. If I were a villain, I’d want to do my stabbing with the other hand because it’s harder to disarm me.

        On the other hand, a lot of people who haven’t done this might not realize how a bruise higher than the wrist can affect grip or palm support for pushing and may not believe the story or think the character weak.

        Somewhat related, punching something hard or repeatedly with long or fake nails can hurt your palm. (Student last night figured this out.)

  3. *winces* Oh dear, you have hit a sore spot. (pun may or may not have been intended…) In my opinion, injuries serve three purposes: advancing the plot, as you stated; showing raised stakes; and creating realism. My problem is that, in the interest of realism, I injure my characters a few too many times. Especially toward the end, Raiders’ Rise is filled with so many injuries for my main characters that it’s just too much for the reader. Minor injuries like bruises and cuts are the ones we don’t always think about, but they’re far more likely to occur than the gunshots, whippings, and other tortures our poor characters go through. So, I was rather meticulous about pointing out those minor hurts. I think I need to establish a balance, though. In the beginning, minor injuries can be a big deal, but as the stakes are raised and injuries become worse, those small things still happen, but maybe I don’t need to show them. Your thoughts?

    Anyway, sorry if that was too long, but this is a great post, Athelas! I enjoyed it.

    • First off (and this goes to everyone else with unanswered comments) I’m sorry it took so long for me to get back to all of you. I had some writing projects I needed to work on, and they got me distracted.

      I agree with your three purposes. While smaller injuries are more likely to happen, if you point them out too often, I think it might irritate your readers. I receive random bruises and cuts on a fairly regular basis, and I hardly even blink. On the other hand, when characters are sore and more severely injured, smaller injuries (“Oh, look. There’s a wall there.”) might cause more than a little bit of a reaction for the character. It might actually be better to hardly mention them in the beginning, but when the character is already injured and stressed to the breaking point, talk about them then. I don’t know your story very well, so it might not work well in that… It was just a thought.

      • Hmm, that’s a good thought! I’ll have to think about that the next time I’m dealing with injuries… 🙂 It is true that the little things become more difficult to deal with the more stressed you are, for sure.

  4. Love this post. My rule of thumb is to never give characters a lot of injuries…if they are drastic, dramatic ones. So for instance, go your characters a paper cut. It doesn’t have to really go any further than just saying this they got one. I mean, unless they are Superman or something, everyone gets paper cuts, splinters, and bruises.

    Sorry if I was rambling off topic….

  5. Oh, and never, EVER do to your characters what Peter Jackson did with Boromir at the end of The Fellowship of the Ring. THAT was a ridiculous overuse of injuries if ever there was one.

    • Actually, it may not have been unrealistic. I’ve heard of a fair amount of situations where a person ended up being shot a fair amount and surviving. I remember one war story about a man having a row of bullet holes across his upper body from full auto. They went in the front and out the back. He walked onto the medical chopper after plugging the holes so he could breathe properly. I also heard about a guy who received multiple shots to the head then wanted bandaids so he could play pool. (They’d missed his brain and he was drunk,)
      I think you can get away with some pretty nasty wounds if the person dies after the fact, such as Boromir.

    • Sounds like a good rule of thumb. 🙂 Now that you mention it, though, it would kind of be interesting to see someone who didn’t get those kinds of tiny injuries ending up hurting themselves.

      Actually, I kind of like that scene. And, going back to the book…

      “A mile, maybe, from Path Galen in a little glade not far from the lake he found Boromir. He was sitting with his back to a great tree, as if he was resting. But Aragorn saw that he was pierced with many black-feathered arrows; his sword was still in his hand, but it was broken near the hilt; his horn cloven in two at his side. Many orcs lay slain, piled all about him and at his feet.”

      At a later point, it said that he had killed at least twenty orcs. When he was injured. With no one to save him, as Peter Jackson had happen. When his sword was most likely broken before he killed the last orc (unless he randomly broke it himself, which I highly doubt). With many arrows in him.

      Humans do actually have the capacity to keep fighting when they’re heavily injured, particularly since, after a certain point, we stop feeling pain. Boromir was the type of man to be able to force himself to keep fighting even when he was near dead. There was nothing illogical about that, nothing wrong with Peter Jackson’s scene… Except for the fact that Boromir needed help from Aragorn. In reality, Boromir conquered more than twenty orcs on his own.

      …Okay. That’s the end of my little Tolkien-rave. :p

  6. Hmm…interesting.

  7. I think I did a pretty good job of limiting the amount of injuries that my characters sustain in my current WIP’s first draft. The only time they get injured/battered up/exhausted is when they are in this desert with invisible obstacles and constantly changing weather. They are caught off guard and are injured both mentally and physically. However, I really need to work on making their exhaustion more realistic. I think I over-dramatized it. *sighs* But that’s what editing is for!

    • That’s good! 🙂 I can certainly imagine why that would make them injured, battered up, and exhausted. If they’re injured both mentally and physically, their exhaustion might just be pretty dramatic, actually. Though, that definitely is what editing is for. 🙂

  8. Haha, this writer needed this post. 🙂 As my friends can attest, I love injuring my characters. This sentence — “Who doesn’t like to hear readers gasp over how your character was just, in rapid succession, whipped, tortured, thrown off a bridge, half-drowned, and then nearly killed when their enemy attacked the hospital they ended up in?” — made me laugh, because it’s pretty close to my now-published book.

    But I’ve thought about the subject of injuries as I work on and plan my WIP series. While I’d like to see my characters less injured, I still want to stay realistic to their situation. It’s the need for balance. Though I think I’m still likely to go heavy on the injury side. Perhaps I’ll grow out of that as I keep writing. It would probably be a good thing. I have a weakness for cool characters who, in my opinion, are always cooler when in pain. 🙂

    • Oh, yes. That sentence describes most of my books that I wrote before 2013, I’m afraid.

      That last sentence of yours… Ouch. That describes me just a tad bit too well, though it’s more when I read than when I write. Something along the lines of,”I like this character a lot. And he’s hurt~! I must rescue him!” That’s actually one of the main reasons I decided to go fairly lightly on the injuries in many of my recent works… I definitely want to make people react like that, and it’s more effective if the reader is taken more or less by surprise.

  9. Great article! I always have to check myself of this….I have a few characters who I love injuring! Thank you for making me check myself on that.

  10. Kimberly on said:

    I find that if I give my character a major injury once or twice a story, it works well but due to the type of story I’m writing, she generally has at least one minor injury at a time.

  11. Reblogged this on Awake Dragon and commented:
    Good thoughts and advice about something that doesn’t immediately spring to the forefront of your thinking!

  12. Good thoughts! I’ve always knocked my characters around in the interest of their own personal growth. Just hurting them to hurt them doesn’t make sense to me.

  13. I can get by with a few more injuries in my main character than the others, due to slightly super human healing being one of her powers. I find it really interesting to write that into her relationship with another character, who is very often in compromising positions for injury and is covered with scars. It really helps show the stark difference and strange relationship, and I’ve found how they react to injuries can be defining.

  14. Zepheronica on said:

    I struggle with this in one of my books because the main character has a healing ability. As such, he is constantly putting himself in stupid and dangerous positions. The thing is, I try to compensate by forcing him to rest, since the ability is taxing on him, but, by all rights, he should have died within the first ten pages due to injuries.
    I have to be really careful with all the other characters though, they aren’t so lucky with the healing.

  15. Great post! I’m usually over the top or below

  16. My book is about someone who is tortured soo, I do hurt my MC a lot… Is that a problem?

    • That probably depends. If your character is always fine and has no major after-effects from being tortured (psychological ones in addition to physical), that could be a problem. But if you handle the injuries well, it doesn’t have to be a problem.

      A friend of mine once said (and I think I may have put this on my blog somewhere, so you may have already seen this), the child is only afraid of the thunderstorm so many times before they grow used to it. The greater the amount of injuries, the lesser the reaction your reader will give each time.

  17. Great article! And, like Melissa, I have had the assassins hit the hospital to come after my protagonist! Throughout my story, she has been beaten repeatedly; the situation she’s in requires that she go back to her abuser in order to protect a young girl from him. Some of the time the injuries are no worse than would be sustained in a particularly intense martial arts session, while the first and last were fairly brutal. But there was always significant downtime between for healing.

    I have a friend who is a nurse, and I have asked each time what the effect of the injuries would be, what restrictions they would put on her, and how long the recovery time would be, and I have been meticulous in following that information, as well as taking into account the cumulative effects, both physical and mental.

    I’ve also made sure to show the toll it has been taking on her, but also to show her determination and resolve to endure as long as it takes in order to protect the young girl and finally take down the villain — even as far as accepting her own death, if need be.

    You’re right — it’s hard to judge how far to go for the sake of raising the stakes and putting on the pressure. I do think that making sure I keep it real by showing the effects and duration helps keep it from being too much.

  18. I just found this post and blog. Thanks for the discussion. Currently all I have written are a couple of time-travel/historical fiction books for language learners. In both books I have found it useful to have some “catastrophic” event be the trigger for time travel. The first book includes an encounter with a gang and falling over a third-floor railing at the beginning, then being involved in a battle at the siege of Acre at the end. Each event results in time travel, and each time the character lands in a way that minimizes injury (falling into water and getting caught in a tree) but at the same time keeps the wounds essentially the same in both instances so that there is no discrepancy in injuries since he arrives back in the present mere seconds after he left (although years passed in the past). I hope that makes sense. A major secondary character dies of malaria, and a minor character is attacked by brigands in a parallel to the opening sequence. Other than that, there really aren’t any injuries. Of course, since I’m writing for language learners, I have to keep limited vocabulary in mind and lots of repetition for comprehensibility.

    In my second book, the main character is narrating the legend of Klaus Stoertebeker, a pirate in the North Sea during the late 1300s, who is beheaded. At the end, the main character witnesses the beheading “as it actually happened”. Those are my main injuries for that book.

    My third book, in progress, is set in East Africa during WWI. This post and the comments remind me that I can use the minor aches and pains of marching through the jungle, going without food, etc. to good effect. It will also be a great way for students to get review on things like “it hurts” and parts of the body. (Yes, I’m a teacher).

    Sorry if this got too long. Thanks for posting and providing food for thought.

  19. Thank you for this post. I know it was written a few years ago, but the advice holds true. If there is no reason for injury, there should be no injury; and if there are too many injuries that is a clear indication for some plot reconstruction. Readers cannot be expected to gasp every time we hurt our characters if that’s all we seem to do. I love this post. Thank you for the reminder to keep a check on how we treat our readers as well as our characters.

I love hearing your comments. Please add to the discussion! (It'd be awesome if you could keep the comments G Rated. Thanks. :p)

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