Injuring Characters: How much is too much?
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.
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?