There are a series of TV advertisements in NZ with the catch-phrase “Want Better Work Stories”? Today I find I can relate, because this week I’ve been in a world of pain. And the thing is, no matter how creative we like to think we are, there is no way to make an injury exacerbated by writing sound exciting. Forget sympathy; blank stares and careful “ohs” have been the order of this week.
Fortunately when it comes to our art, nothing is wasted so here are my thoughts on injuries and the writing process:
1. The Nature of the Injury.
My injury is the result of a car accident that occurred a very long time ago. For the most part it’s managed by good workplace set up, watching my posture and exercise. However sometimes things slip. We’re in the middle of winter in NZ, and I’ve taken to writing with my laptop on my knee next to the fire. Between long hours and intense concentration, I failed to notice the tightening of my trapezium muscles until they were granite hard. Sadly the result of this left me looking more Quasimodo than Venus de Milo.
For our protagonists, injury is usually inevitable, whether it’s emotional or physical. In epic fantasy where physical combat is par for the course, and our characters are often journeying through harsh environments and weather conditions, physical injury of some kind is expected. As a writer the challenge is to make sure that injury is story-worthy. Let it enhance rather than stall the story.
2. Why Suffering is Good.
Injury leads to suffering – and looking at the big picture suffering can be very good. Can you think of a single captivating character who didn’t suffer in some way, shape or form? Frodo suffered carrying the One Ring, losing almost everything he once valued. Aslan endured humiliation and death to save Edmund. CS Lewis described the event in great detail, yet with great sensitivity, so we could experience to some extent the nature of his suffering – and love him for it. To this day he is one of my favourite characters and that scene still makes me cry.
I came across a great quote this week, attributed to Kahlil Gibran:
Out of suffering have emerged the strongest souls; the most massive characters are seared with scars.
Because it’s only when our characters are tested we find out whether they are truly heroic or have feet of clay.
However suffering is only good if it leads to positive change. As the injured writer in point I’m not loving the injury, but the pain is motivating me to improve my writing environment and hopefully be a healthier, more productive writer.
3. When Injury Effects Plot.
There are times when the injury is so severe it can hijack the plot. On a very practical level, if I don’t sort out my neck pain there won’t be any plot full stop. It’s a bit the same with character injuries. Injure your protagonist too severely and the whole story will lose momentum and grind to a halt. However get it right and your injury can add to the tension already at work in the story.
Tolkien did a great job of this when Frodo is badly injured just before he arrives at Rivendell. The actual chase and injury has great pace and tension, but the recovery occurs during a transition scene. Frodo is unconscious for several days, but it adds weight to the gathering together and meeting of the big political players. Frodo and the reader are spared the waiting period and are privy to the outcome of the many meetings. The severity of Frodo’s injury is established, as is the marvel of Elvish medicine. And Frodo’s injury by the enemy’s sword becomes symbolic of one of the side-effects of being ring-bearer; the ability to cross over into the shadowy realm of the wraiths. Later in the story the injury comes into play, growing cold whenever the wraiths are near.
Does your character’s injury enhance the plot on multiple levels like this?
4. Treating the Fictional Injury.
One of the biggest complaints you hear about fantasy stories is that a character will be injured in a swordfight, and with a bit of bandage and a few herbs they are hale and healthy again. Personally this is why I love magical medicine – who is to say those herbs can’t do what modern medicine can’t. However if you are going to inflict wounds, and your world doesn’t support magical healing, do some research. How long does it take for infection to set in? How would the wound behave? How long to recover? You don’t need to give a clinical blow-by-blow, but always ask yourself does this feel real?
5. Creative License:
The advantage of being creative is it’s your story and you get to tell it however you want. If the writing injury is failing to garner sympathy look for a more colourful way of getting your story across. I find ‘it’s an old injury – from an old car accident’, tends to go across better than ‘I’ve been sitting funny’. Even if you need to pad it out for emphasis:
I was sitting on the back of a trailer, whilst being driven to work on an apricot orchard. One minute I’m laughing with my co-workers, the next the trailer comes off the back of the car and I’m left in a tangle of bodies on a dirt road before our boss even realised what had happened. Bad bruising, torn trapezium muscles and six weeks in a neck brace.
Much better story don’t you think. All true. It’s just it happened 20 years ago. At the end of the day it’s all about the story, so make those injuries work for you!
How about you? Have you ever been injured in the line of writing? Or do you handle injuries in your stories? Realism, magic, or clever plot manipulation?