I went to visit my dentist for a particularly difficult tooth extraction today, so as I write this I’m sitting nursing a sore jaw as the anaesthetic is wearing off. I can’t deny that I felt a bit wobbly after the extraction. Since the tooth had broken off below the gum line, it came out in pieces. No it didn’t hurt at the time, though obviously I could feel the pressure, and just knowing what was going on as the root came out in bits, was somewhat stressful. This is the first stage in having an implant to replace the tooth. It’s likely to be next March before I get a final replacement tooth. Luckily it’s not in a position that shows.
Anyhow I tell you my dental woes because it made me think of what we do to our characters in our books. We treat them appallingly and expect them to shrug off the pain and stand up and fight again. But it’s not so easy in real life.
I’m reminded of the do-it-yourself Caesarian Section in the 2012 movie Promethius. (Not seen it? I’d say, don’t bother, but your mileage may vary.) Basically our heroine, Elizabeth Shaw (played by Noomi Rapace) is pregnant with an alien offspring. Using an automated surgery table, she has the offspring cut out and her belly stapled back together. About five minutes later she’s using her arms to pull her own bodyweight up and over the lip of a doorway, and running like mad from a pursuing wheel-structure. Anyone who has ever had a hysterectomy, or any kind of surgery will tell you how improbable this is. You can’t even lift a kettle afterwards. Did it make the movie more exciting? It just made me wince because it was so unbelievable that it pulled me right out of the flow of the story.
And let’s not forget the number of times we’ve watched Hollywood westerns and detective stories where the villain knocks hero unconscious by the application of a gun butt to the back of the head. Any blow hard enough to cause unconsciousness, is going to cause other things, too… like concussion (and that’s no joke) memory problems, double vision, massive headache, debility etc. Here’s a link with some information.
So how do we damage our characters and make our stories thrilling without making the whole thing totally unbelievable? It helps to have a handy medical professional to ask, of course. I asked a GP friend where I could shoot someone and keep them functioning in the story. The short answer was the fleshy part of the upper arm, which is a bit limiting if you want to be really cruel to your character. He was also most insistent that knocking someone out with the barrel or butt of a gun, would likely immobilise your character for weeks (or maybe longer) with concussion – presuming it didn’t break their skull, cause internal bleeding and kill them. Hollywood tells lies. Who’d have thought it?
The main thing to remember is to build in adequate recovery time.
I’ve recently been catching up with Peaky Blinders on Netflix, and have been impressed. When a character is hurt he stays hurt for an appropriate length of time, whether it’s a gunshot wound or a fractured skull. The main characters have recently returned home from the trenches of the Great War when the story opens, and there’s no doubt that they are suffering from PTSD, though the term hadn’t been invented then. Shell shock was the common term, but there were many different varieties of PTSD, most of which were not recognised at the time. The injuries in Peaky Blinders are not just physical – though there’s plenty of blood and gore. The main character, Tommy, sums it up when talking about the First World War. He says, ‘No one came back.’ Meaning no one came back the same as they were.
In my Psi-Tech trilogy one of my main characters, Ben Benjamin, is involved in an incident which almost kills him. It takes some time to get over it. In fact I’m not sure he does get over it completely, but he eventually learns to live with the fear that it could happen again at any time.
In the book that I’m currently working on, The Amber Crown, I have a character attacked. His injuries include a blow to the head which knock him insensible. It takes him weeks to recover.
Peaky Blinders gets round the recovery time issue by (sometimes) skipping forward with a ‘three months later’ caption. I found my character gentle things to do while he was recovering. In fact his recovery time adds to worldbuilding and also ties two character arcs together.
What are you going to do to your characters and how are they going to recover?