Tag Archives: writing injuries

Q&A: Recovering From Injuries Takes Time and Patience

phantomjedi1 said to howtofightwrite: Your blog is amazing – you’ve saved me from so many mistakes! If someone is trying to come back from injury, especially one that lays them up for an extended period, what are ways that their former level of skill would trip them up in a combat situation? And is there anything they can to more quickly adjust to their new mobility limitations, etc.? I have a character who used to fight well, but was injured and has trouble walking without pain. They’re trying to get some ability back. Thanks!

The major thing an injury takes from you is your conditioning, that’s your musculature, your endurance, your wind, your flexibility, etc. The toll is primarily physical, so this character (outside of their injured body part) cannot fight as well or for as long as they used to. They’re slower, their reach is shortened, and they find themselves breathing more heavily more often.

Now, they can get that back but it usually takes months of consistent effort as they slowly build themselves back into their previous levels of conditioning.

You have to think of conditioning, the working out part, like a mountain. A significant portion of any athlete’s day is spent working out. This isn’t just the exercise training in the techniques, it includes your conditioning. Your push ups, sit ups, pull ups, weight lifting, long distance running, wind sprints, etc. It requires a lot of effort to maintain your body at peak condition and any break (not just an injury) will cause you to start slipping down that mountain. An serious injury that requires you take months off to heal? Expect months of dedicated conditioning to get yourself back to peak performance, and that’s if the injury completely heals. You can’t just jump back in at the levels you were used to before your injury, you’ll actually hurt yourself all over again. You have to climb the mountain the same way you did the first time, bit by bit with a little more each day or each week.

This is what drives athletes crazy. Their minds say that they can go “this” hard, at the levels they were used to before their injury or they took time off, and they can’t. The trope will pop up in almost every sports movie where the main character suffers a major injury, and it’s accurate to life. Whether they’re martial combatants, Olympic athletes, or just a high school football player, they run the risk of hurting themselves all over again by pushing their body too fast and too hard to return to previous levels. Most of them will get impatient and try. Sometimes, they have good reasons, like the soldier who doesn’t want to leave his squad a man down. Sometimes, the reasons are selfish or based in fear, like missing a major competition.

Recovery is, in large part, psychological. The fastest way for a character to adjust to their limitations is to accept they have them. They need to figure out what their body can do, find their current limits, and start slowly pushing the envelope, rather than trying to get their body to behave exactly as it did before. The mind’s expectations are what’s actually lying to them. They have to retrain their brain to accept their new circumstances.

In the early parts of returning to training, the mind will constantly miscalculate because it’s relying on the body’s old reaction times. Every action will be slower. Their mind will move at a similar speed to what they had before, but their body won’t. The disconnect between the two is where most of the problems occur, and why coming back from an injury feels a lot like starting all over again. You know what you can do, but your body won’t cooperate to do it.

If your character is trying to come back from an injury and the injury hasn’t completely healed, like this leg injury, then they’re going to be forced to train around it. If they put too much pressure on the leg, if they push the injury too hard, the injury will get worse. They run the risk of the injury becoming permanent. They’re going to have to stay off it and when they’re on it, go slowly. They may not be able to train that leg more than fifteen minutes a day, and, depending on injury, are only able to stretch it out. Depending on the severity of the injury, they may only be able to put their full weight on the leg for a few seconds each day. Those few seconds can extend, they can become minutes, but that’s going to be the results of months of work. If they feel pain when they walk on it, that is their body saying no. Whatever pain they feel from just walking, strenuous activity will hurt a hell of a lot more.

Martial artists/martial combatants/athletes are trained to push past pain, but they also need to be able to tell the difference between the pain caused by the body’s resistance/laziness and serious injuries. Serious injury pain is the stop and no further pain.

The problem with leg injuries is that your entire axis revolves off the legs, if both legs don’t work then you can’t fight. You need both legs to be capable of bearing your body’s entire weight for at least a few fractions of a second multiple times throughout the fight. Both legs need to split that body weight. You can overcome that necessity and train one of the legs to carry more of the burden, but if the injury is permanent (like a knee injury) then they will always be limited in what they can do.

I’ve known a few individuals who’ve come back from major leg injuries where the doctors said they’d never be able to do martial arts again. The willpower, patience, and work they put into their recovery was monstrous. They really loved what they did. That love was their foundation, their foundation fueled their efforts and kept them from giving up. There are going to be times when the frustration sets in, when the climb feels impossible, where your body is not fixing itself fast enough to satisfy what you want, where you’ll want to throw in the towel, and the question you need to answer as a writer is, “what keeps your character coming back? What is the source of their motivation?”

To be at the top is not easy. Most people who don’t heavily engage in the world of sports, or martial arts, or martial combat, don’t really grasp how stiff the competition is. Or how hard it is to defend the seat once you’re there. Outside of true story sport’s narratives, many characters lack convincing motivation. “I don’t want to die” only gets you so far, and “I want to protect my friends” again only gets you so far. Those are the motivations of the mediocre, and, in most situations, mediocre is enough.

However, that’s not the motivation of the person who arrives first and leaves last. The person who always shows up, rain or shine. The person who sacrifices time with friends and family, the person who skips out on dates to train, the person who makes their training their life. The ones for whom their training is their life are the only ones who come back from extreme injuries because they find the motivation to go through the agony of starting over.

Recovery can take years, usually recovery from a major injury takes at least half a year and then, once you start training, there’s the three to four months (or more) of pushing yourself to return to the previous level.

For reference, when I was twelve, I broke my leg. I broke my leg in the fall and wasn’t able to get back into martial arts training until late spring, and even then, the order from the doctor was, “no jumping until June.” I went from no pressure allowed, to supported pressure with crutches, to walking, then running, and then finally jumping.

If you’re really interested in writing a character going through recovery after a major injury, I actually recommend watching the (admittedly sometimes cheesy) true story sports movies. They’ll cover everything, from the grieving period to the difficulties in recovery, to the points where it gets too hard and the character wants to stop, to when they finally get back into sync and come out stronger. Sometimes, they skate over some details but it is a realistic progression from one to the next in the cycle.

It’d be a good reference point for you.

Never forget mental fortitude when you’re writing a combat character. Willpower is their true strength, and it can be easy to forget when you’re distracted by physicality. The unwillingness to give up in the face of impossible odds. The faith they have in their own abilities to push through, even after that faith has been shaken.

It can be hard to get into that mindset, especially if you’ve never experienced a major injury (even if you’re not in sports) or been a martial artist/invested in physical training of any kind. You can do it though, but you’ll need to do a lot of research. In this case, sports movies where the character experiences a major injury and biographies/autobiographies written by sports professionals documenting their own recoveries are going to be key. You can then apply that structure to your writing, the crossover is really in the conditioning. If you really need it to be martial, there are a couple of war movies and boxing movies which cover similar material. This is well-documented, you just need to find the sources.

Once you have the framework and the arc, you can apply it to your story. The basic steps are fairly simple and can be molded into any narrative and setting.

-Michi

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Q&A: Ignoring the Pain

hi, is it realistic for a secret agent to become ‘immune’ to pain if they’ve had to experience a lot? i was watching a tv show the other week and the main guy is an ex-cia agent and it says that he has become highly resistant to pain. if this is possible/realistic how long would they have to train for to become resistant to pain?

You don’t really develop an immunity to pain. There is a serious medical condition where the sufferer doesn’t have any pain response at all, and this can easily result in fairly serious injuries, because they have no warning when they’re being harmed.

You also don’t really become resistant to pain. You’ll still feel the pain. That’s not going anywhere. However, intense physical conditioning can teach you to distinguish between pain you need to worry about, and pain that you can file as a problem for tomorrow.

In case it’s unclear, I’m not talking about something specific hand-to-hand training here. Pretty much any strenuous athletic ability will teach you this, whether you like it or not.

Your body will gleefully lie to you and say that something hurts and you should stop when you’re fine, it’s just uncomfortable. At the same time, pain is something to be aware of, because it can indicate that something really is going wrong.

A character can learn to distinguish between different kinds of pain, but, it’s not really an immunity or resistance, even if those terms probably get the concept across.

A character can make a decision to ignore pain that indicates something’s wrong, and simply power through. This comes with all the problems associated with aggravating an existing wound. So, not behavior we’d normally encourage, but characters sometimes have more pressing considerations than their long term health. Hell, real people have problems with that, and can tend to ignore pain they really shouldn’t until its too late.

Conditioning teaches you to distinguish between kinds of pain, but it also teaches you how to push past it. Like I said, your body will complain about discomfort long before it transitions into actual harm.

Being able to power through pain isn’t really something to brag about. Ironically, it’s something that sounds less badass than the actual act is. Saying, “I’m immune to pain,” is kinda stupid; while a character who keeps pushing themselves and fighting, even as it’s killing them, can be make for a pretty effective sequence.

Ultimately, claiming resistance to pain is kinda pointless because you’re not immune to injury. Though it does remind me of the, “gain immunity to bullets by eating smaller bullets,” joke.

Is it realistic that an ex-CIA agent is unusually good at powering through pain? Yeah, sort of. Ignoring for a moment that spies are not superheroes, yeah, it’s reasonable that he’d be pretty good at ignoring pain. Not, “immune” or “resistant” to it, but I wouldn’t strongly fault someone for using those terms.

Is it realistic for a spy to gain immunity to pain from experiencing lots of it? No, not at all. This a very different question from the example. If someone’s suffered repeated trauma over their career, there’s a real risk they’ll suffer from chronic pain. So, they’ll be in a more impaired state. Chronic pain is no joke, it’s not something you can ignore, it doesn’t improve your relationship with pain. It sucks.

If you’ve got a spy who’s been beaten to hell and back many times over the course of their career, they’re going to be a mess. At that point, “immune to pain,” would be a sick joke. Now, I could see someone using that line in relation to emotional pain. It’d be a dark joke, but when has that ever stopped anyone?

-Starke

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Q&A: Broken Wrist

Hei, I just have a realistic question on fighting whilst injured sort of question, My MC has a broken wrist in a solid cast but is forced to fight for her life in a small corridor to snowy outdoors. She’s a highly trained agent but does get injured further by her assailant who is also highly trained t and much bigger, Would it be realist that her injuries (the wrist, a stab wound to the thigh, stunning blows to her head) would render her ability to fight useless in the long run?

So, three things.

First: Size is completely irrelevant. The faster you come to grips with that, the better off you’ll be. If you don’t know anything about combat, size can be intimidating. Being bigger does not mean your punches hit harder. It doesn’t mean you can take more hits. It doesn’t make you’re more resistant to throw. Your character has been trained; she would know all of this. At that point, dwelling on the size difference is just generating false drama.

If you’re trained, a large foe is just a bigger target.

A character who is in better physical condition is a serious threat. That’s not a function of size. Someone who’s 6’3″ can easily be laid out by a scrappy 5’nothing who exercises regularly, and keeps their training sharp.

When it comes to condition, your character is at a huge disadvantage, and it has nothing to do with size; it’s their wrist. Usually we think of “condition,” in the context of if they’re physically fit, but injuries, illness, and other impairments are relevant. Your character could be a top grade fighter, but if they’re drunk, that’s going to seriously impact their ability to fight.

Broken bones are a huge liability in a live fight. If it’s on a limb (including the wrist) you can’t use that limb at all. If it’s a broken rib, there’s a real danger that any blow to your core could force it into your internal organs resulting in some nasty hemorrhaging.

In the case of your wrist, a broken forearm means you really cannot use that limb for anything. Even in the cast. Abusing it by trying to block or parry is a good way to permanently lose the use of that hand. Best case, she may only need surgery to repair the additional damage inflicted.

Second: The first rule of self defense is avoiding situations where you’ll need to use your training. Violence is a bit chaotic, and even if you really know what you’re doing, you’re still at risk of suffering serious harm. The best way to avoid that happening is not putting yourself in that situation to begin with.

It isn’t possible to avoid all potential threats. The entire reason self-defense training exists is an acknowledgement that, sometimes, things happen outside your control. Sometimes an assailant will attack in a, “safe,” area. Sometimes you simply need to traverse spaces that aren’t secure.

When you’re writing a character who’s been trained, it’s worth remembering that this will influence their behavior. For example: If your character is going someplace unfamiliar, they’re not going to do it alone, and wounded, unless they really have no other option. In a situation like this, it would be better to bring allies, or not go at all and send others. Your character is wounded, if she has option to, she should avoid fieldwork until she’s fully healed.

Third: Let’s reconstruct this for a second. Your character is attacked by a highly trained assailant. He has a knife. His goal is to harm your character. Why doesn’t he simply shank her, confirm the kill, and move on with his day?

If the expectation is that she’ll have her head bounced off the wall (or something else) resulting in a minor concussion, why didn’t he simply kill her.

Again, one of the wounds was a stab into the thigh. Ignoring for the moment that taking a blade to the upper leg can be very dangerous, depending on where it connects, if he’s in possession of the weapon and willing to use it on her, there is no way your character walks away from this fight at all.

Even in the most generous situations, he’s stabbing her, she knows who he is (or could potentially ID him), there’s no reason to let her live. And, of course, if he’s willing to stab her in the leg, and bouncing her head off of something solid enough to inflict a concussion, he’s certainly willing to kill her.

This gets back to the reason behind the second point; you don’t put yourself in dangerous situations without cause, because it can turn nasty, fast.

If the male character is the attacker, tracking her down and initiating the fight, then there really is no reason for him to let her live. His goal is to neutralize her, and the safest way to do that is to kill her.

As a writer, you need to look at violence as a tool in your story. Your characters will resort to violence based on who they are. A well-written character needs concrete goals. These don’t always need to be communicated to the reader, some can inferred, but, they need goals. At that point, their decision to engage in violence needs to be compatible.

If your assailant is highly trained, and bringing a knife to the fight, they’re planning to kill your character. At that point, it’s not going to be much a fight scene. A chase maybe, but if he catches up and puts a blade in her leg, she’s toast.

Now, maybe there’s justification for all of this, which doesn’t show up in the ask, but, it is something to be very careful of. Injuries to your characters aren’t simply damage tracking. They’re persistent effects that should influence future sections of your story. In fairness, that’s sort of here, but at that point you do need to keep track of how severe these injuries would be, and how debilitating it would be to stack them up. Part of the reason why you rarely see writers stacking more than one or two injuries on a character, it becomes a lot of work to keep track of how badly hurt they are.

-Starke

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Q&A: Sword Injuries

Would actual sword fights end with a lot of cuts on both combatants or is it more of a “you get tagged first and your out” kind of deal?

Yes?

This one can really go either way, depending on injuries sustained. So, let’s parse this out a bit, because I might not have been really clear about this in the past.

Shallow nicks won’t do much. You’ll lose blood, but not at an appreciable rate. You’ve almost certainly sustained a few of these in your life. From a writing perspective these are basically cosmetic. From a medical perspective they’re not much more. A sword or knife can absolutely inflict these.

There are rare circumstances where these immediately relevant. Cuts to the forehead can cause blood to get in the victim’s eyes. In combat, this is a debilitating situation. Blood that gets onto the palm can make it more difficult to grasp objects or weapons. (Fresh blood is quite slick. As it dries it will become sticky, so the effect is reversed at that point.)

When you’re talking about lots of cuts, then you’re probably talking about this kind of injury. Individually these aren’t dangerous, but if they start stacking up, blood loss is cumulative, so they can potentially become life threatening, but that’s not a likely outcome for a duel.

Incidentally, if you’re writing a scene where characters are dueling to first blood, then these cuts qualify. In fact, that’s what the duelists will aim for. It’s the easiest kind of injury to sustain, and if the participants don’t want to kill one another, this is the safest route to victory.

When I’ve been talking about injuries that create a decisive advantage, I’m talking about deeper cuts; ones that open up veins or debilitate limbs. Injuries where bloodloss will lead to impairment and death.

In a duel, these will kill you. When I say things like, “with first blood, the clock is ticking, and your character will die if they don’t find a way to turn the fight around,” I’m talking about these deeper injuries. A person can survive a few shallow cuts without much ill effect, and in most cases can survive quite a few without aid. Deep cuts are immediately dangerous.

Here’s the problem with this: I’m talking about these like they’re two separate kinds of wounds; they’re really not. They’re both cuts. If we’re being technical, the deeper variety are “lacerations.” But, that makes it sound like there’s a clean delineation between these injuries which simply doesn’t exist.

So, I’m going to step back and put this in abstract terms, as they apply to characters for a moment.

Characters can suffer “cosmetic injuries.” These will result in bleeding. As I mentioned earlier, blood After the fight is over, they’ll hurt. Unless your character is getting covered in these things, they’ll never kill them. These can be sustained anywhere, but when you’re talking about strikes to the forearm (except along the inner arm) or to the face, bone will usually stop the strike before it gets to deep.

Characters can suffer “wounds.” These will result in a lot of bleeding, way too much bleeding. These, “start the clock.” Without medical attention, even just self inflicted first aid, these will kill your character. Usually these are sustained to limbs or the torso. Places where you can get fairly deep without striking bone.

In the real world, blood loss will impair the fighter, slowing them down, confusing them, making combat more difficult. This means their defense (if they have one) will suffer, and it will be far easier for their opponent to get through it with a kill strike. A blade through the throat or chest, for instance. This isn’t always true in fiction, but it’s a function of how the human body works that’s worth remembering.

If you’re asking, “is it plausible for a character to win a swordfight with lots of tiny cuts?” Yes. If you’re asking, “is it plausible for a character die in a swordfight with one or two deep, lethal wounds, and to be otherwise untouched?” Again, yes. It really depends on the circumstances of the fight.

I hope that clears things up some, and am genuinely sorry if I’ve confused any of you by glazing over this. That one’s my mistake.

-Starke

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Hi there. All this films about action/fantasy heroes downplay a lot the pain and injuries the characters suffer for the sake of the pace. In real life, is there any sort of training to endure pain better, or it is all fiction? I am hoping to write a soldier (special soldier, fantasy setting) that is in pain from a shoulder injury (no blood, just soft tissue, recurring injury), so any tips would be welcome. Thanks!

It’s not so much special training against pain, so much as it’s contextualized by training and experience. What you do becomes normal over time, so the more used you are to getting injured then the more inured to it you become. This happens to athletes and soldiers all the time. The more dangerous the job, the greater the chance of injury, then the more used to it they are.

@readingwithavengeance once told a story on her blog about a soldier in Iraq who got a gut wound, grossed out his regiment by going to the dining area with his guts hanging out while waiting for pickup so he could get taken to surgery. His exposed intestines were protected by a plastic bag, but, you know, perfect time for shit on a shingle.

Remember, what might sound horrific to you is normal for someone else. Normal is relative to events in your life and your experiences. A lot of the problems that come with martial arts and training in fiction are born off the idea that because the author’s normal is normal then their character must need or be doing something special. When, in actuality, all their character has done is adjust to a new normal that most who go through the same would experience.

The ability to endure pain is a lot more common and a lot less special than fiction makes it out to be.

Someone who has gone through a great deal of emotional trauma will be better at enduring it than someone who has not.

Why?

Practice.

The same is true for physical pain.

As with everything, practice makes perfect.

One part of training is learning to work through pain because training is painful. Developing endurance, training up your muscles is painful. It hurts. But to complete your training or do your techniques, you have to force yourself through it and overtime you improve.

Part of training is learning the difference between good pain (my muscles are lazy) and bad pain (my muscles are seriously injured), but in the beginning it’s all just pain.

Pain is the body’s way of speaking to you. The problem is that your brain instills a lot of false limits, so there’s what your body’s used to doing, what you believe you can do, and what you can actually do. Most people underestimate themselves, they listen to their body and stop when it hurts. Physical training teaches you about the different kinds of pain your body experiences, how to work with it, how to ignore it, how to suppress it, and how to overcome it. It’s not a special lesson, it’s one you learn by consistent repetition.

You got to be tired, you wake up hurting, but still you have to go out and train. You’re not injured, your body just hurts. Physical training involves either breaking your muscles down (such as weight lifting and body building, you tear your muscles to build muscle) or stretching and lengthening them with endurance training like running. It hurts, but it’s not an acceptable excuse to stop.

A large part of training is acclimatizing, you’re getting your body and mind ready and/or used to the strain they will be put under when actively participating in their future endeavor.

Army Drill Sergeants, particularly yell at recruits in Basic in order to simulate and stimulate stress in the trainees with the goal to acclimatize them to continue working, thinking, acting, and fighting while they are under stress.

You want to try to put together a rifle with some asshole screaming in your ear and telling you that you’re the worthless scum of a bootlicking cocksucker? Well, if you can do that then you’ll probably be able to do it when your friends are dying around you and bullets are flying over your head.

R. Lee Ermey, actor and former Staff Sergeant/Drill Instructor in the Marine Corps made this approach famous in Full Metal Jacket.

For people used to receiving minor physical injuries (scrapes, cuts, muscle pain, bruises), injuries just start to sort of roll off them. They still hurt, but you keep working despite them. You acclimatize, you create a new sense of normal, and adapt. You figure out the limits of your injury and then start managing around it.

The question for soldier’s with injuries isn’t just whether or not it causes them pain. Does it significantly impact their ability to do their job? Can they still meet the physical requirements? That’s not just an executive decision you make as an author, but one that happens in conjunction with the rules you’ve set up for your world and the organizations in it.

This is the part where we talk about bureaucratic rules. If you’re writing a mercenary then it doesn’t really matter. It’s possible, depending on the era which you draw your inspiration for your military, that it won’t matter in the regular army either. However, every army has standards and those standards must be met by the participating soldiers. There’s a lot more to an army than fieldwork.

Soldiers do not assign themselves, soldiers are assigned by a higher authority figure.

Your soldier has to meet their military’s physical fitness standards in order to continue operating as a soldier in the field. If they can’t meet those standards then they are a liability to the men they serve with and will be placed elsewhere. (Soldiers are not lone wolves, they are cooperative beasts. They are part of a unit, that unit works together. If you haven’t spent time thinking about the Company and the cadre of characters your soldier serves with, then it’s probably best to start.)

If his recurring injury does not significantly impact motor function or his ability to perform/meet the necessary standards then it’s just pain.

Pain is suppressed. Pain is dealt with. Pain is ignored.

For him, that’s normal. It won’t be odd to anyone in his unit unless they’re new and he certainly won’t be the only one suffering from an old injury/scar that is a reminder of his mistakes.

It’s sort of along the same lines conceptually as the old man whose bones ache every time there’s a change in air pressure or a storm moves in.

The key to selling this kind of injury in your fiction is to present as normal. Maybe not normal to you or your reader, but it is for him. He didn’t go through any special training to achieve the ability to ignore his pain. That’s ultimately a false note.

If he can’t work through his pain, then he can’t do his job. If he can’t do his job then people die. He prioritizes what has to be done to do his job over his physical well-being. That’s part of his training.
All training involves pain.

He has pain, he got used to it.

It really is as simple as that.

-Michi

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