Tag Archives: writing injuries

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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