How To Accurately Write About Your Character’s Pain

The best thing about this online world of ours is you never know who you are going to meet. I don’t know about you, but one of the areas I struggle with is writing a character’s pain in a way that is raw, realistic…but not just “one-note.” So when I crossed paths with a paramedic-turned-writer, I got a little excited. And when she said she’d share her brain with us about the experience of pain, and how to write it authentically, I got A LOT excited. Read on, and make sure to visit Aunt Scripty’s links at the end. Her blog is full of more great medical info for writers.

Writing About Pain (Without Putting your Readers in Agony)

Pain is a fundamental part of the human experience, which means that it’s a fundamental part of storytelling. It’s the root of some of our best metaphors, our most elegant writing. Characters in fiction suffer, because their suffering mirrors our own.

In good writing, physical suffering often mirrors emotional suffering. It heightens drama, raises the stakes, adds yet another hurdle for our hero to jump before they reach their glorious climax.

So why can reading about pain be so boring?

Consider the following (made-up) example:

The pain shot up her arm like fire. She cringed. It exploded in her head with a blinding whiteness. It made her dizzy. It made her reel. The pain was like needles that had been dipped in alcohol had been jammed through her skin, like her arm had been replaced with ice and electricity wired straight into her spine.

For your characters, at its worst the pain can be all-consuming.  For your readers, though, it can become a grind. Let’s be honest, you gave up reading that paragraph by the third sentence.

In another story, a character breaks his ribs in one scene, then has, uhhh, intimate moments with his Special Someone in the next. Where did the agony go‽

There’s a fine line to walk between forgetting your character’s pain, elucidating it, and over-describing it.

So I’m here today to give you a pain scale to work with, and provide some pointers on how to keep in mind a character’s injuries without turning off your readers.

How Much Does It Hurt? A Pain Scale for Writers

Minor/Mild: This is pain that your character notices but doesn’t distract them. Consider words like pinch, sting, smart, stiffness.

Moderate: This is pain that distracts your character but doesn’t truly stop them. Consider words like ache, throb, distress, flare.

Severe: This is pain your character can’t ignore. It will stop them from doing much of anything. Consider words like agony, anguish, suffering, throes, torment, stabbing.

Obliterating: This is the kind of pain that prohibits anything else except being in pain (and doing anything to alleviate it). Consider words like ripping, tearing, writhing.

Metaphors, of course, are going to play somewhere on this spectrum, but I would suggest picking one level of pain and targeting it. For instance, don’t  mix stinging with searing when finding a metaphor to build.

How Often Should We Remind Readers of a Character’s Pain?

Most pain that matters in fiction isn’t a one-and-done kind of a deal. A gunshot wound should burn and itch and ache as it heals. A broken bone should send a jarring blast of lightning into the brain if that bone is jostled or hit.

Injuries need to have consequences. Otherwise, what’s the point?

There are three main ways to remind a reader of your character’s suffering: show them suffering, show them working around their suffering, and a third, more advanced, technique that I’ll mention in a moment.

If you want to show their pain, the easiest way is to tell: “her shoulder ached”; “she rubbed her aching shoulder”; “she rolled her shoulder subconsciously, trying to work out the aching stiffness” all convey what we want.

For frequency, try to limit those mentions to once per scene at the most, and perhaps as rarely as once per chapter.

However, we can choose something closer to the show route, by watching the character work around their injuries: “she opened the door awkwardly with her left hand to avoid the burn on her right”; “she led each step on the staircase with her good leg”; “Martin fiddled with his sling irritably”. That can be a little more frequent. It’s a reminder, but it’s also a small challenge that they’re solving before your very eyes. Huzzah!

One Final Technique: The Transmission of Agony

My best friend is a paramedic. She’s also had spinal fusion, has multiple slipped discs, and takes a boatload of pain medication. And yet I can see how much pain she’s in when we work together by the way she walks, talks, and carries herself.

Her pain isn’t constant. It changes. It ebbs and flows like the tide. It can be debilitating in one minute, bearable the next. So, too, can the agony of your characters:

“The agony had faded to a dull throb.”

“The pain in my shoulder ramped up the from stiffness all the way to searing, blinding agony faster than I could blink.” 

And, just when the pain was at its worst, it dissipated, like fog off some terrible lake.”

Go forth. Inflict suffering and woe upon your characters!

If I can offer one more piece of wisdom, it’s this: research the injury inflicted upon your character. At the very least, try to get a grasp on what their recovery might look like. It will add a level of realism to your writing that you simply can’t fake without it, and remind you that they should stay injured beyond the length of a scene.

Thank you for your time and your attention.

xoxo, Aunt Scripty

Aunt Scripty is a veteran paramedic and author of the ScriptMedic blog at . In just three short months, her blog has attracted several thousand followers and accidentally started a writing advice blog revolution on Tumblr.

She lives in an undisclosed location with her beautiful wife and imaginary pibble, Steve, and can be found @scriptmedic on Twitter. If you’re not careful, she’ll sneak up on you in a dark alleyway and give you a free ebook.

Have a question about PAIN? Now’s your chance to get some serious A+ feedback. Comment below.

Image 1: BrookLorin @pixabay
Image 2: LeoNeoBoy @ Pixabay






Angela is a writing coach, international speaker, and bestselling author who loves to travel, teach, empower writers, and pay-it-forward. She also is a founder of One Stop For Writers, an online library packed with powerful tools to help writers elevate their storytelling.
This entry was posted in Conflict, Description, Emotion, Empathy, Fear, Guest Post, Show Don't Tell, Subtext, Tension, Uncategorized, Writing Craft, Writing Lessons. Bookmark the permalink.

48 Responses to How To Accurately Write About Your Character’s Pain

  1. Msf says:

    Here’s a problem I’ve run into:

    Character A has been seriously injured in a hostile environment. Character B —a setting-appropriate medic/healer— discovers A and attempts to save A’s life. Functionally, this is a non-combative action scene (a short but vital moment, every choice and instinct raised to the highest stakes, no time/ability to get outside help, this is where the music-director in a movie puts the really intense bits of the score, etc) BUT as a writer, I now have to convey A’s injuries and B’s emergency examination/assessment, how/why this is such a big deal, the moment B chooses (consciously or not) to attempt to save A despite any/all risks, and at least a PORTION of how that treatment is applied, since, you know, the fight to save A’s life is the meat of the scene… without killing the pacing by stopping dead and becoming a textbook.
    Cutting away to A’s recovery, I’ve found, is good for building up B’s mysteriousness, but risks downplaying the injuries and leaving the audience confused about their repercussions (especially if B tries to comfort A by obfuscating just how serious it was.) Showing B’s struggle to save A’s life is a great character-defining moment for B and gives payoff to the initial trauma, but risks descending into jargon if the steps aren’t explained. Describing A’s injuries in detail really conveys the serious danger A is in, but also brings the momentum to a shrieking halt; keeping the injuries vague once again risks downplaying/confusion.

    No one on the internet has written about this problem that I can find; it’s either advice on writing fight scenes, advice on writing injuries (even though emergency treatment is part of dealing with that, right?), or advice on writing actual medical documents.

    Challenge modes include:
    • A is unconscious [and cannot contribute dialogue.]
    • A and B have never met [this is a character introduction scene.]
    • B’s healing abilities are beyond current science (either magical or tech,) and have their limits established/reinforced by this scene. [The audience must understand some basic rules of this ability by the end of the scene.]
    • Scene is from B’s perspective, [meaning B has experience/context the audience might not.]
    • This is one of your opening scenes, [so you don’t have much time for setting up context before it starts.]

    • Be a dumbass like me, and use all challenge modes at once!
    …Someone please help me…

  2. Kristen says:

    How would you describe someone being in pain because someone they loved was hurting? I am basically transcribing a TV show for my blog/website and one character is being forced to listen to her grandmother dying (On tape) at the hands of a sadistic “Angel of death” They are both handcuffed to a poll so he’s frustrated he can’t physically save her and he’s screaming to get the guy to stop because he’s torturing the woman he loves and he can’t stop him. He just screamed for the angel of death to stop and my heart skipped a beat. It was just well done. He’s trying to get out of his handcuffs. I am not a writer, at all. I usually just transcribe and post screencaps but because this scene would be difficult to do that I am trying to describe what is going on and I don’t have the talent for Thanks 🙂

  3. Sunshine says:

    My character is an animatronic. He’s been captured and tortured by being destroyed and he barely has enough strength to stay conscious. How can I describe his pain?

    Sorry if this isn’t a very good question.

    • Olesia says:

      I would say something along the lines where he could feel his metal structure being torn apart slowly. He probably would have dents in his structure if his body if fully metal. If he has fur/skin/feathers etc with blood and bodily organs like living animals, I would take notice on blood seeping out of wounds, as well as bruises. I’m not the best with animatronics hope this helped fellow writer 😀

  4. Justin says:

    How should I describe someone falling on their back?

    • Poet says:

      We talking falling from a height?

      I’d say winded, it would probably take a few seconds to catch their breath again. Seeing as it’s sorta a heavy feeling of a “Thunk” I would try not so much to describe the pain, but get the reader to relate maybe by describing how hard the surface is so that the reader can infer by their own experience that it hurt. Describe it to make the reader feel uncomfortable or want to rub their back at the thought of it.

      You could say that the pain is sudden and maybe include a whip lash effect of their head throwing back and how it pulls up from their shoulders in sudden pain. Maybe some teeth jitters from the head trowed back.

      I don’t know that’s a hard one.

  5. Aoife says:

    So in my story there are two times that my main protagonist experiences physical pain. The first would be closer to a physical attack; punched, kicked, the whole nine yards that could be classified as physical abuse. As for the 2nd time, it’s a split second decision as she runs over towards someone to protect them from harm and in turn my protagonist ends up getting stabbed through the chest.
    I’m having a bit of a hard time describing the sensation from the protagonist’s perspective during the 2nd time of being injured.

    • Poet says:

      Hello there! I’m quite young and I’m only really here for help with a school thing. I have had personal experience with shock like situations and nerve damage so I figured I would give you some pointers.

      Shock is really strange and it honestly takes a lot longer then you would think for your brain to process the situation. Seeing as it’s a split second situation I see this coming into play. Before you understand the full situation you tend to try and move around or look to see what happened to the best of your ability because your body is going through completely unfamiliar sensations. Attempting to move only to then find a sudden pain or you are unable to move as a whole.

      As for pain my situation was directly nerve based. Lot’s of numbness and stinging, think someone hammering your funny bone except it shoots throughout your whole body. Seeing as it’s in the chest I would turn to throbbing pain of her heartbeat. The sharp pain comes afterwards when it sinks in and you try your best to move. Shaking is also very important. Think adrenaline and anxiety, your body goes into shock so the thought process isn’t too great. Not a lot of speaking either, it’s hard to make up any sort of conversation.

      Passing out because of pain isn’t uncommon either, even more so at the sight of their own blood.

      When I was going through shock I asked a bystander to tell me a story to try and distracted myself from the sharp tingly pain and the muscle spasms. Don’t know if any of that helps but I figured I’d say it anyways

  6. Lilia says:

    This was some really helpful information to know! It did help me cover with the light stuff, but I was wondering for times where the scenarios get really gory?

    As if the character were to get stabbed, how should it be expressed?

    Also, how would it be like if the character just woke up from a coma?

    Last question! Do you have a separate page for writing out battle scenes?

  7. Tara Sikder says:

    How can I show pain from burning? Like someone was forced to literary walk on fire. I don’t know how to show it to readers. Help please!!!

  8. Hhh says:

    In my story i am the 1st person and someone is paralyzed because if my ignorance and now he is in the hospital so how should i write that i am in utter despair and agony. And i want him to forgive me. Can you pls help i want a really nice description on that😊

  9. Pingback: How to Write About Injured Characters » Of Paper and Pen

  10. Steve says:

    What is the body language of someone in extreme pain?

    One of the characters in my work is, for a bunch of reasons: mute. The only way that she can communicate with my POV character is through actions and body language. She’s been injured so badly that, if not for magic she would be dead in seconds, but she’s conscious, unable to scream.

    I’ve described her injuries (with words like ‘mangled’ and ‘twisted’, and descriptions of shards of bone poking out where her knees should be), but I really want to hammer home the nightmarish nature of her situation. Magic is involved, healing magic in the setting is not simple or even kind.

  11. Ryan Lingerlander says:

    Thank you so much! This was very helpful but am wondering about how to write about an infection?

    • Ryan, I would advise you to do some research on the kind of infection so you’ll know what it looks like and how the character will physically respond. You could also talk to medical practitioners for practical information. Best of luck!

    • Also, if you go to the site of this guest poster, you’ll see she had more articles on different types of injuries and how to write them, so I would be shocked if she didn’t have something on infections. Just poke around and I’m sure you’ll find some help there. 🙂

  12. Isabella says:

    I have write a character who as cut their feet on rocks and branches. Luckily I have not experienced that first hand, but that makes it hard to write about.

    The character is running away for danger and can’t stop to address his injury. I really don’t know how to describe how that feels, and what it does to the body.

    Do you think you could help me with some descriptive words?

    I would appreciate it,


  13. Hayden says:

    How do describe a flying elbow to the stomach?

    • Hi, Hayden. While I’m thankful this has never happened to me, it unfortunately doesn’t give me any reference for answering your question. But I do remember times when I’ve had the wind knocked out of me and when I have been knocked painfully by someone else. You’ve probably experienced these things too; use those memories to write about how it would feel. Think about things like localized pain, but what other physical sensations it may trigger, like nausea, losing one’s breath, or what happens to the person if the impact causes additional pain, such as them falling down or stumbling backward and hitting their head, etc.

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  15. ruby says:

    My character fell on his face. Not scraping his palms, just his face.

  16. Georgia says:

    How would you write a character who is unable to feel pain? (Or hunger, thirst, tiredness, etc.) This is not congenital insensitivity, this is a light fantasy setting where this is paired with moderately increased endurance as a power/mutation. The character in question is a 12 year old girl.

    • Hi, Georgia. I’m sorry, but I’m just now seeing your comment here. For this, you’ll have to show, through the character’s response, that they’re not feeling pain, and whether or not this is normal for her. For instance, you could show her being knocked down, getting up and dusting herself off, and her fingers coming away bloody. Maybe she’s gashed her leg or impaled it on something, and she didn’t notice. And now that she does, she doesn’t respond normally. Maybe she treats it like an inconvenience, bandaging it up or yanking out the offending shard of glass, then trotting off without a limp. Or maybe she consciously affects a limp because she knows that would be normal with such an injury and she wants to avoid notice. Maybe she mentally recalls that a year ago, this would have hurt like you know what, and that’s how her mutation is a blessing in disguise. The important thing here is to know your character’s state of mind regarding her mutation and having her respond accordingly so it doesn’t come off as unrealistic or explanatory to the reader. I hope I’m not too late and you’re able to use this information.

  17. James says:

    How can I describe a knife across the face?

    • Hi, James. I’m afraid you’ll have to do some research on this since I’ve had no experience here. Think about times when you’ve experienced a wound to the face, or a cutting wound and apply that knowledge to your character’s situation. You may even be able to Google the question and find some information. Best of luck!

  18. Chloe Ross says:

    I love causing pain to characters (but don’t do it for no reason) and I legitimately could not stop grinning unless I covered my mouth with my hand……. There’s something wrong with me. Anyway, THANK YOU for this, it’s super helpful!

  19. KittenLove123 says:

    My character has a knife slash across her face. She also lives on the streets after fleeing the hospital.
    Expert your article helped me with:
    The voices blurred together, mixing into a haze through the pain as they got her to the hospital. She had gotten the impression that a simple cut would have less medical needs. Looking back on it, Ellen thought she was overwhelmed by it all. She was in searing pain, the force of it ripping through her mind like a bomb, after all.

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  21. Gail Shepherd says:

    So helpful and timely! Thank you!

  22. Pingback: Writing About Pain Part 2: External Signs – ScriptMedic

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  24. Janice Hampton says:

    I love this article!! I have a question. I have an alpha male hero who is an amputee. He’s been through therapy and it’s been about four years since he lost his leg. My question involves phantom pain that I’ve read a lot about with amputees. How bad does this kind of pain get in relation to your Mild, Moderate or Severe pain? I have the scene where when he wakes up and it’s throbbing and it’s swollen so he can’t put on his prothesis. I read this in another book. Is that accurate? I have him taking some pain meds. How long does it take before the pain goes away approximately? I mention that he’s been using accpuncture for the pain as well with some success. Is this even accurate??


    • Aunt Scripty says:

      Hey Janice! Thanks for your question!

      Phantom pain comes from a number of different causes, including damage or pressure on a nerve, especially if scar tissue is putting pressure on it.

      While I’m certainly not a pain management specialist, and nothing here is to be considered medical advice — my disclaimer is here ( ) — I have a couple of great resources to send you.

      The first is an article from the Amputee Coalition, talking about pain and possible treatments, here:

      WebMD has a fairly decent article here:

      And Mayo Clinic, my personal favorite resource on the whole wide Webiverse, has a great article here:

      It seems, from reading these sources, that a combination of medical therapy (including opioids like Vicodin / hydrocodone or Percocet / oxycodone, anticonvulsants such as Neurontin / gabapentin or Lyrica / pregabalin, or tricyclic antidepressants including amitryptaline or tramadol) and non-medical therapy (such as mirror box, applied heat, massage, and, yes, accupuncture etc of the affected leg).

      You might think seizure medication or antidepressants are a strange thing to give for phantom limb pain, but they interrupt the way neuropathic pain signals are transmitted and received in the brain. Science: It’s Kinda Neat Sometimes, Huh? (TM).

      There’s a GREAT TED talk that, among other things, touches on mirror box therapy here:

      (It helps that that guy has one of the best accents I’ve ever heard in my whole life, by the way, and the talk is fascinating even before dealing with this.)

      As to how bad the pain gets, I think that’s up to you to decide, though I’ve heard it *can* be severe; however, he’s been dealing with this for four years now.

      Swelling of the stump is certainly possible. In fact, after an amputation, it takes weeks for the swelling to go down enough to even fit an amputee for a prosthesis! This far along it may be irritated skin, or your character may have developed an infection in the site. But just like any area, irritation breeds swelling, itching, and pain.

      I hope this was useful! I’d say you’re already headed down the right track, and I would personally like to say I would LOVE to see more amputee heroes in fiction!

      Best of luck with your tale.

      xoxo, Aunt Scripty

  25. Elisabeth says:

    Excellent post. Thank you Angela for sharing. Like you books, too.

  26. Pingback: Scripty’s Guest Posts: Writing About Pain – ScriptMedic

  27. This is wonderful information! I find when I write about pain that I fall into the problem of trying to over share the pain of my character. When I go back to read it, I stop reading after the first two sentences (like in the example here). Thank you for sharing this! I appreciate the different levels of pain and the descriptive words to help illustrate them.


    • Aunt Scripty says:

      Hi Jennifer! I’m so glad you found it helpful! I know in my own writing I’ve tended toward over-emphasizing pain, especially too early in the story.

      One thing I didn’t get a chance to discuss is the idea of ramping up the pain — backing off on descriptions early so that you can maximize them later and not have it be repetitive. It’s the difference between a low-level ache in the shoulder when your character gets out of bed and the ripping, tearing agony when they tear their rotator cuff at the worst possible moment in the story. It’s not always appropriate, but in general, ramping up your character’s pain to mirror scene tension can be an excellent tool if done well.

      Good luck with your stories!!

      xoxo, Aunt Scripty

  28. Very informative particle. Thank you for sharing.

  29. Thank you for addressing this problem! It’s very useful information.

  30. Aunt Scripty says:

    Hey Angela! I just wanted to say thanks so much for having me on the blog, and I hope this post has been helpful for your readers. It’s great to appear on such a fantastic blog!

    xoxo, Aunt Scripty

  31. Mary Van Everbroeck says:

    Hi Angela: Thank you so much for Posting and for sharing Aunt Scripty’s Post and website. I’ve signed up for her Newsletter and look forward to using the Resources that she offers.

  32. Sheri Levy says:

    Wonderful information and ideas.

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