When we push characters to their limits, sometimes they get hurt. Injuries can range from annoyances to mortal wounds, and handled well, can add tension and complication to the story, drawing readers in deeper.
We’re always looking for ways to make sure our characters struggle as they navigate new situations, uncertain environments, dangers and threats. Let’s dive into what minor injuries you might want to inflict that will also bring a dose of authenticity to your fiction.
Common Minor Injuries
& How to Describe Them
Superficial cuts and scrapes. These are surface wounds affecting the skin, causing redness, scratches, or shallow wounds. There is a flash of pain, and then blood blooms. You can focus on the redness of the scratches, any dirt or grit caught in the injury, and the searing pain a character will feel when something touches the injured site: a sleeve, branches that slap and scrape as your character navigates a narrow wooded trail, bumping against someone, or even the pain-then-relief sensation when a breeze hits the area.
Bruises. Collisions with hard surfaces or pressure injuries can lead to bruises. Maybe your character was rushing, missed a danger, was careless, or the injury happened through violence. Bruises may throb or ache, especially when the damaged muscle moves. Skin will discolor, turning reddish on a character with lighter skin, or appearing purple, brown, or even black on any with darker skin. Over time, the bruises may turn brown, yellow or even green as they heal before fading completely. With bruising, show a character’s discomfort. They may find it hard to sit or lie comfortably, and wince when the injured muscles move.
Burns and blisters. Exposure to heat or friction can result in burns and blisters, leaving the area tender to the touch. This can make everyday tasks uncomfortable, like having to walk with a blister rubbing the back of a shoe, or having to handle items with a fresh burn on one’s fingers. Blisters appear raised, containing fluid, and burns may also present as blisters or raw skin where several outer layers are removed. Small burns and blisters are easy to forget about until they are bumped or grazed, and then the pain starts anew. If a character has sunburn, their skin will be hot to the touch, red, and will feel stretched tight. The pain can be described as an uncomfortable tingling or radiating heat sensation.
Sprains and strains. Rapid or repetitive movements, twisting, overextending, and otherwise pushing ligaments or muscles too far can lead to stretching or tears that cause pain and limit a character’s range of movement. To describe this, think about the tenderness and painful twinges you feel at these types of injuries, and how your character will have to compensate by limping, hunching over, and moving gingerly. Each bump or unintentional twist can bring about deep pain, so use the character’s face as a map: wincing, drawing their eyebrows low, a pinched mouth. They may suck in a sharp breath through their teeth, or swear under their breath. To find relief, a character may observe the RICE method (Rest, Ice, Compression, Elevation), and use crutches to get around.
Minor fractures or breaks. Most bone breaks are not minor, but a broken toe or finger is usually something you wrap and wait for it to heal. A bone fracture is painful, but isn’t a full break, so healing comes much quicker. In both cases, the character will experience a sharp pain and may ‘feel’ the snap or crack. Anxiety and dread often follows these types of injuries because the character knows whatever they’ve done will need time to heal. These injuries are great when you want to slow your character down, add complication to their life, and limit them in what they can do. When you’re showing this type of injury, think about how your character will overcompensate (limping, shifting their weight, using their ‘good’ hand, etc.) to spare the injured bone. Show their discomfort through pinched facial expressions, a strained voice, a short tempter, or other ‘tells’ that line up with their personality.
Dislocations. When two bones pull away from their natural meeting point, the pain can be excruciating. An unnatural bulge forms where the bone is, causing swelling, intense pain, numbness and tingling. Your character may also feel a rush of fear when their limb suddenly stops working.
In movies, characters often ram the dislocated bone against something to reset it, but unless they’re skilled and experienced, this is dangerous, and causes extreme pain and further injury. So before you decide to have your character do this, ask yourself if they know how or not, or if others are able to assist.
Foreign objects. Splinters, thorns, fishhooks, and other items that pierce the skin can add a dash of authenticity and make your character more irritable, because these everyday annoyances do happen.
Nosebleeds. Maybe someone popped your character in the nose, or they have allergies, the air is dry, or it happens due to another condition or injury. Whatever caused it, nosebleeds are uncomfortable, messy, and can make the character feel embarrassed as they suddenly become the center of attention. To stop the flow, they may pinch the bridge of their nose and tip their head back, but as blood runs down their throat, they may gag in discomfort.
Contact with poison, toxins, or irritants. Some characters have allergies or sensitivities to substances, and coming in contact with these causes an adverse reaction. They may swell up, develop a rash, break out in hives, become feverish, and have trouble swallowing or breathing. This minor situation can escalate into something more dire if they don’t get help.
To describe this injury, focus on the reaction to the toxin as it contacts with the character’s skin. Does it swell up, redden in patches, or feel hot to the touch? If the irritant is something they breathe in, it can cause them to cough, spit, bend over, and wheeze. They may grow anxious if it becomes harder to see or breathe.
Bites and stings. We’ve all gotten too close to a wasp’s nest or been a victim of mosquito bites. The character will feel a small nip of pain at the point of contact, and then the area can swell, itch, and redden. If the character has a sensitivity to the venom or a bite becomes infected, the pain will grow, and the rash will spread.
Minor head or eye injuries. When a character’s head area is injured, they need to take care in case the wound is worse than it seems. Maybe your character bumped their head on a low ceiling beam, had a spark or projectile fly into their eye, became the victim of bear spray, or slipped on ice and hit their head. These injuries can leave them with a throbbing headache, swollen eyelids, blurry vision, and a good dose of panic or worry.
Think Outside the Box When It Comes to Injuries
As you can see, the ways you can injure characters is only limited by your imagination, so get creative! What might be a fresh way to injure them that makes sense for the action? How can the setting and its inherent dangers be used?
Also, consider your character’s emotional state. Are they rushing to meet a deadline, or feeling panicked because they are out of their depth? When they become injured, do they blame themselves, or feel overwhelmed by their circumstances?
Know Your Why
Hurting characters ‘just because’ will lead to flat writing, so have a reason for causing them strife. How will an injury further the story or reveal who they are to readers? Will this new challenge hobble them and force them to think strategically? Are you trying to show their humanity through a response to pain or teach them a lesson for being rash? Know your why so injuries never feel random or contrived.
Also, don’t forget to show the before-during-after awareness chain so your character’s responses are realistic and believable.
Other Posts in This Pain Series:
The Three Stages of Awareness
Different Types to Explore
Describing Major and Mortal Injuries
Invisible Injuries and Conditions
Factors that Help or Hinder the Ability to Cope
Taking an Injury from Bad to Worse
Everyday Ways a Character Could Be Hurt
Best Practices for Great Fiction
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, a portal to powerful, innovative tools to help writers elevate their storytelling.