If there’s one thing writers like to do, it’s to make characters suffer. We are all about bringing forth pain and crises, whether it be emotional, physical, spiritual, or existential. Is it because we’re a little messed up and we enjoy torturing characters? Or do we create difficult scenarios in our stories to illustrate the fact that life is painful sometimes?
No matter what our reasons for holding our character’s figurative (and possibly literal) feet to the fire, we need to do a bang up job of describing it. So join us for a deep dive on all things painful, starting with…
Pain & Your Characters: The Three Stages of Awareness
Before: Anticipating Pain
Sometimes a character won’t see a threat coming, but if they do, we gain a terrific opportunity to draw readers into the moment and heighten their emotions alongside the character’s. The anticipation of pain is something we all know, and so it’s an effective way to generate empathy for characters experiencing it.
When something bad is about to happen, a character may only have a heartbeat or two to steel themselves, tensing their muscles clamping their teeth tight, flinching and squeezing their eyes shut. To try and protect themselves further, they might also try to make themselves small, a full body cringe. Or it could be a natural reaction to duck, jerk back, pull away, or attempt to flee. These are all their instinctual fight-or-flight responses kicking in, doing whatever is necessary to protect them (or those they love) in the few seconds they have.
If the threat is farther out, the character’s brain has more time to churn through what might happen. Their knowledge and experiences will conjure up mental flashes of what will happen and the likely wounds and injuries which could occur. Memories may also assault them, reminding them of painful things that have happened to them, and the inescapable weight of dread hits them.
To spur them into action, their adrenaline surges, prompting them to respond in some way – fight, or flee. But if there’s nothing they can do, they may experience a skin crawling sensation in expectation of the painful sensations to come.
Pain isn’t always physical, of course. If they see something coming that they know will hurt them emotionally, your character could become depressed, and at a loss over what to do. Or even though they know what’s coming can’t be avoided, they may stay in bed, refuse to go out, avoid people, lie, or do something else that lines up with a flight response. They could also become anxious, obsess about what’s going to happen, and force a confrontation before they’re fully prepared to deal with it (a fight response).
The source of pain could be anything – a secret about to be uncovered, a marriage nearing the point of ending, or their own child who is dying in the hospital. While we often think about how to cause characters physical pain, mental and emotional pain are just as debilitating.
TIP: Whatever type of pain your character is experiencing, think about their personality, coping methods, and personal fears. This will help you determine how they will respond to threats that bring pain.
During: Physiological and Psychological Processes
When your character feels discomfort, certain things happen. If there’s a physical component, pain receptors pick up on the type of sensory input: heat, friction, tension, cold, pressure, etc. and sends signals to the brain about the area affected, the type of pain, and intensity level. Your character’s instinctual response will be to flee pain, so unless there’s a compelling reason why they must not, you can show your character trying to pull away and escape whatever is hurting them. This is especially the case when they see indicators of damage (a gash, a broken bone, blood, etc.), because the gravity of what’s happening to them hits home.
Your character’s emotional state will also influence how much pain they feel. If the source of it is tied to a fear, emotionally wounding experience, or their anxiety is triggered, the discomfort they feel will be intensified. Pain levels can become so excruciating that a character passes out or enters a state of shock. This is where the body systems slow and they become distanced from their agony.
Another way to use emotion in these situations is to consider feelings that might help them cope with the pain better: anger, rage, determination, etc. They can also use coping mechanisms to handle discomfort, turning to meditation, breathing exercises, self-distraction, talk therapy, etc. to work through it. Some characters might try to numb it with medications, drugs, or alcohol, but if they are attempting to manage pain through mind over matter, it will only work to a certain point. If the pain is extreme, they will no longer be able to handle it, and their responses will become extreme — screaming, writhing, or even passing out.
Characters will also experience a stress reaction to pain, meaning their heart rate and blood pressure can rise, their body becomes increasingly tense, their breathing may change and tears may form.
TIP: Using POV visceral sensations to show what they’re experiencing is a great way to communicate the strain they’re under.
After: Recovery and Aftereffects
After an injury or event that causes pain, your character may have a hard time with mobility, balance, and cognitive processing, so keep this in mind when you show readers what happens next. Your character likely will try and protect the injury, meaning they may hunch over as they walk, cradle a broken arm, limp, or do everything with one hand to save more injury to the other. They might have a loss of energy or motor control, have a delayed reaction time, and seek to distance themselves from others so they can process what happened and heal in private. So think about what your character will be doing in the aftermath of a bodily injury.
Everyone copes with pain differently, especially pain that scores an emotional hit. Time will be needed to fully process what happened, and if the emotional hurt is far too painful to examine, characters try to bury it rather than work through it in a healthy way, leading to personality and behavioral shifts that change how they interact with the world and those in it. Unresolved emotional wounds are sources of ongoing pain, so a bit of research here on what this looks like for the type of wound is key.
If your character suffered a physical injury or illness, the healing process can include different types of pain – tenderness, strain, headaches, itchiness, and the like. They may need to rest or sleep more, and if this is impossible because the danger in ongoing, their energy may drain further. It could slow their healing, and open them to infections and more injuries.
After an injury heals, your character may have scars, less range of movement, or suffer debilitating migraines or other internal reactions. Depending on what they experienced, they may also carry new fears, anxieties, a decreased ability to take risks, and even PTSD or other conditions that they will carry with them. Each new encounter with pain will make your character more wary and watchful for any circumstances where it might reoccur, so remember that as they move forward in the story.
Realistic Fiction Sometimes Means Ignoring Hollywood
Because movies only have so much time to show everything they need to, the stages of pain awareness are sometimes skimmed over. Often there’s a split-second awareness of danger and then the camera focuses on the character being injured, whether it’s a gun shot wound to the thigh or a six-pack of punches to the gut. They falter briefly, then rally to win. But when we see them again after the climax, they are usually not as in bad shape as they should be, or are miraculously fine (I’m looking at you, Jack Ryan, and your ability to be perky and ready to go after several rounds of boiling water-and-salt torture!).
Movies and TV can sometimes get away with this, but books, not so much. Readers want to share the character’s experience, so this means showing things that are true-to-life. You don’t have to go overboard and show every detail, but make sure to convey enough of the before-during-after chain that readers feel the character is responding realistically to pain and injury.
Need more ideas on how to show pain? You’ll find this entry in our Emotion Amplifier Thesaurus.
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.