Are you enjoying this series on writing your character’s pain? That’s a weird and slightly sadistic statement—even more so when we say how much we’ve enjoyed writing about pain. But it’s one of those things your character IS going to encounter; it’s not a matter of if, but when (and how often). So we need to be able to write it well.
We’ve covered a lot of ground, from the 3 stages of awareness to the symptoms of minor, mortal, and invisible injuries. But regardless of the kind of pain your character is feeling, there are certain practices that will enhance your descriptions of it to maximize reader empathy and minimize their chances of being pulled out of the story.
Show Don’t Tell
This one comes first, because if you want to create evocative and compelling descriptions, showing is the way to do it. Take this passage, for example:
Pain throbbed in my wrist. It radiated into my fingers. Tears sprang to my eyes.
On the surface, this description gets the job done because it adequately describes the character’s pain. But it’s not engaging. Lists seldom are—yet this is how pain is often described, as a series of symptoms or sensations. This isn’t how real pain registers, so it being described this way won’t read as authentic to readers.
Don’t stop the story to talk about what the character’s feeling. Instead, incorporate it into what’s happening. This keeps the pace moving and readers reading:
Cradling my throbbing wrist, I searched for the rope and loosed it from my belt. I drew a shuddering breath of relief to discover my fingers still worked, though the pain had me biting nearly through my lip.
This description is much better because it reveals the pain in bits and bobs as the character is going about her business. It uses words that describe the intensity and quality of the pain: throbbing and shuddering. There’s also a thought included, which is important because when agony strikes, our brains don’t stop working. The opposite is actually true, with our thoughts often going into overdrive. So including a thought that references the character’s mental state or physical discomfort is another way to show their pain to readers in an organic way.
Take Personal Factors into Account
The character’s pain level and intensity will depend on a number of factors, such as their pain tolerance, their personality, and what else is going on in the moment. Being aware of these details and knowing what they look like for your character is key for tailoring a response that is authentic for them. For more information on the factors that will determine your character’s pain response and their ability to cope with their discomfort, see the 6th post in this series.
Adhere to Your Chosen Point of View
Whether you’re telling your story in first person, third person, or omniscient viewpoint, consistency is a must, so you’ve got to stick to that point of view. If the person in pain is the one narrating, you can go deep into their perspective to show readers what’s happening inside—the pain, yes, but also the nausea, tense muscles, and the spots that appear in the character’s vision as they start to black out.
But if the victim isn’t a viewpoint character—if the reader isn’t privy to what’s happening inside their heads and bodies—you’ll need be true to that choice. Stick with external indicators that are visible to others, such as the character wincing, the hissed intake of breath through clenched teeth, the weeping of blood, or the skin going white and clammy.
Consider the Intensity of the Pain
All pain isn’t created equal, and the intensity of the pain being described will often determine the level of detail. Excruciating, agonizing pain is going to be impossible for the character to ignore; because of their focus on their own pain, more description is often necessary. On the flip side, a lot of words aren’t needed to express the mild, fleeting pain of a stubbed toe or bruised knee. The severity of the pain can guide you toward the right amount of description.
Don’t Forget about It
Remember that pain has a life of its own. Some injuries heal fast, with the pain receding quickly and steadily. Others linger. Many times, healing is a one-step-forward-two-steps-back situation, with things seeming to improve, then a relapse or reinjury causing a setback. And then there’s chronic pain, which never fully goes away.
The nature of the injury will dictate how often you return to the character’s pain and remind readers of it. Minor injuries can fade into the background without further mention. But moderate and severe hurts will take time to heal. This means your character will be feeling the pain well after it began, and you’ll have to mention it again. But when you do, the quality and intensity will be less, and your description will follow suit.
In serious cases, your character’s pain will become limiting; they won’t be able to do the things they could when they were unscathed. But we see unrealistic practices surrounding pain and wounds all the time in fiction. The hero’s shoulder is dislocated, he knocks it gamely back in place, then goes running after the villain. Maybe he’s grimacing and grunting, but two pages later, he’s duking it out without any mention of the injury or the pain that activity would cause.
Don’t let pain unintentionally turn your hero into a superhero. Keep them real and relatable, which is easy to do with some basic planning. If you know they’re going to be injured in a scene, ask yourself: what physical activity will be happening afterward? Then plan accordingly.
Maybe you tailor their injury so it puts them in distress but allows them to do what they need to do. Or, if a severe injury is necessary, you might rearrange your scenes so the character is able to heal up before encountering any serious physical activity. Another option is to let them tackle the active moment following a painful incident, but show their limitations. Show them struggling and having to compensate. The important thing is to keep their physical abilities in the wake of an injury realistic so readers don’t call Bullcrap and start thinking about what’s wrong with the story.
The Complete Pain Series
And with that, this series is a wrap. Hopefully these posts have provided some solid information and practical advice on how to write your character’s pain effectively. In case you missed any of the installments, I’ve listed them here, for easy reference.
The Three Stages of Awareness
Different Types to Explore
Describing Minor Injuries
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
Becca Puglisi is an international speaker, writing coach, and bestselling author of The Emotion Thesaurus and its sequels. Her books are available in five languages, are sourced by US universities, and are used by novelists, screenwriters, editors, and psychologists around the world. She is passionate about learning and sharing her knowledge with others through her Writers Helping Writers blog and via One Stop For Writers—a powerhouse online library created to help writers elevate their storytelling.