We know that pain is an unfortunate part of life. And if you’re doing your job as an author, your character will be put through the wringer, experiencing many painful events—big and small—throughout their story. We’ve talked about the kinds of physical pain they could encounter and how to describe that. But how will your character respond to their pain?
Much like a fingerprint, each person’s pain response is unique. It will be determined by a combination of factors—some that are controllable and some that aren’t. Remember, it’s the character that will draw readers in and keep them engaged, but only if their reactions are believable and consistent. So it’s imperative to know the most sensible responses for your character.
There are many ways a character can react to physical discomfort, and a lot of them will be subconscious. Their ability to handle their pain will be based on some passive factors that are out of their control and are already running in the background when things go south. Because these factors will dictate your character’s pain response, it’s important to familiarize yourself with them and know what they look like for your character.
This is defined as the maximum amount of physical suffering a person can handle. The higher your character’s pain tolerance, the more they’ll be able to withstand the discomfort they experience. This threshold varies from one person to the next and is established by a number of variables, such as genetics, past experiences with pain, and how much stress the character is dealing with when adversity strikes.
Your character’s values and dominant traits will play a part in how they respond to pain. Just think about the natural reactions you’ll get from different kinds of characters: melodramatic vs. stoic vs. needy vs. someone who’s always playing the martyr… The traits and qualities your character values will play a large part in how they handle discomfort, so take those into consideration.
If the circumstances surrounding their pain are simple, the character’s response can be straightforward. For instance, if they tumble down a flight of stairs with a roommate nearby, they can focus on their physical state and what to do next. But what if they fell, alone, trying to get upstairs to a crying baby? What if they’re a federal agent who was attempting to neutralize a sniper who is now free to keep shooting?
When an injury threatens the well-being of others or keeps the character from an imperative duty, they may be able to ignore or minimize their pain until they’ve accomplished what needs doing. On the flip side, becoming incapacitated while others are in danger may actually worsen the pain.
Alcohol, medications, and illegal drugs obviously dull pain. This is why drunk drivers can gravely injure themselves in a car accident and walk away without feeling much of anything. If your character is wounded while they’re under the influence, this will impact what they feel and how they react.
Responses That Help Control Pain in the Moment
Now that we’ve had a look at the latent factors that contribute to a character’s pain response, let’s turn our focus to active reactions, starting with those that are most helpful in controlling and lessening discomfort—both in the moment and in the aftermath of a painful event.
Maintaining a Positive Mindset
Positive thinking keeps the character in a forward-focused mindset, concentrating on what can be done and what actions to take. It engenders a sense of empowerment and control as they work toward solutions and betterment. A positive mindset also reduces stress and anxiety, which are known to make pain worse.
Utilizing Mind-Body Techniques
These techniques allow the character use the mind to positively influence the body. Meditation, prayer, relaxation techniques, and deep breathing exercises can mitigate pain and help the character become more centered and calm.
In the midst of even a minor injury, the pain won’t go away completely. Sometimes, the best thing a character can do is to focus on something else. Exercises such as mentally preparing a grocery list or summarizing the storyline of a favorite movie can be beneficial in taking the mind off the pain. If the injury allows, the character can also engage in a distracting hobby. Reading a book, working on a puzzle, or playing a game won’t negate the pain, but activities like these can push it into the background and make it less intense.
Responses That Help Control Pain During Recovery
Pursuing a Healthy Lifestyle
Physically healthy bodies heal faster, with a quicker secession of pain. To this end, making nutritious food choices, prioritizing sleep, and reducing stress can improve the character’s overall health and aid in pain management. Exercise is another important factor because while it makes the body stronger and especially helps to manage ongoing discomfort, it also releases endorphins, which can have a pain-relieving effect.
Educating and Self-Advocating
Healthcare providers are wonderful resources, but they don’t know everything. A character who researches their own injuries and physical limitations will increase their knowledge and likely find new treatment options. This form of self-advocacy can result in a sense of empowerment, staving off despair, depression, and hopelessness.
Volunteering and Altruism
When pain is ongoing and/or intense, it’s often more comfortable to stay at home and avoid the activities that aggravate it. But studies show that when we shift our focus from ourselves to others, amazing things happen with our mindset and our outlook on life. In this way, volunteering and serving others can have a mitigating effect on pain. At the very least, acts of altruism can make physical discomfort more bearable as the character finds a greater sense of purpose.
Therapy is a magical tool for helping people find better ways of dealing with their problems. For a character trying to cope with pain, a therapist can provide great insight into the mental and emotional processes that can be adopted to minimize the discomfort or put into a proper perspective.
Responses that Hinder Pain Mitigation in the Moment
For every positive reaction, there are a multitude of negative responses that hinder rather than help. It’s easy for people in pain to resort to whatever works to make it go away. But many of these methods are only temporary or create ancillary problems. Here are some common pain responses that will thwart your character’s healing and possibly make their situation worse.
Focusing on the Negative
For someone battling ongoing or intense discomfort, it’s easy to fall into negative thinking by becoming obsessed with the pain, catastrophizing, and becoming cynical. But just as positive thinking has positive benefits, negative thinking begets negative outcomes in the form of increased anxiety and depression, and decreased motivation and self-worth—all of which make healing harder.
Hiding the Pain
People often aren’t comfortable expressing their pain—maybe because it occurred in public and they’re embarrassed or don’t want people to fuss over them. They might need to be strong if they’re with their kids or in a position of authority. Or they could be worried about consequences, such as losing a starting spot on a sports team if they can’t perform. There are many reasons why someone might choose to mask their pain, so it’s worthwhile exploring those possibilities.
Not Seeking Help
While many people run to the doctor when pain sets in, there are some characters who will avoid treatment. This may be true for someone who
- Is in denial about their condition
- Is highly independent and doesn’t want to rely on others for help
- Cares deeply about what others think and doesn’t want to appear weak
Refusing to seek treatment or get help won’t expedite healing and the cessation of pain. It also can make a minor injury worse if treatment is needed.
Responses that Hinder Pain Mitigation During Recovery
Making Unhealthy Choices
Just as healthy habits can encourage healing and minimize pain, an unhealthy lifestyle often does the opposite. Responding to pain by taking up smoking, compulsively eating, or turning to drugs and alcohol can aggravate existing conditions (and the associated pain) or create new health issues that will make life even more difficult.
Being Driven by Fear and Avoidance
If your character is struggling with a high level of discomfort, it’s normal for them to avoid any activities that might make it worse. But ongoing avoidance often results in a sedentary lifestyle that can actually increase someone’s sensitivity to pain, achieving the opposite result.
Having Unrealistic Expectations
In some situations, people will be living with a certain level of pain for the rest of their lives. The discomfort can be managed, but only if the character’s expectations are realistic. Hoping for an impossible outcome, such as a complete recovery with no more pain, will result in disappointment and an inability to recognize and appreciate small gains.
As you can see, there are many factors that can impact a character’s pain response. Some of the groundwork will be laid before the injury occurs, and other reactions are more controllable. Knowing the possibilities can help you choose the right responses for your character, both at the time of injury and in the aftermath.
Other posts in this pain series:
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.