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Characters show us who they are when they are under stress. One way to create stress for a character and deepen their characterization is to inflict a minor injury.

How to Use a Little Hurt for Deeper Characterization

How will they respond? Will their reaction affirm who they present themselves to be? Or will it reveal perhaps another dimension of their personality?

Just a Flesh Wound

I hurt myself last month. I don’t even know what happened. (Welcome to middle age!) I worked out in the morning and by afternoon, my heel was screaming. I hobbled around, sure that I could work it out somehow. One of my teenagers asked what was wrong with me. 

“Nothing, my heel’s sore.”

“Maybe you should get that looked at,” she said.

“It’s just a flesh wound!” I said, waving off her concerns. She didn’t understand my Monty Python reference, and I added that travesty to my long list of parental failures. 

Time heals all wounds, right?

I probably just need to get off it for the afternoon.

It’ll be fine tomorrow, I told myself and my kids.

But in the morning, my heel was worse. As I put weight on it, pain shot through my foot.

I don’t have time for this. Should I google it? Go to urgent care?

I limped to the coffee maker and then to a chair.  

Did I go to the doctor? Or suffer along limping, likely inflicting more damage?

Injury Reveals Character

We’ve talked before about how scars and wounds can create backstory. An accident or disease can create the impetus for an entire story (If I Stay or The Fault in Our Stars). But inflicting a minor injury on a character can be an interesting way to show who they are while you create a story complication. 

My allusion to Monty Python is a good example (although if you haven’t seen it, my description of what happens is going to feel anything but minor). 

In the parody Monty Python and the Holy Grail, King Arthur attempts to build a court in Camelot. Along the way, he faces the Black Knight who will not let him pass through the forest. King Arthur fights the Black Knight. In one exchange, Arthur cuts off the Black Knight’s arm (resulting in a small spurt of stage blood), and when Arthur declares victory, the Black Knight counters,

“It’s just a flesh wound!” 

They continue to fight, and only when he’s lost all his limbs does the Black Knight concede with, “We’ll call it a draw.”

What do we learn about the Black Knight? He will not give up. At the end of the scene, he is still shouting at Arthur to come back and fight instead of running away like a coward. That’s powerful characterization.

Show Versus Tell

In our writing, it’s easy to tell readers what to believe about a character: John wouldn’t give up. Sally was overly dramatic. 

A minor injury can help you show those characteristics instead of telling.

Maybe as he plays baseball, John twists his ankle rounding third, but drags himself to home plate to help his team win. 

Sally might trip on third base, barely scratching her elbow and cry jagged sobs until she’s hiccuping as she brushes dust from the wound, slapping at anyone who tries to help her up.

Small injuries don’t have to be physical either to make a big impact. Consider a character who’s snubbed by an acquaintance. Will he brush it off or rehearse it until he’s looking for ways to insult the offender? 

Want to enrich your characterization? Use a small incident of injury or offense to show us the true nature of your character. It will complicate their journey and help the reader see your character’s humanity.

The Writer’s Wound

I attempted all sorts of home-care for my injury. I rolled a tennis ball with my foot, wore a compression sock, stretched my calves, applied heat and ice, and still the injury persisted.

After a few weeks, I did finally go to the doctor. She gave me a referral to a podiatrist (who can’t see me for another two weeks). Meanwhile, I’ve noticed that the mid-level discomfort often leaves me grumpy by mid-afternoon, and when others ask what’s wrong with my foot, I still respond, “Just a sore heel.”

I don’t know what that reveals about me except that I’m stubborn and hate to go to the doctor. It’s going to be fine—it’s just a flesh wound, right? 

When have you seen the true nature of a person or strong characterization revealed through a minor injury? Share your favorite examples in the comments

PRACTICE

Take fifteen minutes to write about a minor injury and the reaction it evoked. It can be something that happened to you, an incident you observed, or a fictional event. Be sure to show what happened instead of summarizing. 

When you’re done, share your writing in the comments, and be sure to leave feedback for your fellow writers!

Sue Weems
Sue Weems
Sue Weems is a writer, teacher, and traveller with an advanced degree in (mostly fictional) revenge. When she’s not rationalizing her love for parentheses (and dramatic asides), she follows a sailor around the globe with their four children, two dogs, and an impossibly tall stack of books to read. You can read more of her writing tips on her website.
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