Wednesday, March 7, 2012

The Fine Art of Injuring Your Characters

Way back in the first draft of R.A.G.E. about a third of the way through the book, my characters had a moment between themselves where they thought they’d throw my tentative, new-writer outline out the window and have it out with each other. The result: a very fine, sweet-ish character was shot.

I had no intention of allowing this to happen but when it did, instead of reining the rebellious characters in, I went with it. It worked out fine. I managed to write my way out of it while the incident added depth and a whole lot of tension to the remaining book. It was, for all intents and purposes, a fantastic turn of events—for a first draft.

Since then I have spent hours and hours of time and energy either worrying if I got the details right, or researching and researching to make sure this incident is not only plausible, but realistic. It might have been all well and fine if I could have just sent her to a hospital and skimped on the details but since the characters had hijacked the story and added this piece of flavor, there was no way I could get my character to a doctor soon enough to be able slide over the specifics. Therefore: stress, rewriting and RESEARCH.

To put into perspective the kind of research necessary to make this work for my manuscript let me detail what was involved.

1. Where did the bullet enter her body?

Easy? I think not. My character has to deal with this injury for several hours after it happens and she has to be conscious for most of it. Not only conscious but able to function to a certain degree. So I looked at the obvious places i.e. any place but the torso and head. Then I had to narrow down the location even further by eliminating places with major arteries and nerve clusters. I didn’t want to cop out my using a hand or a foot. The characters wanted her to be shot then by darn it was going to be bad…only not too bad. I finally settled on a delightful little place that would cause a major problem but leave her able to function. You want to know where it is? Well you’re going to have to do what I did and plow through books on anatomy, muscle and bone structure, central nervous system and the circulatory system. Or you could just read the book when it comes out. *wink, wink*

2. What kind of gun and bullets were used?

Well the gun part was easy. My characters are military. Army Special Forces to be precise. The character wielding the weapon is of low rank and thus has only the most basic military weaponry. An M-16? No, too unwieldy for the location of the shooting. It had to be a military grade 9mm Berretta. This worked out well for several reasons. The 9 mil is fantastically accurate but doesn’t have the stopping power of other, heavier handguns. Therefore if you’re going to get shot by a shaky-handed private with poor aim, the Berretta is the way to go.

The bullet issue on the other hand has been a bit of a dilemma. Did he have standard full metal jacket rounds used for shooting on the range or, since they were on their way to a military operation, had they been issued armor-piercing or hollow-point rounds? For the sake of saving a very fine character from dying I settled on the full metal jackets.

3. What kind of reactions and symptoms should the character present in the face of such an injury.

This one has been a work in progress. This in the one that needs the most detail and constant updates until you can get the injury resolved. But careful now. Too many updates and your readers get fatigued, too few and they wonder if your character is really still injured.

I started with the basics: blood loss, shock and pain. It worked but was it entirely accurate? What tiny details was I missing? I finally cornered a good friend of mine at book club the other night. She has been a registered nurse for many years and currently teaches nursing at a UVU. I laid out my character’s injury and what she needed to accomplish before she could receive medical attention. Suppose she had access to some medication, what would help her the most in her situation? She would need first aid for shock and other characters would have to watch her constantly for reoccurrence. Would a basic field bandage work to slow blood loss? Etc. It was quite a long discussion.

4. Did the bullet remain in her body or did it exit?

Exit. It had to be. A bullet retained in the body would be too excruciating and cause her to fail before she could make it through the scene. This one question was the one I wrote and rewrote many times before I settled down and did serious research on her injury. It was really the question that completely encompassed the other three. The right kind of weapon, the right kind of bullet, the right place for entry and her resulting symptoms had everything to do if the bullet exited or not. Once I identified this as THE problem the rest came fairly easily—if you can call massive amounts of research easy.

I’ll admit that I have become a great fan of injuring my characters. It provides wonderful tension and realism to a scene that may be missed if you’re afraid of hurting your imaginary buddies. This works especially well for action/adventure novels or really anything where a weapon is involved. Often times it’s easier to make our characters Superman so we don’t have to deal with the above research, but even Superman had Kryptonite.

Be warned though, an injury done wrong it will annoy readers who know better. This actually goes for any research. Our last book club book was thrashed during our discussion because of some very inaccurate details concerning medication a character was taking. There are several nurses in our club and the sloppy research ruined the story for them. It made everything else the author said less believable

Do your research! And if your characters must injure each other make sure they do it right. Like they say, a bullet is easier to put in then take out. Or research out, as point in fact.