Pain needn’t always be physical, it can be felt in so many other ways and can be just as debilitating. Therefore pain can be a very powerful force in your fantasy writing, providing set-backs, motivation and emotional bite for your story. I’ve read fantasy books where the characters seem to feel no pain, they just press on like super-humans without needing comfort or a hot bath, which can be quite frustrating as you never really get to know what hurts those characters – they only have one dimension to them, no Achille’s heel, no depth. But those stories I’ve come across where the pain is told in the characters’ actions, expressions, dialogue and interactions with other characters, makes it so much more satisfying. It’s what they do that shows the pain. So instead of saying “Frank stubbed his foot and it really hurt,” rather it’s, “Frank stubbed his foot and let out a howl, as he hopped across to ask his mother for immediate salve. She reached out for him and gave him a smile and a little hug, and through the tears he smiled.” You can then make assumptions about the character and their resilience, which provokes a deeper reader response.
Shortly we’ll have a look at different types of pain and see how these could be applied to your own writing. But before we do, when considering the pain you wish to use in your story, try answering the following questions:
- What caused the pain? Who inflicted it? If another character inflicted the pain, how do they feel?
- What impact has the pain had on the character, both physically and emotionally?
- What level of pain is the character experiencing? Is it chronic, acute, minimal, etc.?
- What are the consequences of the pain on the individual? How are they reacting to it? Can they verbalise their pain? Can anyone tell they’re feeling that pain?
- If the pain doesn’t kill the character, what do they intend to do about it so that it doesn’t occur again? Or is it a type of pain they can’t avoid?
So let’s look at some types of pain and how you can use it in your writing:
- Physical injury – Immediate physical pain is what we tend to think of when the word ‘pain’ is mentioned, whether it was caused by accident or inflicted on purpose. The consequences of such pain can be minor and forgotten easily, such as getting a bruise on your knee after bringing it up under the table or watching your nail go black after thumping it with a hammer. But if the pain is chronic the after-affects can linger for some time, long after the original pain has healed. For example, a car accident, or an injury from violence or even a major operation, can potentially cause long-term physical and emotional pain. But what sort of pain might that be? In your story the pain may continue to be physical, but let’s say the character was now paralysed or the wound continued to bleed, that may cause them constant worry. Or having been dealt a blow and recovered, they may wish to return it, or simply fear the next one. How your character responds to an injury says a lot about their physical and mental resilience, and this makes them more interesting to the reader.
- Lingering – Whether it’s just a bad headache or acute pain caused by cancer, lingering pain can be excruciating, again both emotionally and physically. People with long-term chronic pain or pain caused by a disease feel locked in a private battle against their own body and this can be heartbreaking, not just for them, but also for those around them – because it is such a lonely pain. Describing how intense pain feels can be terribly difficult in writing, particularly if you decide to write in the first person, as unless you’ve been through it it is very difficult to know what it’s like. However, if you’re writing in the 3rd person I would suggest that you describe what a person is doing or saying when in pain. If your character is rolling on the floor screaming, with their head to their hands, and their partner is on their knees beside them with tears in their eyes, you get an immediate picture of suffering without having to describe what the pain is like.
- Heartbreak – No one can tell me heartbreak isn’t a real type of pain because I know how intense it can be, whether it’s caused by the break up of a relationship or the grief of losing someone close, it truly is like a window into your heart and people can see how devastated you are. It’s also called heartbreak with good cause, because your chest feels like it’s being compressed and you can barely breath as the waves of emotion wash over you. Time tends to heal heartbreak well enough, but in your writing you may wish to go further than this depending on how the heartbreak was caused. What if the character in your story has been jilted or abandoned, or their grief is due to the murder of a loved one, then the resulting heartbreak may harden into something else, such as revenge.
- Self-inflicted – I’ve seen a perfectly rational person get very upset and punch a door until their knuckles bled, and another person bite their nails until they jumped when they reached the tender quick. These are minor types of self-inflicted pain, but people are capable of much worse when their mental state is a bit the worse for wear, including suicide. From what I’ve seen (but I’m no psychologist now), people who self-inflict pain have felt intense psychological pain and for reasons of their own feel the need to inflict real physical pain upon themselves. For characters in your stories it can be worth exploring what the reasons behind self-inflicted pain might be, to understand the character and the other things they do along the way. The character experiencing this pain could be the villain or the victim in the story, but self-inflicted injury can be shocking and so it can inject a level of discomfort that may work well in your fantasy story where you’re looking to keep the reader on edge.
- Psychological pain – We’re all victims of psychological pain at some time in our lives, when there’s pain but no physical source of it, such as kicking yourself for failing an exam or feeling homesick. But psychological pain can also be caused by mental illness, or worse, by other people. Bullying, harassment, segregation, oppression, racism, etc. all inflict pain on people’s minds in a variety of ways. It can cause self-doubt, lack of confidence, feelings of worthlessness, anger, hate, loneliness, etc. which can simmer away unnoticed for months without anyone noticing or may result in a sudden explosion. It is no less a type of pain because no one can see it. But when writing it into your stories, you need to find ways to show this anguish. What is the character doing, how do they feel, what are they thinking, what do they say to others? Are they shrinking into themselves, or are they a time bomb ready to explode? Can anyone else in the story even tell? What about if the cause of this pain is another character? What is that character doing to make the other suffer so much? Don’t think fantasy writing can’ t use this. Fantasy is full of horrific scenes where characters witness catastrophic events – but no one goes to therapy! So what does this do to their mind?
- Misunderstandings – The simplest form of psychological pain is just not realising you’re causing it in the first place. You may think you’re doing fine interacting with someone in your daily life only to have them suddenly explode in your face, telling you you’re the worst person in the world, and you have absolutely no idea what you did wrong. So this can be an interesting pain to explore. What if the victim has all this pained thought going through their mind, their anger and hatred building and building, while the person causing that pain continues on, blissfully unaware of the anguish in the head of the person beside them. It may simply be due to a personality conflict, or they may be two people thrown together who basically would never willingly choose to be friends, or the victim just doesn’t like the other person and imagines all these wrongs because they want to believe they’re being wronged (regardless of what the other person does).
- Ritual – Ritualised pain is often associated with religion or spirituality, where people hurt themselves to show the strength of their devotion, overcome guilt or rid themselves of their sins, such as self-flagilation and bloodletting. Sometimes it’s more a rite of passage, such as tattoos, walking over hot coals and piercings. However, it can also be perverse, such as some of the foolishness you hear people do to newcomers at schools and military organisations. Ritualised pain is something you often see in fantasy, as it’s shocking, unnecessary and often dangerous. But you can explore in your writing the reasons for the ritual, who inflicts the pain and what the outcomes are on the receiver, and this can again add an uncomfortable edge to your story.
- Punishment – Ritualised pain often involves willing participants. But punishments don’t. However, punishments don’t always need to be fatal, or immediately fatal. They can be as benign as being pelted with eggs in the stocks, to a few lashes of the cane, to being stretched on the rack, to being pinned out naked in the desert, to being flayed alive, to something as horrific as the ‘blood eagle’. Again it’s a challenge to describe this in the first person, but by describing the scene and the reactions of the audience and those inflicting the punishment, as well as the affect on the character being punished, the reader can understand the pain experienced. If you want unflinching accounts of pain being meted out, try a few Wilbur Smith books.
- Magical pain – Last but not least, you can imagine a new type of pain – after all, you’re writing fantasy. Magic may be used to inflict pain, or you may use different senses to cause it. Pleasure could indeed become pain, or pain may be felt whenever a character does something very specific. The only limit is your imagination.