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In my fantasy novels, I don't want to kill anyone off, I just want to get them injured, like badly. I made up numerous believable excuses for this (low-violence, a genuine will to live on the enemies' part, magnetically levitated trauma plates, long engagement distances and hyper-advanced, widely available medicine). However, I don't want to tire the reader with "Oh no, he's injured, quickly pull him into cover!" It's hard to get emotional about this after the fifth time, I mean it hurts, like a lot, but nobody dies.

I want to keep this X gets injured during a fight cliche as fresh as possible, for the longest time possible, and I under no circumstance want to make it feel tiring to the reader. How should I do that?

  • Are the inhabitants of the world aware that they can't die? Also, how is low-violence an excuse for not letting someone die? Seems to me like this makes your world more violent, not less. – Mark Jun 25 '18 at 14:35
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    Have you considered that, if that's your goal, maybe you want fewer fights? Five instances of "Arrrgg, a flesh wound!" play very differently than e.g. one flesh wound, one backstabbing, one ticking time bomb, one magical wasting disease, and one cryptic murder threat. – Standback Jun 25 '18 at 14:47
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    Do you want to create a world where virtually nobody dies from injury, or you only need a way justify your protagonist(s) Plot Armor? – Alexander Jun 25 '18 at 16:39
  • @Alexander The ability to respawn indefinitely is possessed by a few characters, but if anyone dies under my watch, that'd mean I'm not omnipotent and omnipresent, which I totally am. – Mephistopheles Jun 25 '18 at 16:57
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    So, your real problem is the lack of a POV character? You may still have someone around, or assign an "interim" observer. As far as the hero's immortality goes, the hero can't die does not mean the hero can't fail. – Alexander Jun 25 '18 at 17:07

10 Answers 10

33

If X gets hurt in a fight, recovers, gets hurt in a new fight, recovers again, etc. that is going to start to get boring.

If you want to avoid boring your readers, fights need to have consequences. In your story, that's not death, but it could be a lasting injury, or a damaged plot relevant item.

X doesn't have to recover, or not completely. Especially if they're getting hurt badly. Even with sci-fi medicine, plenty of injuries probably can't be healed instantly. Not to mention the mental traumas such as PTSD that can happen.

If there are lasting effects from the fight that affect X in later scenes, it gives the fight scene a better sense of purpose. Maybe the leg wound they got in chapter one prevents them from climbing to safety in chapter three. Or the concussion they got means they're unable to drive and can't follow the bad guy.

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    The Farseer Trilogy by Robin Hobb is a good example of this. Fitz has all kinds of terrible stuff happen to him, and it affects him mentally and physically throughout the story, altering his character. – SethWhite Jun 25 '18 at 14:18
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    I'll second @SethWhite's comment. Without getting into spoilers, this happens to the main character multiple times. Being yanked back from the brink of death is a major part of the over arching plot across the entire realm of the elderlings universe. – jkeuhlen Jun 26 '18 at 21:02
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I am a fan of questioning your givens. You don't want to kill anyone? Fine. But what plot point is served by having your characters physically injured?

  • Does it remove them from the action? Have someone miss a bus/train/plane, oversleep, trapped in a stuck elevator.
  • Does it make them vulnerable? PTSD, reaction to someone else's injury, romantic relationship breakup, religious crisis.
  • Does it show the strength of the enemy? The enemy isn't just attacking your characters, and can be shown leveling a city or killing civilians.
  • Does it show some facet of your character's personality? There has to be another way to demonstrate perserverance, endurance, resilience, etc.

Figure out why you want them injured and you may be able to come up with a way to accomplish the goal in another fashion. That will perforce mix things up.

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    This is the approach taken in a book series I'm reading. Several characters outright died and were brought back, or were saved after GBH, or just barely escaped death, during a climactic battle -- and in the next book, two have nightmares and flashbacks, one has completely withdrawn from society because the sound of a cozy fire in a hearth sounds like necks snapping, etc. Just because people survive doesn't mean they're okay, and physical and emotional wellbeing aren't the same thing. – Fund Monica's Lawsuit Jun 25 '18 at 20:39
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Ditch the cliché altogether. Stop talking about recovery or pain, stop any worry of the character not recovering, even if they are screaming don't let that affect the other characters. Treat it like humans really would treat such a world, as one in which injuries are temporary and fully recoverable and everybody knows it, including the injured.

That would make sense in this world, and the reader can sympathize. You can still have harrowing danger in such a world, if Joe gets exploded and is unconscious, you still need to limit further damage by injecting the STASIS agent and and get him back to cover and evac to a hospital for repairs. But his comrades can be braver and take injury themselves saving Joe; because some of them have been shot, cut, smashed, blown up and are so accustomed to it, they can keep moving anyway and will.

Don't try to have it both ways. Embrace your world: Technology has advanced to the point lethal injury is a risk but exceedingly rare, so soldiers and everybody else have adapted to this truth and fight and think accordingly, with this in mind. The risk of death is no longer what drives the tension; the risk of losing and the dire consequences of losing must drive the battle. The temporary loss of heroes that provide unique and valuable skills becomes an obstacle to victory that the team doesn't know how to surmount. Recriminations about letting Joe get injured, compromising the mission, cause interpersonal team conflict and resentments.

11

In real-life warfare, number of wounded normally exceeds significantly the number of fatalities. Which is good.

There is, however, far more going on when a soldier is wounded than "get him into cover". Consider field surgery under fire. Consider triage (that's when your medic needs to decide which one of several wounded soldiers he helps first). There's getting pinned down and waiting for rescue/reinforcement, and wondering whether help would arrive before your wounded friend dies. There's said wounded friend screaming in pain while you're trying to keep you both safe. And then he's not screaming any more, which is worse.

Once a wounded soldier gets evacuated to a hospital, there's his friends' concern for him: will he make it to the hospital alive? Will he recover? It can be a while before the soldiers in the field get any news, and once they do, the news might be "he's in a coma, we don't know anything more yet." It's very hard to function when you don't know whether your friend would live or die, and yet those soldiers have to.

Then there's the recovery. Consider dealing with loss of limb. Consider learning to walk again following an extended period of not being able to. Consider the loss of basic human dignity, when due to a spinal injury, for example, an injured man must lie prone for a month - bowel movements still need to happen.

Or, there are the light wounds - the lying in a hospital while your friends are out there, risking their lives, and you can't wait to get back out there, not because you crave the fighting, but because you know you're needed, and one of your comrades might get killed because you weren't there to watch his back. While at the same time, your family are all around your bed, so happy you are not right now where the fighting is, so glad you're alive.

And don't forget the mental trauma: from getting shot, from seeing your friend getting shot, from being the medic who couldn't save everyone, from walking around covered in somebody else's blood.

None of it is easy. If you describe the effects and consequences with honesty, it won't get boring, but would instead build up tension. And as you can see, there are many diverse ways you can treat injuries, so the situation need never get repetitive.

6

Think of the character Wolverine - one of the most popular characters in the X-men series. He gets injured a heck of a lot, and yet doesn't die. People never seem to get bored of him.

Why does Wolverine have such a hold on the heart? I think it's because of his humanity. He has a feral side, and he has done some bad things. But he has a side of him that's always trying supress those negative aspects. He never seems to stop trying to be good.

It's characters like this that can be injured and recover time after time and still keep the reader on their side. They have such a depth of character and goodness that readers will find themselves rooting for them and wishing for them to recover.

If you can build these kinds of qualities into your characters, then you will be able to do what you wish with them without your readers getting tired or annoyed.

4

Make every injury worse than the last.

The first time you get badly hurt, you may think its the worst pain you've ever experienced. (You may look back on it later and think you overreacted, but even so.).

The next injury is worse, more horrific, could potential leave you in a cast for weeks.

The next time, lying on the ground, you think you're going to lose the limb afterwards.

The next time, lying on the ground, you DO lose the limb, before you can get to the medics.

Etc.

3

One of my favourites in this respect, Peter Hamilton's Reality Dysfunction trilogy (or 6-ology in some countries), does this in a quite non-tiring fashion:

  • People who see front-line combat are often "boosted" and have "nanonics", i.e. implants which can turn off pain nerves, inject adrenaline and such. Also, there are highly advanced external medical packages which you simply slap onto the damaged body part and which will fix most non-deadly issues on their own. If worst comes to worst, they have human-sized transportable "stasis" chambers where they can stop time for individuals in the hope that better medication becomes available later. All of these concepts are frequently employed.
  • Uncritical damage just gets switched off by the nanonics and everything is well. Protagonists feel like having a bad case of sore muscles. Most times, it is not mentioned except in passing (like you would bruising in a more realistic book).
  • If this keeps going, the character will be described as receiving ever more damage piling up one after the other; but this seems to mentioned only very seldomly.
  • (Side) characters are seldomly introduced for specific combat scenes, and set up as, e.g., very experienced, advanced fighters; if they sustain heavy damage, they will die - i.e., they are a plot device to prove that nobody is really invincible, and also to enable the main protagonists to have some emotional trauma as well. Their fate is then quite impactful, as they seemed almost all-powerful before, but still succumb to the even more powerful enemy.
  • One character in particular is entering the novels very early and appears again and again; he is particularly unlucky in that his body gets beat up especially extremely. Him constantly being close to being finished is like a running gag (presented not very humourously...).

If you wish to see in detail how he does it, I highly suggest picking up those novels; they have aged well in my opinion.

3

If you replace death with injury as the most common consequence of combat, you need to make the injuries meaningful and interesting. That means spending more time describing them, and coming up with a variety of hurtful things to inflict upon your characters.

It also means you need to come up with a replacement to quickly "off" a not-important side character (goons, etc.) - death is just convenient in such cases and explains why they never come back. With injuries insteady, you have to be more resourceful, and that resourcefulness will also counter the boredom and repetition factors.

  • How I deal with regular goons? Intimidation? – Mephistopheles Jun 25 '18 at 7:59
  • Intimidation works for the immediate short time. To take them out longer, you need to tackle the uncomfortable issue of crippling wounds. That could movee the whole thing into an anti-war topic, if so desired. – Tom Aug 16 '18 at 7:06
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Consider the consequences

If you want the injury to impact the reader, then the injury needs to impact the story. What has changed as a result of the injury? What could have been accomplished, that now cannot be accomplished, or needs to be accomplished differently? What new obstacles stand in the way of the heroes?

Make your readers remember that death is not even close to the worst thing that can happen to a person.

2

Powered armour of some description is a boon to any author who doesn't want to kill off characters, the armour can take debilitating damage without ever harming the occupant making it easy to put characters out of action without killing them. With high-tech armour there are so many things that can go wrong that you can go a long way without repeating yourself. In a fantasy setting there's less you can do in terms of the root cause (i.e. it almost always comes down to magic) but endless different descriptions and details that can be applied. In fact when it comes to magic there are a lot of non-lethal effects that are kind of "standard", putting people to sleep, locking them in their body with Hold Person and similar effects so you don't need to do any damage in the first place.

Alternative approach:

Now while you don't have to kill people to write a good story by the same token you can and still have them around. Dead characters don't have to stay dead. One of the best moments in Roger Zelazny's Chronicles of Amber comes at the end of The Courts of Chaos when one of the Nine Princes who's been "dead" for several books comes back to save the day. Now in that example the set up is exquisite and spans about 600 pages and you miss most of the clues the first time you read it but you do understand that there is at least one missing piece before the big reveal. This question has some good material if you're looking to use that particular mechanism.

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