We all feel pain as humans. It’s simply part of who we are.
Without it, there is no happy or sad, no boredom that makes excitement worth living for, no emotion to make our world worth a stay. Pain is basic to writing – it is where our best metaphors come from, our most wistful, touching and compelling words. How to describe pain in writing – creating some genuine empathy from the reader, while keeping them engaged and not overdoing it to the point of destructing realism – is one of the biggest questions we see from writers.
The characters we write about feel pain because like us, they suffer too. Effective writing usually reflects physical pain as emotional pain. It fuels the drama, drives up the stakes, introduces another obstacle for the protagonist to overcome before arriving at their lustrous climax.
So what makes reading about pain such a chore?
Look at this: “The pain was like fire burning her legs. She winced. It blew up in her head with a terrifying blankness. It was nauseating. She started to quiver. The pain felt like a hot, sharp knife, covered in salt, slicing through her skin and into her muscles and bones, as though her leg had been frozen and a bolt of lightning had struck her body from head to toe.”
The characters in your novels may be consumed by their pain. But for your readers, it could be a drag. You probably stopped midway through that paragraph yourself (if you even got there).
You can explain your character’s pain, exaggerate it or ignore it without knowing the difference. But by referring to a concrete guide when writing about it, you can express it more accurately and interestingly.
This comes in handy when distinguishing pain types and finding the best descriptions for them.
Levels of Character Pain in Writing
Your character feels this pain but not so much that it bothers them. You can use words like sting, stiffness, pinch, etc.
This kind of pain is disturbing enough that it creates a problem for your character – for example, inability to concentrate during an exam. Think along the lines of throb, ache, hurt, etc.
This goes for pain that is so bad it makes your character abandon whatever they were doing. This is when you use words like anguish, throes, torturous, etc.
Finally, this pain completely immobilizes your character and keeps them focused on it and treating it. This is when you use adjectives like racking, ripping, harrowing, etc.
Metaphors will, of course, have their place on this scale, but avoid using more than one level of pain. For example, if you like “punishing”, don’t combine it with “ripping” in one metaphor.
JK Rowling conveys extreme pain well in her description of the Cruciatus Curse, from Harry Potter:
“Voldemort raised his wand, and before Harry could do anything to defend himself, before he could even move, he had been hit again by the Cruciatus curse. The pain was so intense, so all-consuming, that he no longer knew where he was… white-hot knives were piercing every inch of his skin, his head was surely going to burst with pain; he was screaming more loudly than he’d ever screamed in his life — “
Mentioning a Character’s Pain
In most cases, pain that happens in writing doesn’t only happen once. It comes in stages. For example, a wound will first sear, then it will itch, and then it will tickle before finally going away. This is much like the evolution of a character: pain should lead to changes in your character. Otherwise, it is useless.
To keep your reader connected to your character’s agony, there are two things you can do: depict their suffering, and/or depict them trying to resolve their suffering. Depicting their pain is as simple as describing it as it happens. For example, “her fingers hurt,” “she massaged her hurting fingers,” or “she curled her fingers unknowingly to ease the painful rigidness.” Be careful not to overdo it with too frequent mentions though. A good range is to bring up the pain from once each chapter to once each scene.
You can also show the character living and trying to deal with their pain. “She picked up her pen fumblingly with her toes to avoid the soreness on her fingers” and “Eddie fidgeted with his crutches irately” are good examples.
You can make this type of reminder more often. What makes it more exciting is that it’s not only a reminder but a personal challenge for the character to overcome, while your reader watches.
In the real world, a person can get in a car accident and break a leg – literally – which probably means damning pain and wearing leg crutches. After a while, they may may resume their normal routine – go to work, take the kids to school, attend worship, etc. Yet somehow, in their nuances, you can tell they’re still in some level of pain. You know the pain isn’t always there, but you’re pretty sure it comes around from to time. It transforms, and rises and sets like the sun. It can incapacitate now and vanish later. Your character’s pain should be the same. It should be dynamic.
“Her misery had melted into a blunt tingle;” “the hurt in my heart escalated from a dull throb to burning, glaring pain – faster than a lightning bolt;’ and”as soon as the hurt reached its peak, it was gone, vanished into thin wind” – these are examples of expressing pain as though it had a life of its own.
Elaborate on the Effects of Pain
It’s tempting to tell, rather than show, pain – imagine how you would react physically and emotionally to pain instead of talking about it. If the pain comes from a ton of bricks on your character’s chest – say, after an earthquake – show them having trouble breathing. If it’s a sharp, stabbing pain in the head, have them wince while making a body-shrinking movement.
If your character got smashed in the head with a baseball bat, make them drop to the ground, bleed through their ears, and turn bluish – instead of just saying they’re in pain. Make them pee, black out, or create grumbling sounds. Show how the pain begins and moves and stabilizes instead of just saying “it’s there”.
You can also use emotional reactions when expressing pain. When your character gets slapped hard in the face, for instance, make them move and create sounds that convey emotion. Make them lose their balance and scramble awkwardly to stand up straight. Paint them a look of fear, humiliation, shock or anger. Remember, it’s not always the pain. It’s what happens because of it, and it’s how different things would be without it.
Faith in the Reader
Writers love words, but sometimes, readers don’t need them. Say, you have a character whose nails are being ripped out with pliers, one by one, slowly but surely. Is it necessary to say that it hurt or that the poor guy bellowed in pain?
Don’t underestimate your readers’ ability to read without words. As we picture a protagonist smirking when listening to a lie, lips trembling during a supernatural experience, or feet tapping during a panic attack, so do we know that a person will hurt when stabbed, punched or lashed. Not that you want to avoid pain, but sometimes, a scene becomes more memorable when the reader figures the pain out for themselves.
Realism Is Key
Carry on and torment your characters, but do your homework. Sit down, do some research and study the anguish you want to develop. Know how it usually begins, wreaks havoc, and heals. This will keep your work real and relatable, as well as remind you that pain evolves and persists beyond one scene.
Speaking of keeping it real, there is one truth you must acknowledge about physical pain: it has limits. When readers see a character in physical agony, they expect changes in that character’s capabilities. In other words, even if your character were a 9th degree Brazilian Jiu Jitsu red belt, they can probably only take too much pain.
Of course, some genres allow or even feed on superhuman characteristics, but there’s always a line somewhere that you need to define for the sake of your readers. If your John Wick just broke his ribs after falling from a three-storey building but he’s still pinning an enemy down with a choke hold while shooting another enemy with a Remington Model 700, you’re courting parody.
Escapist fiction that permits incredibly high pain tolerance is great, provided it is innate to the story and your readers know it. Superhero movies are a classic example. Peter Parker survived Mysterio’s beyond-human villainy in Spiderman: Far from Home, because the world of the story had been built where Peter was both human and a superhero. And of course, people knew that from the start. It would be revolting to strip Peter of his godlike qualities, and same goes for the rest of the superheroes.
But if you like to keep your writing raw and gritty, you should take pain thresholds seriously. You know you have presented your protagonist’s agony as realistically as possible when your readers begin to fear that your character won’t make it (for more on this, see also death in writing).
So what makes that important in storytelling? Remember, a good story can engage readers in a character’s misery despite knowing that everything will be fine in the end. Whenever something gets in the way of your character and their goal, decide whether this is going to be an ordinary event that will be typically brushed off, or if it’s something that affects them so much it makes them uncertain about their future.
To Say or Not to Say
At the end of the day, writing about pain is not just an issue of how to write about it. More importantly, it’s about whether or not the pain should even be told at all. It all depends on the situation, but generally speaking, writing about pain sometimes means un-writing it, leaving your readers to fill in the gaps. Often, it means just showing the pain as a living, breathing entity by itself – how it started, progressed and led to changes in the characters and their world.
Finally, keep in mind that pain is what keeps a story worth a read. Without it, the characters don’t make an impact and neither does the story. In that case, the story won’t be worth the write at all.