Just How Much Can a Body Take?

buckle up

Before I begin:  On Friday evening, I was in a car accident (which actually inspired this post).  It was a front-end collision between two cars on a steep mountain road, and we were all very lucky not to be seriously injured.  I would like to take a moment to give some credit to a device to saves countless lives every year, and which definitely saved me from serious injury (or worse) on Friday:  a seatbelt.  Seriously, people, don’t even take it off for a second.  You just never know when something might happen.  I’m in considerable pain right now from the whiplash and the abdominal and chest bruising that the seatbelt gave me, but I don’t even want to think about what I’d be going though if that seatbelt hadn’t been securely fastened around me.  Just think of it as the last line of defense between you and the windshield and BUCKLE UP!  Okay, now onto my post.

Boromir with arrows
He's very tough. Shooting him with one arrow in the heart just makes him angry. It takes at least three to kill him.

Right after my accident, I joined the other members of Lantern Hollow Press (minus Don, sadly) and a few of our non-LHP friends for a Lord of the Rings extended edition marathon that lasted until early Saturday morning.  Watching the characters suffer far worse injuries than my own, I was amazed at some of the really unbelievable feats they were able to accomplish.  In one memorable scene, Boromir, with an arrow sticking out of his chest (right around the region of his heart), was still able to keep fighting with vigor and could easily lift both arms to do so.  Sorry if this disappoints or disillusions anyone, but Boromir’s actions were, well, about as possible as a dog getting run over by a semi and then jumping up and playing fetch.

How much can a human body reasonably take and still be able to function?  And just what do injuries do to the human body?  In my experiences, I’ve learned several answers to these questions.  For example, following my collision on Friday, I find that I cannot bend easily, walking is slow and painful, moving my head is an invitation to misery, and getting up and down from a chair is a drawn-out process that I prefer to avoid.  So in other words, using my own experience as a guide, if your character is in a car or carriage accident, don’t expect her to be dancing the next day or running from  bad guys without gasping out in serious pain.  Expect an intake of breath when your character stands or sits, and remember that such actions as sneezing and yawning are going to make her grimace.

Many authors seem to make their characters, though supposedly human, ridiculously invincible.  One book that springs to mind is John Buchan’s The Thirty-Nine Steps (yes, Hitchcock did base his 1935 film off this book, albeit quite loosely).  Buchan’s hero, Richard Hannay, is in a car crash and then promptly runs for miles and miles across uneven terrain in Scotland, pursued by loads of men with guns (and even a plane).  He even takes a road worker’s place for a day and does heavy labor in the midst of all this!  Take it from me, considering the vast improvements in modern automobiles and the fact that Hannay was driving much faster than I was (of course, I was not being pursued), he HAD to be hurting even worse than me.  But nothing fazes him!  The character is an energizer bunny:  he just keeps going, and going, and going, and going . . .

In any injury or traumatic event, you need to take into consideration that every muscle in your character’s body (assuming they are human — mythical creatures are, of course, a completely different situation) is going to tense up.  This is part of the normal human reaction to situations.  It helps us to survive a crisis, but it hurts like heck the next day.  So if Sir Sigmund Smoldereyes is in a carriage that gets tipped over, he’s not just going to have the carriage-related injures to contend with; he’s also going to have lethargy and muscle aches the next day, and possibly into the next week, depending on how bad of a crash it was and how much it stressed him.  It’s also a common human reaction to replay traumatic events in our minds long after they occur.  So, consider haunting the swarthy Sir Sigmund with nightmares or tension in his back and neck the first few times back in a carriage.  You might even have him reluctant to ride in one for some time after.  People are complex creatures — they don’t always get over things instantly.  Some experiences haunt for a long time, even when a person seems pretty sturdy on the outside.

One of my lesser black eyes (luckily I had Eowyn for comfort).

It takes the body time to heal after an injury.  To give another example, if your character receives a black eye from a jilted fiance, don’t expect it to disappear in a day, or even a week.  One of my black eyes took more than three weeks to go away, and turned that side of my face all sorts of lovely colors.  In another black eye experience (yes, yes, we all know by now that I am a card-carrying klutz), I got a blackened left eye from running into a candle holder on a wall, and my right eye developed a sympathy black eye.  Two for the price of one!  And be sure to remember the gorgeous varied colors and shades of bruises that cascade down the face following a black eye — it’s seldom just the eye that gets affected, no matter where the actual impact was.  Bodies are artistic like that.

In short, injuries are a serious matter.  When one of your (human) characters gets hurt, he or she will need time and care to heal.  Having a character miraculously keep going constantly is not only unbelievable, it sometimes gets so ridiculous that it distracts from your story.  Furthermore, most injuries bring other injuries, conditions, and such along with them.  Black eyes bring extra bruises, stress causes sore muscles and tension headaches, accidents give you pains in places you didn’t even know you had . . . in short, it’s a miracle that we’re all still functioning, with such fiendish bodies as we must contend with.

skeletal muscles
The human body is truly an incredible machine. Just look at all the parts that can malfunction and get injured . . . and these are just the skeletal muscles!

To get an idea of how sword injuries affect the human body, read Brian’s post HERE.


6 thoughts on “Just How Much Can a Body Take?

  1. sorry to hear of your accident, but glad your all right except for pain.
    I like what you wrote.

  2. While in principle I agree that characters in a novel should not have Hollywood Healing abilites, I feel it necessary to speak a word in Hannay’s (and by extension Buchan’s) defense. Hannay was a very fit man from his work as an engineer. That helps. Also Hannay knew that there were men after him with guns and so had a motivation to keep moving despite aches or injuries. He’s in the definition of a do or die situation. Sure, adrenaline will only get you so far, but again, he’s running for his life and has a strong will to live.
    And he doesn’t shrug off his various injuries. After escaping from the bad guys lair by means of an explosion that rattled his eye teeth, he spends a whole day lying in agony in a hideout waiting for the coast to clear. He also gets a few days scattered through the chasing to lie in bed in a farmhouse to recover.
    If you want another example of characters who shrug off way too much injury to be believed, try Clive Cussler’s Dirk Pitt novels. The fellow makes James Bond look like a pansy.

  3. Everyone knows that heroes are measured by the number of scars they have incurred over the years. Hmm, I only have two. Does that make me a lesser hero or just the comic sidekick?

    Must go get more scars… heroically!

  4. Brian, I have been reading your series with great interest and generally agree with you. You are typically writing about calm, thoughtful situations where body awareness is great and this clearly effects one’s psychology and willingness to act. I think you are missing, or haven’t yet written about, the incredable effect of adrenaline on the human body, especially in situations with an external focus thatis wholly involving. We have numerous historical examples of men in war who literally do incredible things when severely wounded, at times deadly wounds. I am thinking at the moment of two US Marines manning a machine gun on Guadalcanal – I’m sure you know the story. One wounded so severely he could not use his arms and died durning the battle, one wounded and blinded by his wound. Two acting as one with the blind man firing the machine gun, the other directing the fire. When the man directing the fire died the blind man continued to fire beaten areas as trained.

    This is only one example of incredible ongoing activity after severe wounds that are in the historical record. Granted, they should not be used as a routine occasion, but most writers are not writing of calm, thoughtful, internal experiences when they are writing battle scenes. It is when my focus is wholly external, my complete consuming purpose is external, and the adrenaline is running that this occurs.

    1. True, though my point was that authors often forget to take the physical/mechanical aspects of wounds into account. It simply wouldn’t be physically possible for someone whose tendons had been severed and had suffered massive muscle trauma to lift something in a normal way, if at all. Hence the teamwork in the story mentioned above. I think too many authors just assume “mind over matter” and use that as the deus ex machina to explain all sorts of things that just aren’t physically possible.

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