Following the Ripples

I’m delighted to welcome fellow sci-fi author L J Cohen to my blog!

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Nearly a year ago, E J wrote about a topic that’s near and dear to my heart: writing realistic injuries. In the linked post, she chronicles the pain and healing time of a deep cut to her hand as a way to use her misfortune to create better fiction when her characters get injured.

I share E J’s frustration with superhero characters who don’t get injured or who heal without consequence when they do.

In creating everyman characters who are thrust into situations where they get hurt, fatigued and stressed, I need to think through every way those factors would effect their lives. It’s not enough to describe the pain – I have to follow the ripples.

Choosing to injure your character is like every other choice in a novel. It has to exist for a reason. Preferably more than one reason. Does the injury deepen characterization? Drive the plot? Limit your character’s abilities? Force your character to problem solve more fully? Change the way others relate to them?

If the only reason the character is injured is to engender sympathy, then the injury is a thin device and adds little to the overall narrative. One of the dangers of incorporating injury and disability in a story is falling into the cliché of the ‘noble victim.’ Equally problematic is when the character is injured or disabled simply to motivate the actions of the non-injured protagonist. Both choices remove agency from the character and render that person into a plot-device.

But injury and disability can be written well. One of my favorite depictions of physical disability in speculative fiction is the Vorkosigan novels by Lois McMaster Bujold. The protagonist, Miles Vorkosigan, was exposed to a poison in utero that prevented normal growth of his bones. He is considered a mutant by many in the rigid conservative society in which he was born for his deformities and has fragile bones. His frailty forces him to compete in a vicious political landscape using his wits and his will. He is both brilliant and insufferable; a wonderful, fully realized character.

A second pitfall in writing injuries is when the injuries serve the needs of an immediate plot point but have no follow through or consequence in the story as a whole. This is something common to thrillers where the hero gets shot only to be patched up by a sympathetic side character and then saves the day when any mere mortal would be writhing on the floor waiting for emergency services. Getting injured hurts. Even if no vital organs are damaged, the shock post gunshot or stabbing or burn can easily take down the strongest, most fit individual.

Shock is a protective reaction by the body and is part of a complex series of reflexes that take place without conscious thought. Typical shock reactions include: decreased blood pressure, rapid, weak pulse, lowered core temperature, rapid, shallow breathing, nausea or vomiting, dilated pupils, and loss of consciousness.

It’s far more likely that your injured character will go into shock than run into the lair of the bad guys, rescue the damsel, and ride into the sunset. And shock, if untreated, can actually be fatal.

I love the phrase E J used in the quote above: Follow the ripples. The moment of injury is the stone in the pond. What it changes is the ripples.

One of my protagonists in Ithaka Rising – book 2 of Halcyone Space – is dealing with the aftermath of a head injury he sustains in book 1. His impairments are disabling. He experiences nausea and vomiting, crippling headaches, vertigo, and is unable to focus on his computer screen or read. His experience of his injury and the choices he makes as a result of not improving drives the entire plot of the story. He believes only a neural implant device will help him, but his young age is a contra-indication. So he finds a black market source for one. There are consequences to his actions, ripples that effect him, his family, and the political landscape.

Another problem in writing injuries is when the author gets the physiologic details wrong. Absent magical healing or hugely advanced tech (and even those need to have limits and consequences), injuries take time to heal. Even the mildest of tendon strains can take several weeks to fully heal. Broken bones can take six–twelve weeks or more depending on the severity of the fracture and the overall health and age of the person. Deep cuts and penetrating wounds are a huge infection risk, as are burns. Infections can be fatal, even in a technologically enhanced world.

I had a 25 year career as a physical therapist before I became a writer. My specialty area was orthopedics and chronic pain management. When my characters get hurt, they are well and truly hurt. This year, I started a weekly twitter chat to help writers be more realistic in depictions of injuries and healing. I’m always happy to take questions. Look for #InjuryWrite or mention me on twitter @lisajanicecohen.

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Thank you so much to L J for stopping by my blog today! She’s generously agreed to give-away an ebook of the winner’s chosing from her titles in honour of her new release, Dreadnought and Shuttle. Check it out on Amazon, Google Books, Kobo, B&N, and iBooks.

final-kindle-cover-small

When a materials science student gets kidnapped, she’s drawn into a conflict
between the young crew of a sentient spaceship, a weapons smuggling ring, and a Commonwealth-wide conspiracy and must escape before her usefulness
as a hostage expires.

Anyone who comments on this post from 13th June 2016 to 20th June 2016 will be entered into the drawing and I’ll post the winner in the comments and email them as well.

Finally, here’s a little bit more about my wonderful guest: L J Cohen is a novelist, poet, blogger, ceramics artist, and relentless optimist. After almost twenty-five years as a physical therapist, L J now uses her anatomical knowledge and myriad clinical skills to injure characters in her science fiction and fantasy novels. She lives in the Boston area with her family, two dogs, and the occasional international student. DREADNOUGHT AND SHUTTLE (book 3 of the SF/Space Opera series Halcyone Space), is her sixth novel. L J is a member of SFWA, Broad Universe, and the Independent Publishers of New England.