Pain noun \’pān\
The acutely unpleasant physical discomfort experienced by somebody who is violently struck, injured, or ill.
Whilst the above is a technically correct definition of the word pain, it will not do for your horror novel. Pain can’t be a scratch, a graze, or a boo-boo that Mummy can kiss better. It can’t be acutely unpleasant or a minor hindrance. It has to be sorrowful, heart-rending, and…well…painful.
Pain is a part of horror novels. It doesn’t always have to be gut-chewing, skin-flaying, eyeball-popping pain, but it does have to hurt. And sometimes emotional pain can be much more damaging than a cross-dressing, skin-wearing maniac who enjoys pulling teeth with rusty pliers.
There are worse things in life than death.
So tell us about them. Make me squirm and writhe, make me retch and sob. I want to feel as if I’m going to lose someone I love when your MC is on the brink of giving up from the insurmountable pain being piled on top of him/her. But don’t forget to stick to realistic limits.
Whilst it is true some characters may need to be pushed to their very limits before they are deemed worthy of winning, or before they snap and finally fight back, you have to be careful not to step wildly over the line you have drawn for yourself. It’s easier than you think to take something too far, so try and stick within the realm of believability.
I’m often guilty of wandering far from this line.
One of my previous novels had a particular gruesome scene where the MC was literally chewed up and spat out by my feature monsters…and that was shortly after been shot in the arm! Then, somehow, he went on to kick ass and chew bubblegum (shame he was out of bubblegum), for quite a lengthy period of time. Yes, I mentioned the agony he was in, and I took great delight in describing the pain and the gore, but I also let him carry on, without medical attention, for far too long. By the time he’s celebrating his victory(ish), he should have long since passed out from shock, fatigue, and the overwhelming pain…not to mention the fact he couldn’t possibly have had a single drop of blood left in his body!
It’s easy to get carried away and think our hero is invincible. After all, you only have to flick on the television to see everyday characters turning into invincible warriors at the drop of a hat. That final push where they are beaten and bloodied, bruised and battered, but somehow…somehow…push themselves up from the ground and roundhouse the bad guy through the tenth story window.
I get it…it’s satisfying that they have overcome the odds to save the world and win the girl’s heart. But don’t take the piss out of your readers. Don’t have your characters go through Hell only to suddenly decide to win the fight on a whim.
They need to grow from the conflicts and pain they face; something needs to change in order for them to fight back. And sometimes they need to pop down to their local hospital and get a blood transfusion before they can carry on.
There is nothing wrong with a character that bleeds.
Make them real, not Robocop with a better haircut. Let them lose, and sleep, and weep, and recover. They aren’t immortal, and their struggle wouldn’t be half as impressive if they were. We need to read about characters that overcome the odds, not ones that get shot forty-two times, dislocate both their shoulders, but get back up and do some Taekwondo…just because they’re pissed off and this time it’s personal.
And while we’re at it, if you are going to write about pain then you need to go out there and experience it. I know, it doesn’t sound nice. But give your readers a little credit and stop describing bullet wounds and knife cuts the same way you’ve read in another book. If you don’t fancy a Bowie through your abdomen or a 9mm through your fibula, then do the research using proper medical books…or better yet, and if you’re very lucky/cocky, get out there and talk to some victims. Who better to know what it feels like than people who have actually gone through it?
Just because every other writer describes a knife wound as a cold sensation, doesn’t mean you have to. And if you find, through your research and interviews, that being stabbed with a knife does in fact feel like being shivved with an icicle then try and write it differently.
You’re a writer, just because something is true doesn’t mean that’s how you have to write it. After all, that’s how clichés get started.
Now get out there and shoot someone!* But don’t forget to take your notepad and ask them what it feels like!
*please don’t shoot anybody…not unless you intend to finish the job and get rid of the body. Remember, a clean kill is a responsible kill.