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Copyright 2000 Tara K. Harper.  All rights reserved.

TARA K. HARPER
WRITER'S WORKSHOP
The Wounded Beast

I often wonder how many other authors ever really contemplate trying out the action that they write, and how they would fare if they did attempt those physical feats.  Although I love the way the hero (or heroine) so often comes out of such desperate situations unscathed, I have to point out that I have never personally seen a physical situation that didn't cause some kind of wounding.

I wonder all sorts of things:  How come the hero never has to clean the fly eggs from his horse's eyes (but there's always a stone in the hoof)?  Why is it that the heroine's hair never tangles, even though it's always loose?  How do these people with long hair swim?  I have long hair, and I can tell you that you get two and a half strokes before the hair has so coiled around your arms that you can no longer move them.

I wonder why no one's nails bend backwards (but women's nails break), why there are no splinters in the forest, why firewood never leaves sap on the hero's hands or clothes, why everyone gets a blister but the blister never gets worse or cracks or bleeds?   How come no one's skin splits no matter how long they're out in the woods?  And why, since everyone wears boots regardless of the weather, does no one get soft-rot or fungus on their feet (and how come no one's socks fall down in their boots and clump around their heels or toes)?

It has been my experience that in a physical situation (adventure, confrontation, etc), someone always gets hurt.  Maybe not badly, maybe just scrapes and bruises, but there's always something.   Maybe this is a superficial, nagging wound that you only discover later -- like a bent-back nail or one that tears back into the flesh and which ends up being infected. Maybe it's a twisted ankle or bone-bruised elbow.  A smashed thumb where you slipped on the rocks crossing the stream.  Personally, I find the deep punctures beneath the nails or the split skin to be some of the most irritating of the superficial wounds, since they make the fingers so sore (as the wounds infect or split more widely) that it's difficult after a while to force yourself to continue using them.  I'm not fond of the separations either, as in, when the foot pad separates from the underlying muscle and tissue...

The point is, the body is not some holy temple that won't be penetrated by the world.  Our bodies are externally frail, weakly protected by soft skin, with our strength (our bones) on the inside, not the outside.  A character who has been riding, hiking, or crawling around in a wilderness setting (or a construction site, etc) will get scraped.  In fact, his hands and skin will probably have a dozen small cuts and scrapes.

I'm not saying that writers should include every detail of every scene, a description of every scrape and bump and bruise--that would be as irritating to the reader as an eyelash in the eye.  I'm just saying that it would be nice if writers keep in mind what actually happens when you're out for a while in such settings, especially since small wounds can significantly affect an outcome.

For example, Joe's middle finger might have been smashed and twisted yesterday during a stream crossing, and today, he's on the hoisting line for bringing gear up the cliff.  Perhaps he shifts his grip, has an instinctive flinch from the pain, and for an instant, can't hold his share of the weight.  The line slips, the gear falls.  Is the gear lost? partially destroyed? does it strike something more important -- other gear or a person below?  Perhaps the small wound simply provides a way for you to bring out characterstics:  Joe picks at the scabs always, or he whines about small pains, or he ignores small pains but flinches or guards them...  Or it's a way to bring out the characteristics of those who don't have wounds--they make fun of the scrapes, call someone clumsy, are overly concerned with treating superficial wounds, etc.

Wounds, like anything else, are tools that have more than one purpose to a writer.  If you're using a wound simply to show how courageous your main character is, you've forgotten the purpose of a tool.  That's like having only your main character speak bravely, while everyone else is silent throughout the book.  The small details of physical situations can be used not only to give a sense of reality to a scene, but to flesh out all of your characters.  Forgetting these small details can point out how much the author didn't know about what he was writing about, and can bring on a sense of unreality.  Remembering them in appropriate settings can add immediacy to the scene.


Copyright 2000 Tara K. Harper

All rights reserved.  It is illegal to reproduce or transmit in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording, or by any information storage and retrieval system, any part of this copyrighted file without permission in writing from Tara K. Harper.  Permission to download this file for personal use only is hereby granted by Tara K. Harper.


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