So the day before yesterday I was playing in the backyard with my spawn and stepped on a sharp piece of wood (one she always carefully walks around and now I know why). I opened up a nice little gash in my heel. The oozy, bleeding kind. Now, because I was outside with my small child I could not collapse shrieking and cursing because that would have scared her. The husband was sleeping in, having been up late. So I did what I am assured most mothers do, whimpered very quietly, continued to play with my daughter as if nothing was wrong so she wouldn’t freak out, and waited for the bleeding to stop. It did, I hobbled inside and cleaned it off later, all good.
Which made me think about stoicism as portrayed in fiction. Because I was being stoic. And didn’t faint or get all woozy at the sight of my own blood which I have been known to do. Other people’s is fine with me but I do not care to see my own.
I have noticed that the intensity of a given character’s stoicism is often inversely proportional to the author’s experience of serious injury/danger. If you’ve never had a broken arm, it’s easy to assume that your character can keep fighting while it flops around at his side, because apparently you have no idea how much it hurts. I don’t, either, but I’ve had a partially dislocated collarbone and an exciting assortment of sprains and let me tell you, that hurt enough. I nearly threw up the first time I seriously sprained my ankle. Likewise with testicular injuries. I’m not personally equipped with the things, but my husband assures me that it’s ridiculous how many fictional people can shake off a blow to the harbls. I have seen him reduced to sobbing and vomiting after a single (but mighty) blow from a toddler armed with a wooden train, so I’m willing to take his word for it. Pain is really, really hard to tune out, especially if you have to keep moving around.
And blood-loss! Seriously, the amount of blood in the human body is very limited. It bugs me to read about ‘lakes’ and ‘pools’ of blood coming out of someone who’s going to be up and fighting again in ten pages. Or even someone who’s going to survive, because humans can’t spare a lake’s worth, as a rule. Septicemia, too – infection is far too often ignored, especially in fantasy. If you go swimming in a medieval harbour – or the Brisbane River today – with an open wound, then you’re probably going to die within a few days. Seriously. I once got an infected ear-piercing that was so bad my earlobe tripled in size and I was running a fever. A real fever, from an ear piercing, one of the smallest holes possible in one of the very least crucial parts of your body. If your character is stabbed or gouged or something and just pours some water over it and slaps on a bit of grimy linen, they need to be running a fever within the next couple of days even under the very best circumstances and – back to the subject of stoicism – they’re not going to be going anywhere. A severe infection hurts like hell, you get a fever, and it can kill you extremely dead if you’re not lucky and/or careful.
On the other hand, I personally know someone who has no sense of self-preservation whatsoever and shrugged off being stabbed in the ass with an actual sword as ‘no big deal’ up until the point where the wound went septic. There are people that insanely stoic, but they’re rare and their friends worry about them a lot because they do things like wanting to compete in live-weapon fencing tournaments because ‘most people don’t die, but you have to bring your own medic just in case’. And people do routinely perform incredible feats when injured – parents protecting children is the classic example, but humans can do astonishing things for complete strangers, too. But these tend to be very short-term acts, limited to the life-span of the immediate danger and the adrenaline surge. The hero with the broken arm might fling his fallen friend over his shoulder and carry him to safety, but this isn’t going to take place over several days. Several minutes, sure. Up to an hour, maybe. But even my friend with the butt-wound couldn’t keep it up forever, tough as he is.
I know this post is kind of rambly, it was just something that was on my mind. Realistic portrayal of injuries is hard, when you’ve never had any, I get that, and working from action movies will take you in totally the wrong direction, but try anyway. And remember that any male whose harbles are impacted hard enough is going to be vomiting uncontrollably, no matter how tough he is.