If You Think Your Protagonist Will Survive This, You Are Not Schooled In The Basic Principles Of Human Life

3 Jan

By Biljana Likic


“Get ready for certain death!”

Jack squeezed his eyes shut against Noir’s proclamation, stumbling through the brush and clutching onto his bleeding forearm. He wouldn’t die if it was the last thing he did. He pushed on past the trees, gritting his teeth as blood seeped through his clenched fingers. His breath left his chest in a whoosh as he felt the ground drop out beneath him. His cheekbone smashed and shattered against the twigs and rocks of the forest floor, leaving his eyes watering and his nostrils full of suffocating grit.

“You’re mine now!”

No, Jack thought passionately. Carol was counting on him to save her. He had to save her.

He stood, and immediately felt a lancing pain through his thigh and collapsed as a harpoon went clean through the muscle. He heard a hiss of satisfaction from Noir as he grimaced against the agony. He gave himself a precious second of rest before standing once more and continuing his run.

And then he felt the pain in his neck. Lifting up a bloodied hand, he threw away the poison dart and kept running, faster than before.

And then there was a whistle of metal as a sabre cut through the air and severed his left hand.

Jack stared dumbfounded as his hand flopped onto the forest floor and was left behind as he kept on running. The blood loss was going to his head. His sight was turning black around the edges. He was going to pass out.

But then he heard it. Her voice.


Carol’s voice was calling for him. He had to go on. He had to go on.

He began running again with renewed vigour, even as the ninja stars sliced through the space around him, evil giant spiders crawled towards him, and green alien monstrosities hovered, ready for Noir’s command to strike.

He had to go on.

Well tough shit, Jack, you can’t go on. You have a severe cut on your forearm, a shattered cheekbone, you practically can’t breathe from the dirt up your nose, your thigh is gravely injured, there’s a poison dart in your neck and running through your veins is its venom, and let’s not forget that your hand has been cut off.

This, my friends, is what I call a case of If You Think Your Protagonist Will Survive This, You Are Not Schooled In The Basic Principles Of Human Life. Or as I like to say, IYTYPWSTYANSITBPOHL.

(Not really.)

How many of you readers out there were getting sick of the unrealistic portrayal of human survival and the supposed power of love? How many of you clearly realized that at this point, there is no way that Noir could realistically lose? I mean the guy has aliens and giant spiders on his side, not to mention that Jack  was beyond a doubt heavily incapacitated. There isn’t even a convincing Deus Ex Machina that can be used to save him now, no way for his hand to grow back, or the poison that was only sped up by his running to be flushed out.

In point, Jack is dead. There is no possible way for him to live. In fact, he shouldn’t even be running. In fact, he should be passed out in that ditch he fell into at the beginning of the scene. Right around the time where he stopped being able to breathe.

As always, my example is very, very exaggerated, but what I’m trying to convey is that if you’re going to hurt your protagonist, do some research to make sure he can survive what you throw at him. There have been quite a few times when, both in movies and books, I’d do a double take when I’d see the hero still running after an arrow through his thigh. Injuries have to be realistic and they have to be done in such a way that the reader doesn’t get desensitized to the hero’s pain. If you write a book where all throughout, your hero gets hurt a lot, and then at the time of the epic battle, the hero is broken almost to the point of surrender, it won’t have as much impact as if earlier in the novel the hero wasn’t so beaten up all the time. When it comes time for the threat of the hero to be forced into submission, a way to create the sense of total despair and longing for a victory for the good side is to hurt the hero in a way that leaves him almost unable to win. But if you’ve been hurting him severely all throughout the book, beating him up as badly at the end, or even more so, won’t have a strong impression on the reader, and can give the writing a sense of absurdism and gratuitous gore.

As with everything, this is a case by case. If your novel is all about battles and injuries, and there’s a valid reason for the hero to be thrown around so much, that’s fine. But you need to keep your character’s tolerance of physical suffering consistent. You can’t have them bravely soldier on after a bullet to the stomach in one scene and then crying from a rug burn in the next. But then you also have to realize that when it comes to the end of the novel, you need to find a weak point that isn’t physical. The hero has to be broken in a way that he hasn’t been broken before for the ending to have its full effect. This is the only way that the end will be satisfying.

Consider it like this. What if I told you that that scene with Jack and Noir wasn’t, in fact, an ending scene as it sounds, but something closer to the beginning of the novel? And now imagine if there were another dozen scenes like that. You’d get sick of the violence. It’s unnecessary. And imagine that the final confrontation isn’t a battle of the wits, but a battle of brute force as they all have been throughout the rest of the book.

This is a perfect example of IYTYPWSTYANSITBPOHL.

So the next time you want to lop off the leg of a character, consider the consequences thoroughly. Is it too much? Is it unrealistic? Will he have other injuries? Will he be able to continue being the hero without a leg?

Think about it. The last thing you want your character to be known for is that one who just constantly gets the shit kicked out of him.


Biljana Likic is an aspiring author, currently revising her first novel, TIME IS A FUNNY THING. She is in her first year of university, where she can’t wait till she’s out so she’ll finally have all the time in the world to write. You can visit her blog here and follow her on Twitter here.


22 Responses to “If You Think Your Protagonist Will Survive This, You Are Not Schooled In The Basic Principles Of Human Life”

  1. M. Howalt January 3, 2011 at 6:00 AM #

    Brilliant post! I literally laughed out loud at the fictional scene in the beginning. Your points are really good, and I appreciate the “case by case” approach. Sometimes a considerable amount of violence is necessary, sometimes a protagonist is in fact physically superior (or supernatural), but as with every other creative adventure it is almost imperative to know the rules to break them successfully.

    • Biljana January 3, 2011 at 2:48 PM #

      Well said about the rules. Glad you enjoyed the article!

      • M. Howalt January 3, 2011 at 4:03 PM #

        Thanks! And I quite did. 🙂

  2. Kat Zhang January 3, 2011 at 6:30 AM #

    If you ever decide to publish a writing guide book with Carol, Noir, and Jack, I’ll totally chip in ;D Hilarious and lovely, as always!

    • Biljana January 3, 2011 at 2:49 PM #

      Hahahahahaha I think I’ll need a bit more experience :P. Although I’m beginning to be very attached to the three of them!

  3. Marc Vun Kannon January 3, 2011 at 7:04 AM #

    A similar disconnect results when an attack is made, or something else happens, which would have grave and life-threatening consequences for Our Hero and his shirt doesn’t even get torn! It sort of ruined Die Hard 4 for me when MacClane threw himself out of the car at 70 mph and came up not even scraped.

    Marc Vun Kannon

  4. Savannah J. Foley January 3, 2011 at 9:33 AM #

    I read a cracked.com article just the other day about injuries that heroes should die from, but don’t in movies. Like loss of limb. And some other stuff I forget 😛

    As always, it was great to see what Noir/Jack/Carol are up to!

    • Biljana January 3, 2011 at 2:51 PM #

      Yeah I just linked that article to Marc above! My friend showed it to me after she read this. Glad you liked it!

  5. Heather January 3, 2011 at 11:58 AM #

    Yay, Jack, Carol and Noir! I’ve learnt so much from them! 😉
    I don’t think I’ve seen IYTYPWSTYANSITBPOHL very much in books, but I once read a fanfiction story where a character had his arm sliced off, and then shrugged (how did he even manage that with no arm?) and kept going as if nothing had happened.

    • Biljana January 3, 2011 at 2:52 PM #

      Ohhhh fanfiction hahaha. What hasn’t it done? 😀

  6. Julie Eshbaugh January 3, 2011 at 1:20 PM #

    I think I’ve mentioned this in comments here before, but right after my car accident this summer, I always noticed the unrealistic abilities of characters to walk away from accidents. However, there are some characters that I expect that from (Jason Bourne comes to mind,) and, for them, I can suspend my disbelief in rather unrealistic circumstances. I don’t think that works for too many heroes, though. (Um… in fact, I’m not sure I can think of any other non-super-hero examples!) Great post, Biljana! 🙂

    • Biljana January 3, 2011 at 2:54 PM #

      Yeah, that’s the thing, the actual force your body would take in from that kind of stuff is pretty damn strong. If it’s strong enough to lift you off your feet and throw you some distance away, your coordination probably won’t be too good for the next little bit. Unless you’re Jason Bourne :).

  7. Mac_V January 4, 2011 at 1:43 AM #

    Once the Ninja Stars and the Giant Spiders and the Aliens starting coming I think I was rolling on the floor in pain from merely laughing. I hate to think how Jack was feeling. This post made me smile all day. You give the greatest over exaggerated examples and they never fail to make me rewind through everything I’ve ever written and pray I haven’t done something like this… as far as I can think, I haven’t, but I may have blocked it out. You never know. Thanks for the awesome advice. 🙂

    Mac 🙂

    • Biljana January 4, 2011 at 5:31 PM #

      Every time I write one of these I’m terrified that I’ve done what I’ve ridiculed at some point in my MS! And it makes me super happy that these make you laugh so much :D. Thanks for reading!

  8. Rowenna January 4, 2011 at 10:03 AM #

    Great post, so funny! I mean, you can write a little pain and injury off to adrenaline or training or whatnot…but at some point the human body does give out! It always frustrates me, too, when characters survive without medical attention or recuperating…yes, that severe gash across your arm was survivable, but not without some first aid and antibiotics (or a nasty bout with an icky infection…)

    • Biljana January 4, 2011 at 5:33 PM #

      YES, that’s another thing I hate! Infection and stuff gets overlooked sometimes because of how far along medicine is nowadays. It’s not like it’s impossible, just less likely.

  9. lostinbelieving January 5, 2011 at 7:42 PM #

    Gah, I so agree with you guys. I wonder how characters magically survive through all of that.

  10. Landon January 6, 2011 at 9:25 PM #

    I read on a site recently (actually, this may just be common sense) that if you’re passed out for more than five minutes there’s probably something really wrong with you. I’d never realized this before, and looking back, I saw that it happens in like EVERY MOVIE OR NOVEL EVER.

    • Vanessa January 12, 2011 at 5:37 PM #

      That’s so true. There are so many characters who get knocked unconscious for DAYS! And who are they relatively fine!

  11. Vanessa January 12, 2011 at 5:41 PM #

    B, I meant to comment on this post a while ago, because it made me laugh out loud. And then I continued to smile the rest of the day because I kept thinking about it.

    I find that in fantasy, there can often be a lot of unrealistic injuries (probably because of all the swords and magic and horses and whatnot, you know? :p). But still – even with all of that hocus pocus, it needs to be plausible.

    It reminds me of the whole movie thing where people are ALWAYS walking away in slow motion from things blowing up. Yeah… totally unrealistic.

    • Biljana January 13, 2011 at 12:42 AM #

      Yep. Walking away in slow motion as the world explodes is definitely not only impossible and unrealistic, but totally cliche.

      And I’m glad I made you smile :D.

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