Are You in Pain?

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Are you in Pain? Question for your character.

So, I’m sitting at the hosptial, waiting for my husband to follow in Harry Smith’s footsteps and get the Couric Procedure (screening colonoscopy). Every wall has a sign asking, “Are you in pain?

  • 0 No Pain/Happy face
  • 1-3 Mild Pain/straight line mouth
  • 4-6 Moderate pain/small frown
  • 7-9 Severe pain/big frown
  • 10 Worst pain/deep frown and tears

http://www.flickr.com/photos/houseofsims/3989182966/
Of course, it made me think about character pain.

Physical pain may or may not be present in a story. But it’s the emotional pain that creates strong stories.

No pain. In general, a character should never feel a 0 on the Pain Scale, even in the opening; well, maybe in the conclusion, but even there, characters often has residual pain.

Mild pain. This is appropriate for the opening of a story, before the conflict which sends the character into act 2. It’s also appropriate for the conclusion, where the story is wrapped up. You’d never want this for the middle of the story or especially the climax.

Moderate pain. Act 2 should be characerized by at least this level of pain throughout, with mild or severe pain for places of emotional rest or stress.

Severe pain. Act 2 and 3 should have spikes of severe pain, as the emotional crisis of the story heats up.

Worst pain. This would normally be reserved for the climax of the story.

Subjective Scale

The pain scale is a subjective scale, asking a patient how much s/he hurts. My husband has a higher pain threshold than I do, for sure. And my number 10 is about his number 5. Likewise, there are stories with severe pain scales and some with mild pain scales. A pain scale for a children’s picture book is very different from a pain scale for a horror story.

Pain Scale Determines Main Character

It’s also helpful to consider the pain scale when thinking about which character is the main character. In general, the character who hurts the most should be the main character. Ask each of your characters to rate their pain at key points throughout the story. Which one has the most pain? Could the story be stronger with a different main character? If there characters with no pain or only mild pain, could you either delete that character or find a way to add emotional pain?

5 Comments
  • Lyn South
    March 16, 2010

    Great post, Darcy! Your character pain scale is going to come in handy with my WIP. Oh, and I tweeted this, too! :-)

  • Lisa Green
    March 16, 2010

    I love this advice! Right away I was able to question the pain scale of my MC in my WIP and was delighted to find out that the proportion of torture to arc was right on target. It feels mean sometimes to put the characters through so much, but that is how they learn and since they are strong, they can handle it!

  • Karen Akins
    March 16, 2010

    What a great visual!

  • Karyn Lewis
    March 16, 2010

    I’ve had to rate my own pain with that chart, but I find it even more useful the way you’re using it in terms of characters. Fantastic post. It resonated with me immediately, especially with a problem character I’m having. He has zero pain at the start, and I didn’t realize it until I read this. -k.

  • Melissa Hed
    July 27, 2013

    Just found this post, Darcy. Thanks for providing a simple guide. This will come in handy when I’m plotting emotional arcs.
    2 ::thumbs up::