Properly describing pain can be difficult, considering that we tend to forget what various injuries actually feel like after they heal. This is a blessing, as no one really wants to remember the quality and severity of pain as if they’re re-experiencing it. However, it can be useful to know how to describe pain for writing purposes, as writers tend to enjoy mauling their poor characters.
There are various qualities and severities of pain. You can think of them as different flavors and textures of ice cream—ice cream comes in many flavors (chocolate, strawberry, vanilla, etc) and the texture may vary, depending upon the addition of things like nuts and fudge.
Qualities of pain include:
- Tearing—ripping or pulling apart
- Searing—brief, intense heat
- Crushing—pain feels “heavy”
- Localized—the pain occurs in only one part of the body
- Radiating—the pain spreads over other parts of the body
Severity of pain can range from mild to moderate to severe, and medical professionals often use a scale of 1-10 for adult patients, with, for example, 1 being a mild headache and 10 being the worst pain the patient has ever felt. Understanding the qualities and severities of pain are useful to diagnosis in the real world, and using them to describe what your characters are feeling adds realism.
Many disorders and injuries have pain that is very specific to them, and it would be wise to research the pain symptomatic of your character’s particular disorder or injury. For example, men having heart attacks commonly experience a crushing chest pain that radiates down the left arm, and appendicitis is often experienced as a sharp, stabbing pain in the right lower quadrant of the abdomen.
Pain is also very relative. Individuals may report different severities of pain for the same types of injuries. I’ve heard some patients after open heart surgery request as much pain medication as we can legally give them, while others only require a Tylenol.
How patients express feeling pain can be helpful for characterization. For example, a strong and stoic character might have a horrific injury, but only show that they are in pain by clenching their fists. On the other hand, a character unused to pain or injury may whine and grimace a lot about a papercut.
Some ways of expressing pain include:
- Guarding—shielding the injured/painful area with hands or arms
- Shouting or whispering
- Clenched fists
- Gritted or bared teeth
- Light skinned characters may go pale or gray, while dark skinned characters may go gray or their lips may be purplish
- Thousand yard stare
- Facial grimacing or wincing
- Moaning or crying
- Limited range of motion
- Decrease in appetite
Other things to consider include whether anything improves or worsens the pain (such as holding an injured limb immobile or flexing it, or elevating it), whether the pain is continuous or intermittent (meaning coming in waves or flashes), and symptoms associated with extreme pain, like nausea or vomiting.
I hope this has been helpful, and remember that the most important part of torturing your wretched characters is to have fun!