So realism is sort of important in stories. Now, before I hear cries of: “But this is fantasy! The imagination is the limit!” I would agree, but I feel things still need to at least pretend to make sense. I can express how much I dislike the hand wave of ‘a wizard did it.’
True some things aren’t ever going to make sense completely. We as a people haven’t pinpointed how the earth came into being, or how man became what we are. I’m not taking about those unanswered questions. I’m talking about finer details. Specifically damage incurred in battle.
Let’s make a quick hop to video games to provide visual representation.
I have an issue with the concept of the lifebar. Sometimes, it is invisible. In my opinion those are the worst offenders. Recently I watched my significant other steamroll through the new Tomb Raider game. It made real steps towards realism and empathy. When Laura Croft gets wounded in that game you can practically feel it. And that goes without saying. Her mortality is showcased well but then you get into a gun fight.
She becomes the token invincible hero.
Don’t get me wrong. I think characters should be tough, but I don’t think they should be bullet sponges. There needs to be a way to express this mortality throughout the story / game within reason.
Bushido Blade, a Playstation game took this to an extreme. One fatal slash, and you die. I have a suitable compromise though. One that I’d love to see games and fiction use. The redefinition of the lifebar.
When you’re dealing with someone experienced and formidable, they have training at their disposal. (Assuming the character in question isn’t a young savant that has inexplicable invincibility.) I never understood why this training couldn’t simply form a layer. For the sake of simplicity I will call it ‘layers of defense’.
Human beings shouldn’t have a defined durability meter. This makes them less than human. However there are aspects about humanity that can effectively be measured. Endurance, tools, and mental stability for example. I’m reminded of a old Nintendo Gamecube game called Eternal Darkness that was a step in the right direction. The sanity meter even gave you amusing visual effects to let the player get in on the sensation of crazy.
Back to the main point, you don’t need make a character less mortal to make them impressive. The concept I use to make characters believably awesome is their ability to avoid harm. Naturally this is a moot point if the person is literally immortal, or resilient to wounds. But not every story features those kind of people. I personally tend to avoid writing about them.
Ordinary people doing extraordinary things is my personal mantra.
In a story it is difficult to care about a wound if it means nothing. When a character gets stabbed or shot it should be tragic or a point of triumph, not a mere chip in the pile. In terms of a video game getting shot should mean a ‘Game Over’ or a major hindrance that makes it difficult to move on. Dying in a game certainly means that, so in a story it is doubly so.
With the layers of defense I hold mortality in high regard. Instead of being a matter of how much damage the hero can soak, but rather how well the hero avoids harm. It doesn’t need to be a matter of just ‘how much they can dodge’. The layer could take on many factors, such as heavy armor or how long they can parry incoming attacks.
When you look at it this way, it requires almost no change to the mechanics of the ‘lifebar’. Without making the hero seem fragile and vulnerable, it makes them mortal.