Pushing Your Characters to Extreme Limits

I read a book yesterday where the main character pushed beyond the limits of her body, took it to the extreme edge, hobbled on in severe pain with a high fever, no food, and no rest. I enjoyed the story but found  myself thinking, "Come on. Do you seriously expect me to believe this?"

Popular fiction often pushes its characters beyond the boundaries of endurance, but I have to wonder if I'm alone. Am I the only one who experiences a moment of doubt or considers these extremes ridiculous?

Why do we read, or write, these stories?

We don't like to read about normal people.

People want to relate to the character, but they want the character to be the best version of them. An ideal that no one can measure up to. We love hearing about someone who pushes on in the face of adversity.

I read a lot.  (Anyone who writes should read a lot, especially in the genre you write, by the way.) Sometimes, I want to roll my eyes. Sometimes, I put the book down. Sometimes, I accept it and read on because I like the story or character.

How far can the writer push the character?

That's a hard question to ask. Many fictional heroes don't sleep, don't eat, don't deal with injuries and keep on going. In the fantasy genre, this happens a lot with supernaturals. It's part of their powers to be stronger than mere humans. But fantasy isn't the only genre depicting characters pushing beyond the limits of endurance.  Historical novels, mysteries, and thrillers bend the rules, too.

Sometimes I go with it, but I have to ask how many times can a character suffer a serious injury, one that requires surgery, and decline the surgery, slap a bandage on it and push on? Worse yet, they awaken after a serious injury, their caretaker instructs them to rest, but they ignore the doctor's admonition and hop up ready to fight.

I've had surgery. You don't pop from the table and run around like a healthy person. Even if you do feel pretty good after surgery, you suffer the consequences of further injury if you don't rest and recuperate. Yet, book after book shows the hero pushing through, ignoring the stitches, the sprained ankle, the weakness of their injuries.

Then there are the characters who push on for days with no sleep. They want sleep, they think about sleep, but they don't have time to do it. We have those nights when sleep evades us. The next day isn't easy. Imagine you didn't sleep for three days, or you only got a thirty minute nap in the span of several days. Caffeine might help, but at some point, you crash. Your body craves sleep. To ignore it is hazardous to your health and to the lives of others.

What about adrenaline?

Writers use adrenaline as the source of these amazing feats. The body releases adrenaline into the blood stream in response to stress. It pours into our blood and gives us the fight or flight impulse. Of course, characters in stories chooses the fight tactic. If they choose flight, we're disappointed in them. They've let us down. I get it. It's exciting. It's interesting. It hooks the reader, but I'm afraid we've gone a bit too far with our use of adrenaline to sustain a character for long periods of time.

Can we perform amazing feats due to adrenaline? Normal people have used superhuman strength to lift a car off of a loved one. Adrenaline provided the ability. Someone, against all odds, survives a horrific accident in the wild and walks out with severe injuries. Sometimes, the person cut off a limb or managed to use a tree branch to secure a broken leg.

This is the will to live boosted by adrenaline.

Without adrenaline and the will to live, these acts fall into the realm of impossible. It can happen, but it doesn't happen every day, and a person can't sustain it for long stretches of time. That burst of energy from adrenaline is fleeting.

A lot of adrenaline pouring into your blood stream for an extended period of time is a bad thing. People with too much adrenaline in the blood stream suffer from insomnia, extreme nervousness, heart problems, dangerous blood pressure levels, and other severe illnesses. Not exactly what our heroes depict is it?

It's just not possible.

What do you think?

Have you read a story like this and accepted the extremes? Why or why not?


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