One of my more favored authors is Alistair MacLean. When he’s at the top of his game, like in “The Guns of Navarone,” “Circus,” “When Eight Bells Toll,” or “Where the Eagles Dare,” he’s amazing. When he’s not, well, let’s just say I don’t recommend “Goodbye California” and “Athabasca.”
One of the things he does well, however, that I rarely see authors include is make his heroes fatigued. The fatigue could be seen as a dodge to make it easier for them to make mistakes that help drive the plot, perhaps. But he does a good job of making you feel how tired the main character is.
In this same vein, when one of my sisters read “The Stand” by Stephen King, she said it entranced her so well that she would look up and think, “What are all these people doing here? Everyone is dead!”
As an aspiring writer, I want to be able to do that. So I set out to write a section of a story with an exhausted combatant.
The inspiration was somewhat based on this event from my own life. I had so much to do, and I couldn’t stop until I finished the work for the day. I just kept going. I got tired, then weary, then exhausted. I got to the point where I had to stop and rest. But energy would return after even just a 30 second rest. The thing is, the energy span you get after a rest gets shorter and shorter. You get so tired your arms just go limp when you aren’t lifting something. If you sit down, you risk falling asleep if you close your eyes even for a second. Your skin chafes. You get blisters, and just keep moving…your brain sort of switches off the pain notifications. By the end of the day, you are truly spent. To the point that you try to eat a hamburger and have to go vomit.
And then you get up and do it again the next day.
Your body has truly astounding reserves of energy. There’s almost always more you can call on in need. But every movement takes an effort of will. Just standing becomes difficult.
I wanted to capture that. Here’s an attempt:
Another opponent. He staggered toward me, barely able to lift his axe off the ground. I knew my shield had sagged to the point of leaving my upper body exposed, but I couldn’t find enough energy to lift it any higher. He summoned a burst of energy to swing the axe upward in an arc, letting the momentum and its own weight bring the axe blade down toward me, inexorably obeying gravity to try to bite deeply into the metal of my armor, and the relative softness of my flesh underneath.
But I was no longer in the axe’s target point. I had pushed off with my exhausted and cramping left leg, and gathered enough power to move my body out of the way. I yanked my sword arm up, so the point was no longer pointing at my feet, and fell foward, reaching out with the point for a spot on his side, just above his belt. I managed to get my foot up in time to place in front of me to prevent falling on my face. As my sword point cut through cloth and parted hide, I twisted my body to add force, trying to make it go deeper.
The axe head hit the ground, and his body followed it a second later.
I stared stupidly at his dying body, only dimly aware of other things happening on the periphery of my vision. Unable to hold my arms up a second more, I let them both drop by my side. I lifted my eyes to my surroundings, willing my head to follow, and looked around me. I squeezed my eyes shut tightly to try to rid myself of the stinging sweat dripping down from underneath my helment. I couldn’t lift my arm to wipe away the sweat without dropping my sword, and I didn’t want to do that. Not until the encampment behind me was safe.
The closest enemy combatants were no closer than a half-dozen yards away, all engaged with different members of my company. I had time to feel and catalog all my pain and discomfort.
My right hand ached from gripping the hilt of my sword, and a blister had formed and burst on the webbing between thumb and forefinger. The sweat begain to sting. My left arm ached from the blows absorbed by my shield. I’m sure the arm itself was mottled with black and purple bruising. A dozen or more nicks and cuts; nothing deep nor serious, or I would not be able to stand, but with a growing pain, the longer I had time to think and experience the sensations, undistracted. My head ached where the leather band in my helmet rested. My shoulders burned with exhaustion. I would have given my right arm for an M-58 and three clips of seeker rounds, but we ran out of ammo two years ago, and the metal from the rifles salvaged for medieval arms not long after.
I breathed deeply, trying to find oxygen to regain my wind. I buried the point of my sword in the dirt, and fell to one knee, gripping the crossguard and bowing to rest my head against the hilt. I closed my eyes. I could feel sleep stealing about the edges of my consciousness, ready to dart in and drag me down into blessed oblivion of sight, sound, sense, and pain. The dizziness made my head spin, I felt the sensation of falling…
…and snapped my eyes open. It would help no one if I fell asleep at this moment. As exhausted as I was, I had slept more recently than most.
I saw man, clad in enemy colors, trudge up the hill toward me. He ignored my engaged compatriots and came right for me. He raised his sord to point it at my head.
Show-off. If he were half as exhausted as I, he would regret the wasteful display of excess energy only long enough for his life blood to leak into the sandy soil.
I put the effort of my whole body into standing up. I still leaned against the sword, as if a cane, with its point still lodged in earth, as my determined opponent approached me. I could see his eyes light up as I refused to pull my sword, saw the wolfish grin as I let my shield fall, as if from nerveless fingers. He pulled his arm back, and thrust as he stepped forward…
…to pierce the air where I had been. The knife I had drawn with my left hand and concealed along my forearm twirled out, and I let his momentum carry him onto the point, driving it deeply into his heart. He fell, and I lost my grip on the knife.
I didn’t want to bend over to pick it up, fearing I might fall over. I stood where I was, still gasping for air, still trying to marshall my energy for my next opponent.
I turned and looked behind me at the summit of the knoll. The defensive wall still stood, and the orange and yellow flag still flew. It was weighted, and held aloft by a rotating set of the older children. Had a wall breach threatened, or even worse, broken through, the child would have let go the rope to make some pitiful attempt at defense, and the flag would be in the dirt. Our children remained safe and unmolested.
I turned back to the battlefield, and saw two more warriors notice me, and begin walking toward me. My breathing had still not slowed to normal, but I had regained a little energy; enough to retrieve and sheath my knife, and even enough to shrug into the battered shield.
The first reached me, and I had gained enough energy to knock his javelin thrust to the side before stabbing him in the throat. He fell to the ground, and the next was upon me.
He swung, and I parried. I thought I saw an opening and jerked the sword up and around in a path to hit him just above his shield, but he raised his shield arm to deflect, while ducking under the rebound. I had to use energy, too much, to stop the sword from dragging me all the way around. My sword and shield drooped again.
His dropped, as well. Early in the battle, I would have made him pay for the poor defense, but then, I would have paid for my own.
We stood, facing each other, gasping for breath. Two men. One who turned his back on humanity and civilization, one who defended the last remnants of it. I thought of Sarah, back in the encampment, and the hell I was certain waited for her if I fell. I ignored the seat in my eyes, ignored the pain in hands, and lifted my sword for another attack.
I drove him back with the ferocity of my attack, pushing him to the edge of the nearby gully that guarded our left flank, but even my adrenaline frenzy drained away quickly. I had to end this quickly. I took a chance.
I beat his sword out of line, and thrust. He recovered, more quickly than I hoped, nearly as quickly as I feared. His sword sliced my side as mine slid between his ribs. He fell backward, and my sword stuck on his ribs, dragging it from my grasp. I let go as soon as I felt it stick, but it threw off my balance. I staggered foward, tried to catch myself, stumbled, and fell onto the steep slope.
I grabbed for anything I could, but my grasping fingers met only the body of my last opponent, pulling him down with me. I tumbled for a few dozen yards before tubmling into a crack between two boulders, the body of my opponent on top of me. I tried to push him off, but with one arm wedged beneath me and trapped by the boulders, I couldn’t summon up enough strength to move him. I closed my eyes to rest a moment before trying again.
When I opened them again, it was night. All was still. There were no sounds of battle.
This time I was able to wiggle my way out from beneath the dead weight. Being so close to the galaxy’s core, the stars were bright enough for me to slowly, and mostly silently, clamber my way to the top of the ravine. I looked up at the encampment. No lights, but in the starlight, it was clear: the flag was down.
I let the other Bushis read it, and I think we all agree: there’s something good there, but overall, it’s clunky and overwritten. I think I’m going to distill this down to a page-length or so, then write about the pursuit and rescue.
But what are your thoughts?
Of course, we don’t write about normal body functions in a story, but has anything in your life ever been disrupted by having to use the bathroom? How about being sick? How about being exhausted?
If it can happen in real life, why shouldn’t it happen in your story?
I have mixed feelings. I think I’m happy that we don’t talk about urinating and excreting in most stories. It just gets ignored, right? On the other hand, could it increase the verisimilitude? Or add further plot complications? Could it be done tastesfully?
What do you do to help your readers *feel* what your characters are going through? What should be out of bounds for inclusion, when it comes to bodily functions?