A friend brought up something I hadn’t considered before: damage to the human body incurred while exiting a moving vehicle and what that looks like, for writing purposes. I hadn’t really given it much thought before, because reasons. Dorothy Grant was in the same conversation however and she suggested looking at motorcycle accidents, then tied it into writing and what changes she had to introduce so her character could survive the event. I’m going to expound on that, because a baseline needs to be established. And because, as I’ve learned at LTUE from the various panels, no single person knows everything. Part of what helps others is sharing your knowledge about a specific given topic.
My experience in the matter was learned over the family dinner table, courtesy my father. I’ve called him Daddy since I was a little boy, was strongly reinforced by John Wayne’s Big Jake, and at 33, I still call my father “Daddy” as in “Where’s the money, Daddy?”
By way of introduction, Daddy is a collision investigator for LAPD. If you crash in the San Fernando Valley, he (or somebody he trained) will likely be the responder. Up until the time I left home at 19, I could count on lessons at dinner time on what happens when you drive recklessly, intoxicated, etcetera. Complete with diagrams utilizing Hot Wheels cars, and my mother’s flatware. It also started my association with extreme dark humor. Sidenote: when I came home from Afghanistan in late 2011, my mother greeted me at the door with a hug, a kiss and a “thank Heaven you’re home! You’re father needs somebody to laugh at his stories from work!” Dinner was eventful that night.
Now, imagine if you will, Southern California circa 2003 or 2004, round about March (iirc); visualize a Hayabusa, traveling at an extremely high rate of speed down an LA street. Because it’s a Busa, you can reasonably expect it to hit 100 mph in a short amount of time. Which this intrepid fellow did. He was wearing neither helmet, nor safety gear. Yes folks, the rider stepped out on the hurricane deck of an overpowered Hell Rocket wearing flip-flops, a tank top shirt, and denim shorts. None of which helped when, while traveling well over 100 mph down an LA residential street, he hit a pothole with the front tire.
Mr. Intrepid left the Busa and went airborne. Thrice. We’ll come back to that in a moment.
The Busa also went airborne, before beginning a series of front flips. Strike, flip, strike, flip. It came to a rest in the back of a Pizza Delivery Boy’s hatchback a hundred feet further down the street. Totaled both vehicles. By his own admission, he had time to look up, barely recognize what was flying toward him, and then it hit. I’ll let you contemplate the extreme amount of force involved with that, and the speed necessary to achieve such results with a bike weighing 250 kilos on a full tank of gas.
We now return to Mr. Intrepid: he’s now left the bike. A second or so later, he hit asphalt, then went back into the air. The speed and angle were such that it was like a flat rocks skip across water. He is still moving at a terrific rate of speed when he falls victim to gravity and hits the asphalt. AGAIN. With every hit clothing is being ripped off his body, and his skin is being abraded by asphalt. The street itself is being used as a static power sanding belt! Still his body rises, and he continues to fly up into the air. For the third time.
THIS DID NOT KILL HIM.
Slamming into the Mansfield Bar of a Penske moving truck, torso first?
THAT DID NOT KILL HIM.
I see a hand up in the back. What’s your question Yoo Hoo? “Isn’t ‘torso first’ impossible?” Folks, check it out- this is not a perfect sphere in a frictionless, airless environment striking a perfectly smooth surface. This is a human body: it has multiple angles, all of them colliding with the asphalt paved LA street in a multiplicity of ways. Which means that when the body comes off the ground, it can have turned across any of several axes, whilst maintaining rotation and speed. A leg flailing in the air is going to have just as much an effect as the rudder on a boat cutting through the water. All of that comes into play. So yes, Yoo Hoo, going torso first long ways against the back end of a semi truck is not unreasonable in this circumstance.
He was still alive when the ambulance driver and EMTs scraped his body off the Mansfield bar. He was still alive when his Latin mother arrived at the hospital with a Catholic priest from her diocese to deliver Last Rites. She could identify him by a few of his unique tattoos, the most prominent of which was inverted and mutilated Christ on his inner forearm. Daddy said it was like looking at one big pile of road rash. Mr. Intrepid might’ve been comatose at the moment, but he wasn’t dead when she stepped into the room. Bones shattered, body smashed and organ systems shutting down, he still wasn’t quite dead yet.
Mr. Intrepid died somewhere in the middle of Last Rites. Daddy was standing in the hospital room when it happened. What really killed Mr. Intrepid was the combination of all the damage, occurring in a single event. The sheer shock and trauma of the whole ordeal overwhelmed his body. That can and does happen in any number of incidents, including IED strikes. Marine might have no obvious physical damage, but internally the trauma is such, on so small a body (say 120-130 pounds), that shock overwhelms the system and the victim is rendered dead.
Now, as tragic as this was, it serves for an excellent object lesson on just how much punishment the body can take. A young adult male in his mid-20s, reasonably fit, died in a hospital from all of that. Oh the EMTs and the responding officers were fairly certain he was going to die, but he wasn’t legitimately dead YET.
This also serves as a guidepost on characters and the benefit of armor. Dorothy described her creation of “armor cloth” (for a sci-fi story this is brilliant). If you want a character to survive ejection from a motorcycle at 100+ mph, how well-armored do they need to be? Is it the right kind of armor ie does it absorb kinetic energy in such a way as to render that energy harmless to the wearer, or does it simply stop knives/projectiles. Oh by the way, those are very different sets of armor in a contemporary setting, so you’ll either need to invent something new with new rules, or adjust what happens in the story Will your character be bouncing across asphalt/concrete/cement, or landing in loose powdery snow? Or do you need to go back a little further and rewrite the scene to better set up what happens next?
Another area not so well-talked about is this: how physically developed is the character going to be? This is a valid question, and a bone I’d love to pick with Hollywood screenwriters: It typically happens with female characters, and Your strawweight waif of a woman does not have the skeletal structure or musculature necessary to do what you show on screen. Unless she’s been modified in a super secret lab with artificial somethings or received powers from a divine being/device, the sheer majority of your characters do not work as portrayed or presented. Wonder Woman (as portrayed by Gal Godot) was more believable, but her upgrades were more particular, better defined, and pertinent to her character. Johansson’s Black Widow, while enjoyable visually in terms of spectacle was not believable in terms of her responses to targets.
Now that we’ve explained that, take a look at an extremely fit man who would fall under the classification of “super heavyweight”. We’ll call him Mr. Behemoth. In a car accident, the vehicle crumples around him. And when he finally gets out, he’s going to be walking away from an accident that would have seen little Ms. Strawweight break multiple bones. Sure, he’ll be sore the next day, he might have some bruising, but he won’t take the physical damage the same way and to the same extent Ms. Strawweight will. Daddy has dealt with that on a few separate occasions over the last 29 years, which is part of what inspired me to begin strength training at 15. Brock Lesnar is going to receive physical trauma differently than Conor McGregor. Links to their respective pages at Sherdog have been provided so you can comprehend what that looks like. Yes, Lesnar is just that big. He’ll handle the same volume of trauma differently. He’s got roughly 110 more pounds on his frame to spread out the damage.
Authors need to be conscious of these specific elements, because such details are relevant to the reader’s involvement in the story. If our characters are to be believable and relevant to the story, accurate physical description and ability is a must. Compare physical description of a character with their specific events- do the two match in terms of what the character is doing? If not, how do we adjust the story to match the character? Or do we keep story the same and adjust the character? What if it’s part of that character’s development?
Maybe Ms. Strawweight needs to break a leg, but the time spent in recuperation is what allows her to think through the problem and plan her revenge, allowing you to demonstrate another aspect of her character, developing her further and showing us the reader that she’s not a flat, two-dimensional being, but multi-faceted, complex and dynamic. Maybe Mr. Behemoth was gonna skip out on the big heist because he’s retired. But wait, somebody wrecked his favorite car with him in it! Now he wants somebody’s head for a hood ornament, and a new car. Congrats your five-man band now has it’s drummer! Oh and by the way, he walked away with only bruises so he can immediately start beating somebody’s ass like a Tongan War Drum! This in turn affects the pacing and speed of various story arcs as well.
In fact, how far reaching this event will be remains your choice. You have a series of decisions you need to make based on all these questions. Remember that mileage varies from one person to another. Exercise good craftsmanship in all that you do.