Sometimes I want to make it seem like a character might die — but hey, guess what! She makes it! A lot of fiction writers, especially those who write fantasy, science fiction, thrillers, and Westerns, like to write about surviving almost fatal injuries.
Pin or bookmark this post for future reference if you like this kind of plot point! I will probably add to it as I get more ideas. This post is not for the squeamish, though, so please don’t read through it if you think it might upset you. I’m just trying to save you some Googling time so you have more writing time.
I’ve included links to what seem to be credible sources. In a few cases, I haven’t linked to the source because it’s so upsetting or it contains disturbing images, which you won’t find here.
Please note that this post is for WRITING PURPOSES ONLY and is NOT MEDICAL ADVICE, which I am COMPLETELY UNQUALIFIED TO GIVE. I am just a lady who looks things up on the Internet.
With all of these, I am assuming that the injury is happening to a relatively healthy, non-elderly person. If you have suggestions or additions, please let me know. If you are a medical professional and believe something needs to be changed, let me know that, too!
Blood loss (for any reason.)
After your character loses about 2 pints of blood, he is likely to go into shock. If he’s not losing blood at too fast of a rate, he will likely not go into the kind of severe shock that would kill him. He can believably survive a loss of up to 3 pints without a transfusion. It’s very likely he’ll pass out, be cold to the touch, and have a weak pulse, so your other characters might have a scary moment or two of thinking he is dead before they realize that he’s still breathing.
Bear in mind that if your character is cut in the jugular vein, the brachial artery in the armpit, the femoral artery in the thigh, or one of the aorta, he is likely to bleed out too fast to be saved.
Head and face wounds bleed like crazy, because there are are a lot of blood vessels close to the skin, which can make minor head and face injuries seem worse than they really are.
Cauterizing a wound might help him from bleeding out, but he also might get an infection that kills him. Until he can get stitched up, pressure and bandages are usually a better idea.
Your character can survive a shot in the arm or the leg unless she gets hit in a major artery. Chances are great that she will survive a gunshot wound in the torso with prompt medical attention unless she was shot through in the heart (cue Bon Jovi) or, again, in a major artery that makes her bleed out quickly.
Only 5% of people survive a gunshot wound to the head, but with time, some survivors make surprisingly good recoveries. Here’s a good overview of the recovery of Gabby Giffords, a United States Congressperson, from this injury.
Sometimes people even survive multiple gunshot wounds.
Let’s look at some real-life examples. Gandhi was pretty skinny, and he survived a hunger strike of 21 days. It’s possible that he sustained internal damage that I don’t know about. David Blaine starved himself for 44 days (he did have water), and I have not been able to find any mention of permanent damage. (He did damage his liver trying to break the record of holding your breath underwater.)
So your guy can probably go 3 weeks without food and be all right eventually, assuming he has some water. But you can’t have him sit down to a steak dinner afterward! His system won’t be able to take it. Here’s a report about feeding David Blaine after his long fast.
Food poisoning (E. coli infection.)
Your character is not at all likely to die, unless he is quite old, but he may have an awful week.
About 70% of fire-related deaths are caused by smoke inhalation rather than burns. Smoke and heat both rise, so your character has a better chance of surviving if she stays low. She can cover her nose and mouth with a hand, her shirt, or a wet rag if possible, and she can hold her breath for short amounts of time.
Here’s a comprehensive article from the New England Journal of Medicine on probability of death from burn injuries. Britannica.com says: “Most people can survive a second-degree burn affecting 70 percent of their body area, but few can survive a third-degree burn affecting 50 percent. If the area is down to 20 percent, most people can be saved.”
Here’s an account of someone who survived the tragic Station Nightclub Fire of 2003 that killed 100 people and injured over 200 more.
An electric shock can cause both internal and external burns. It might make your character confused or knock her unconscious. A strong shock, such as from a high voltage power line, can cause ventricular fibrillation or cardiac arrest, but if your character is immediately treated with a defibrillator, she can probably survive.
About 90% of people survive being struck by lightning, but they may sustain nerve damage, ruptured eardrums, muscle twitches, memory loss, and personality changes. The late neurologist Oliver Sacks wrote about the fascinating story of a man who was struck by lightning, had a near-death experience, and afterward developed a deep love for music and music composition.
If you want your character to survive an unusually terrible plane crash, here are two stories that might inspire you: a French teenager who was the lone survivor of an airplane crash in the ocean (heartbreakingly, her mother was on the plane), and the sole survivor of a tragic Russian plane crash that killed a hockey team.
There are all kinds of bombs and explosions. Here are three survival stories: a bakery owner whose oven exploded, causing significant property damage; a survivor of Daesh’s horrific attack on a metro station in Brussels, and the survivor of the explosion of the commercial spaceship Virgin Galactic.
Here’s an article on two simple rules to survive a bomb blast in a building.
According to the Center for Disease Control, “The human body can survive relatively high blast overpressure without experiencing barotrauma,” but your character’s ears will probably be ringing, and she will probably have injuries from glass and debris.
Venomous snake and spider bites.
A black widow spider bite will almost certainly not kill your character, but it will cause excruciating muscle cramps. Here’s a firsthand account of a teen bitten by one (related content may contain upsetting images.) Without antivenin, symptoms may last for several days.
Most people survive bites from pit vipers in North America — rattlesnakes, copperheads, and water moccasins. Here’s some information about first aid and treatment, and here’a a good firsthand account about a bad rattlesnake bite and its treatment. Some snake bites are worse than others, depending on how much they latch on and how much venom they get into a person.
Suffocating a person with a pillow is frequently depicted in TV and movies as a quick process, but it really would take 3 to 5 minutes. Your character would likely still be alert after one minute (assuming he doesn’t have a heart attack in response to being smothered.) He could fake being unconscious, wait for his attacker to let up, and then spring on him.
Your character only has a short window of time for survival here. Compressing the two carotid arteries on either side of the windpipe can make her black out in 20 to 40 seconds, and can kill her in 2 to 4 minutes. That’s because those arteries carry most of the blood to the brain.
Hanging is a form of strangulation, unless the sudden pressure on the neck causes cardiac arrest, or unless the neck gets broken (decapitation is also a possibility.) If your character is being hanged, he may lose consciousness at around 10 to 13 seconds and go into convulsions at about 15 seconds. If his friends are rescuing him, they have a very short window to cut him down.
Your character can probably hold her breath from 30 to 90 seconds (assuming she hasn’t trained to hold her breath for longer periods), and she can probably stay conscious underwater from 90 seconds to 2 minutes. Even after your character is unconscious, she will probably be all right if someone drags her out and performs CPR on her within four minutes. After four or five minutes, she begins to run the risk of brain damage.
Here’s something pretty cool, though — if the water’s really cold, she may be under longer and still suffer no brain damage. She should be treated for hypothermia, though.
Note that usually, drowning doesn’t look like drowning — people do not and cannot wave their arms and yell for help. EDIT: People who have almost drowned should be taken to a hospital. You can read about dry drowning here.
Hypothermia and frostbite.
Here are tables from the National Weather Service that show how much time it takes to get frostbite in cold temperatures and hypothermia in cold water. Weirdly enough, according the linked article, “hypothermia can occur at any temperature lower than normal body temperature. Factors like body fat, age, alcohol consumption, and especially wetness can affect how long hypothermia takes to strike.”
Now, let’s talk about…
A Few Ways Your Character Might Seem to Be Dead.
Deep hypothermia can sometimes make a person seem dead.
People who have ingested tetrodotoxin, the poison in pufferfish, have sometimes seemed dead and then made a complete recovery. (A variation of it is used as a way to fake a death in the movie Captain America: Winter Soldier.)
There are some other rare cases in which people come back to life after seeming quite dead. Here’s the Wikipedia article on Lazarus syndrome.
I hope this list helps you when you want your character to cheat death. If you don’t want to miss future reference posts for writers, follow my blog — there’s a place to sign up on the lefthand side of the page. Thanks for stopping by, and happy writing!