The Physical Capabilities of your characters

This is an expanded and refined version of two posts previously written for my WriteDemon page on Tumblr. They can be found here and here.


Every body has it’s natural limits.

It sounds simple but many a writer has forgotten this. Say it with me; every body has it’s natural limits. Can your character still run with a dislocated knee? I’m going to hazard a no, mainly because the dislocation of a joint destabilises it i.e your character does not have that leg to stand on.

Another uncomfortable fact for you; It takes roughly 1000 lbs of pressure and the drop of the body to break the neck when hanging a person.

With that in mind ask your self this; is it realistic that my (bad-ass) character could do such a thing with their bare hands? Just another one of those questions that will draw strange looks for others if you utter it aloud but, trust me, it’s one you should ask. Nothing will undermine the realism of your story more than characters that, while being apparently unremarkable, suddenly sprouting super powers.

Don’t get me wrong, you most definitely can have a non-hulking man do such things or, further still, a tiny woman besting such feats but you must account for it.

Consider the following;

  1. Is your character male or female?
  2. How old are they?
  3. Are they healthy and fit? (in this category also consider weight, previous injuries, senses and psychological factors. E.g a healthy, fit young woman who regularly weight trains and takes self defence classes would have more of a chance of fighting off an attacker than an overweight, older man who was partially blind.)
  4. What size are they; weird question I know but think about it; a very small man has different combat/manoeuvring options compared to his larger, more muscle bound compatriots.

I wont bore you with the facts about how much damage a body can take before it becomes incapacitated (though there are resources detailing this at the bottom) instead we will look at the active capabilities of the human body in practical terms. Lets stipulate, first, that for now the character in question has no superhuman abilities whatsoever; we’re talking entirely tabula rasa. No training, no powers, just a baseline and average level of fitness for their age and sex. There will be many things that they simply cannot do, but this doesn’t mean they cannot be impressive.

Consider this example;

Four subjects are locked in identical rooms and need to escape; the rooms have one door (locked with old, shaky hinges), one window (not locked but high above the ground with only a rickety series of ledges to descend by), one ventilation shaft (covered) and a steel framed bed. They are all equally intelligent; what matters here is physicality.

One is a large man (perhaps six foot fours, weighing two hundred and thirty pounds) he is well muscled and extremely strong (and heavy!), but he has bad knees. He cannot shimmy through the ventilation shaft to freedom as he is too physically large, neither can he exit the window as, though it has a small ledge, his size makes it unlikely it will support him. Bad knees make it unlikely that he can kick the door down, despite his strength, for he could well hurt them further. This leaves him two options; pull the door from its hinges (if it opens inward) or use the bed-frame to put pressure on the hinges and pull them from the door frame.

The second character is a large woman; maybe five eleven and one hundred and eighty pounds she is also strong but less so than her neighbour. She has an old shoulder injury. The likelihood of her pulling the door open with brute force is very small; even if we discounter her shoulder injury…unless she were a veritable Goliath then this is unlikely, though possible! She might however kick the door down as the legs are often much stronger than the upper body, especially in women. She too could put pressure on the hinges with the frame. However her size may prevent her from using the grate or the window.

Character three is a smaller man (five ten, one hundred and seventy pounds) missing his left hand; though still too big to fit through the grate he could also use the bed-frame, kick the door or pull the door (though pulling a door off its hinges requires so much force that I would say this is unlikely, though not impossible). He could not realistically and safely, however, drop down the ledges to the ground.

The final character is a small woman (five four, one hundred and thirty pounds) relatively agile but not overly well conditioned. This character could use the grate and stands a fair change of applying enough leverage with the bed-frame to escape though her chances of using brute force to break the door down are minimal. She, however, stands most chance of using the shaky ledges being small, light and more agile.

All characters are capable of being formidable if put under enough pressure, they simply have different capabilities which leads me to an important point; bigger is not always better- a character need not be a powerhouse to be remarkable. The way your characters deal with dangerous situations, however, has much to do with the plausibility of your story and the immersion the reader might experience, so consider seriously if what you need of your characters is possible, or if they require augmentation.


Characters who exceed baseline biological possibilities;

As we said before; a body is a body is a body and every one has it’s limits. While size doesn’t equal strength and bigger isn’t always better your characters achievements need to be believable as well as mark them as bad-ass/awe inspiring. You can explain why they are able to exceed the natural limitations of the body they possess, however, if you want to.

For example; your main character can fly?! Why? How does this work? What are the limitations? Now this may be a very extreme example but it is a useful one. A more mundane and subtle example, however, is this;

A tall and muscular character who, lets speculate, can lift their own body weight (in that I mean bench press) of roughly 160lbs. This seems reasonable. What about the assertion that they may be able to lift her own body weight plus another half (240lbs)? It’s possible certainly but requires explanation in some form. Possible explanations could be this;

  1. The character is a body builder; lifting 150% of your own body weight is perfectly possible if the body is conditioned well enough.
  2. They possess some physical gift that enhances their capabilities or do something daily that naturally builds strength; if your character is not a professional athlete then you must account in some way for their exceptional capabilities of strength. They may be some kind of hybrid species, for example, or, rather more mundanely, be in a profession which requires/build physical strength, e.g a builders labourer (the guy who mixes cement and lifts paving slabs) may not look like a body builder but could be just as strong, if not stronger..
  3. They have an item which augments their abilities; they may, for example, have some kind of ring, amulet or brooch that hold magic properties (for example Harry Potters invisibility cloak).

This kind of logic can be applied to almost any situation; your female character is ridiculously spry, despite being in her early thirties?

  1. She’s an ex-gymnast; people who train in acrobatics etc intensely and for long periods of time will retain certain skills and properties for longer. If she keeps fit and stretches daily, she may be perfectly capable of the odd split or backflip but lack other things she had when she was training full time. Her endurance may have dropped, her stamina or core strength might lessen but, on the whole, unless she’s turned into a slob and neglects her body, she’ll probably be fitter than the average person her age. But, when considering this scenario you need to remember the life of a professional gymnast is just that; it’s a lifestyle where everything is regimented and accounted for. Such habits will die hard; after spending perhaps fifteen/twenty years of her life controlling what she eats and doing hard physical exercise daily she’s probably not going to be relaxed about feeling unfit or heavy. Likewise you have to consider the toll this career would have on her body; weak joints and sore bones, especially if there’s been any breaks. Think especially about the wrists, shoulders and hips.
  2. She makes a point of maintaining and pushing her body.
  3. She’s been genetically/biologically enhanced somehow; this option offers more freedom, so long as you account for the technology. The possibilities are limitless!

The truth is, as a writer, you can do pretty much what you wish  but you have a responsibility to account for those things that fall outwith the bounds of natural possibility. If you’re going down the athletic route, rather than stipulating superhuman powers, you will have to keep in mind that they will still have limitations.



The limits of the human body

Testing Humans to Destruction

How much punishment can your body take

Nerd Nite – Limits of the Human Body

How to create a Super Hero

On Writing Superheros


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2 thoughts on “The Physical Capabilities of your characters

  1. Pingback: Bringing down the “Strong Female Character” (in favour of strong female characters) – The Merry Writer

  2. Pingback: Writing a Great Antagonist; The Basics – The Merry Writer

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