Scars: fictional meaning vs. real mundanity

Scars have a way of seeming significant. Especially in fiction, where pointing out a character’s scars can imply a lot about them — that they’ve been crushingly defeated at some point, or that they live a dangerous life.

But the funny thing is that humans can get scars without doing anything dramatic at all. I burn myself at work on a fairly regular basis and, really, nothing interesting happens to cause it. I just pick up a plate and have a hot ramekin slide into my knuckle, or maybe I’m sprinkling cheese on pasta and I accidentally touch the heat lamp. Ordinary job hazards for a food service worker to get a little brown scar from. It’s not like I’m fighting anything or rescuing anyone (unless you consider waitressing a fight against hunger, or a rescue of restaurant patrons from low blood sugar).

And yet, scars are notable when a fictional character has them. Maybe it’s from because of the simple fact that scars indicate action. You don’t usually get a scar from sitting on the couch, after all: scars come about because the bearer was doing something or involved in something. There’s always a story there, even if it’s a relatively mundane story like falling out of a tree as a kid, or trying to cut vegetables for dinner. If the scar came from a medical procedure, then something bad happened that required a doctor and stitches. That scar might not make a grand statement about the person’s lifestyle — but it still has something to say.

Humans have mixed reactions to scars. We instinctively think of clear, unblemished skin as a sign of health, so scars are often considered unappealing. Fictional villains might have an ugly scar to indicate that they’re an unsavoury person. However, if scars are cast in the right light, they can can be an indication of a brave, strong warrior who can endure pain. Definitely an appealing trait in a hero or a mate.

In Remedy, I knew Peregrine would have some scars. For one thing, he’s spent his life mining with a hammer and chisel. Korvi have a tougher, more leathery skin than humans, but it would still be strange if Peregrine had never gotten a mark on him after 80 years of such physical work. He was also bitten by a basilisk at some point, while travelling alone. But he takes stuff like that about as seriously as I take burning myself at work:

Peregrine may have stumbled upon the occasional basilisk, but those beasts turned cowardly as soon as a fellow spat some smoke; a second tooth puncture scar on his leg wouldn’t be the end of him. The Skyfield plains held no trouble Peregrine couldn’t handle alone – oh, this was true and he knew it.
-Remedy, a story of Aligare, Chapter 17

Peregrine’s scars aren’t there to be remarkable; they’re there as evidence of a life with an ordinary amount of hardship in it. In fact, I sometimes forget they’re there, just like Peregrine surely does.

When a scar triggers both positive and negative reactions in our minds, it’s easy fuel for our imaginations. That means that it’s easy for fiction to blow scars out of proportion and assume that they’re always a big deal. I can’t think of many characters who have minor-point-of-interest scars. And hey, why should real people have a monopoly on that? I think fictional characters should trip once in a while and need a few stitches, just like the rest of us.

4 Comments on “Scars: fictional meaning vs. real mundanity”

  1. Christa says:

    I like this subject!

    Like many things, scars are one of those devices that become hackneyed the more you read. When a character has a scar, I find myself eye-rolling when they reveal it’s from a grand battle. It’s not a creative way to make a character dimensional and mysterious anymore. It’s more like lazy writing!

    • Thanks!

      Yeah, it’s one of those defining characteristics than can easily seem like a cheap gimmick instead. Although I tend to give it a pass if the scar is unusual — like Harry Potter’s scar being a lightning-bolt shape caused by magic. It’d be so much lamer if The Boy Who Lived had a generic slash mark on his forehead.

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