Fantasy stories and healing powers go hand in hand. If it’s not a D&D-style healing potion or healing spell system, then it’s an X-Men style super healing type thing. This just makes sense – fantasy stories, especially stories that have anything to do with superhero archetypes, or any tropes that Western fiction shares with shounen anime, are often made much easier with the presence of a healer. It lets your heroes take a lot more damage before they’re out of the game entirely.
But they can also be incredibly annoying, handled wrong.
The long and short of this blog post is going to be that healing magic, like any other magic, needs limits to avoid being a plot hole or ruining the suspense or the suspension of disbelief. You can probably stop reading now if you don’t want any more detail than that, honestly.
For those who like reading my rambles: here we go.
Fantasy healing, as I mentioned above, is great for a lot of things. It removes a lot of the logical long-term consequences for serious injuries, and it makes it a bit easier to throw your characters into big, dramatic battles without them having to sit out the rest of the story. While there are definitely people who would be into reading a story where the hero, after all their efforts, ends up with permanent ligament damage, a low-protein, low-salts diet due to only having one remaining kidney, or whatever the fantasy equivalent of a colostomy bag is, for a lot of stories, that just won’t fit the tone. Especially if you need them around and active for a sequel.
… actually. I would be so interested in a story where the ‘hard-bitten, seen-it-all, cynical antihero’ isn’t just jaded about losing friends and family, they’re also resentful about having to change a bag of their own poop every day for the rest of their life and the effect that’s had on their relationships and social life. I feel like that would be an interesting take on one of those characters.
Anyway. Not the point.
Basically it comes down to this: The good thing is that a lot of those healing magics is that they remove consequences.
The bad side is that they remove consequences.
I find this a lot with the shounen-fighting-anime style of things. I’ve been watching a lot of Boku no Hero Academia recently (I am not proud but I also refuse to apologise for it), and one of the things that I was very worried about was the healer-on-staff thing. At first it really did seem like a get-out-of-consequence-free card for the heroes. After all (this will be slightly spoilery, but nothing that you wouldn’t have figured out by the second episode so I feel OK saying this), the main character’s superpower comes with the consequence of severe bodily harm. When you have a healer on staff that can just fix that, there goes all your tension, and any hope of a Hard Choice for the hero.
This does still bug me a bit about the show, but at least they seem to have dealt with this by adding some limits to the amount of damage that the healer can heal to a particular area, and things like that. But for a while it seemed like they might not, and that was a worrying thought, given that they’d stacked so much of the tension around this particular character getting injured.
Because that’s the rub of it really: If you have an all-powerful healer, getting injured cannot be the worst thing that can happen to your character – both in the sense of it should not as a narrative concern, and it is not possible within the context of the story. If the healer can heal all physical damage, then your characters have no reason to take physical damage seriously, and by extension, neither does the reader.
That’s not to say that you can’t have healers at all if you want to have physical damage as a problem that holds weight for the reader and your characters. It’s still possible to have a healer that can heal most things and have tension. You can have tricks like the healer needing to get to a wound when it’s fresh to heal it right – a badly-set bone still has to be rebroken before they can heal it straight, and scar tissue can’t be healed. Therefore, cutting the character off from their healer maintains tension.
You can give the healer a limit to what they can heal in a certain time – cuts and bruises might heal instantly, but a broken bone heals quicker than the several months it takes without healing, but it’s still going to be delicate for a couple weeks. Wounds can still re-open. It might prevent you getting permanent nerve damage or paralysis, but you’re not exactly going to be back in the action five minutes later.
You can limit a healer based on energy – this is good for big battle scenes. A healer can only heal so much damage in a single day, so if there are more than a few people requiring attention, they’ll need to carefully triage and ration their energy in order to keep the most people alive possible.
There are a thousand other things you can do. As long as it fits your story’s tone and is internally consistent, you’re probably going to be fine.
I’ve just seen a lot of stories throw in a healer and kill their own momentum over the years, and I’d like to see more stories avoid that in the future.