Your characters only know what you do!

This is a topic I have been pondering for some time and wanted to get out for discussion.  I’m sure everyone has read a novel at some point that was off in its facts or just not realistic in some way.  There are so many aspects that should be studied and understood before a book is polished and published.  No writer can know everything so sometimes they are going to need to seek help from those that do.  In past blog posts, we have discussed researching for novels.  It was obvious that authors do take this seriously in wanting to get all their facts straight, but sometimes there are things writers don’t even consider.  So that is where this post comes in to draw attention to some problems I’ve seen crop up.  Below, I will give a few examples so people can understand where I’m going with this.

1)  Recently I read a review for a book I was considering purchasing.  In it, the reviewer pointed out something that truly showed an obvious error the author and her editor/proofreaders failed to notice.  The story took place in Denver, Colorado (keep the geography of this city in mind).  In the narrative, the main character describes watching the sunrise over the mountains.  Now, anyone who has been to Denver, or at least understands where it is, knows that the mountains are to the west of the city.  The sun rises in the east.  That means it would have been impossible to see a sunrise over the mountains from that location.  May seem small, but you have to get your details right.

2) Another novel I read had the main character using a Glock pistol.  Before she shot with it, she took the safety switch off.  Those of you who are familiar with this particular gun know that the Glock does not have a safety switch.  So this could not have happened.  If even one person familiar with handguns had read the manuscript prior to publication, that error would never have showed up for readers to see.

3) Recently I read a book where the female character used the blood choke (also known as the carotid restraint or sleeper hold) to knock out her enemies.  She had a whole building of them to contend with and so she used this move on each guard as she went along.  So what is the problem with this?  Well, anyone familiar with the sleeper hold should know it is temporary.  If done properly, then the person will only be knocked out for about ten seconds to maybe a minute.  The only way they would stay asleep longer is if you killed them by keeping the choke on too long.  Since she made it clear that she wasn’t trying to kill them, and also stated that she was merely knocking them out, this method of neutralizing guards would not have been possible since they would have woke up soon after and raised the alarm.  Now, if she took the time to gag and restrain each of them (quickly), then that would have worked, but she didn’t.  Though the blood choke is a great way to knock someone out silently without really hurting them (assuming it isn’t held for too long), it is not a long-term solution on its own.  Clearly, the author knew about the choke hold but not what its full effects were.

4) Using knives in your storyline is great, but you should check the local laws on them.  I’m not going to call out who brought this one up, but it is such a good example that I had to include it here.  Luckily, this author will not have the problem showing in their final draft.  If your character is human and law-abiding, then be aware of how long of a knife they can carry without getting in trouble with the police.  Each state varies on their restrictions for this.  Many specify a certain length that you can’t go over.  They will also have rules on what types of knives are okay to carry.  For a quick reference guide, check this site out.  It lists each state’s restrictions on length and type.  Now, if your character doesn’t care about being law-abiding, at least say so.  Of course, if they are a vampire or other supernatural creature that could mesmerize the police into “not noticing” the knife, then you probably don’t need to mention it.  This is more for the normal, everyday human that won’t be able to get out of police trouble easily.  Even military in combat zones have to follow Geneva conventions which get rather detailed down to what types of bullets can be used in guns (and they can’t use personal weapons at all).

These are just a few examples to get you thinking.  I recommend that if you haven’t studied martial arts or don’t have a lot of experience in fighting that you find someone who does to look at your work.  They should be able to make sure there are no problems with how you wrote the scenes out.  Don’t rely on what the movies show, because we all know Hollywood has ways of making it actors do things that aren’t possible in real life.  Also, if you have battle scenes get someone experienced in battles to look it over.  They don’t have to read your whole book, just the scene(s) in question.

I know it isn’t always easy to find the right kind of person, but most ex-military will be a good pick so long as they actually went to war or at least served for a long time and studied battle tactics.  There are plenty of authors that get away with writing a battle scene and not asking for help, but I think you can add more realism to it and make sure all your ideas are possible if they are double-checked by someone experienced in that area.  Of course, fantasy is a grey zone since magic is used, so a lot has to be made up.  Yet I have caught some weaknesses in some people’s stories that could have been cleaned up if a more tactical minded person had read the manuscript ahead of time.

I’m sure you all have noticed that I’m harping more on fighting, weapons, and battles than anything.  Some of you know I served in the Army for eleven years (almost half of that in Special Ops units), deployed to Iraq, and studied Brazilian Jiu Jitsu.  Plus I’ve handled a number of weapons.  So this makes me notice these aspects more.  Will the average reader know the things I do?  Probably not, but you can’t rule out those of us that do.  If you have questions in this area, do feel free to shoot me an email and I will do my best to help.  I don’t know everything there is to know, but I can at least make sure your writing is solid when it comes to these subjects or find someone who does know.

As for other areas, I would love it if readers of this blog could post errors they have found in books.  This could deal with historical facts, foreign accents, place descriptions, etc.  It isn’t meant to bash authors (and many of the examples I gave above were from trad published books), but it is to help us all learn and think when we write.  I will be the first to admit I’m not perfect and do make mistakes, regularly, but talking about these subjects means we will be more aware of problems we may create by not knowing the possibilities.

~ by Suzie on December 13, 2011.

31 Responses to “Your characters only know what you do!”

  1. Great post, though some of the details matter more than others.

    Sunrise over the Rockies from Denver is inexcusable unless you’re writing SciFi where the Earth has reversed direction. But then you know if the story is good enough, does it really matter? It’s not a guide book.

    The choke-hold is tougher – depends upon the novel. If I’m writing hard-core military fiction where I expect most of my readers to be people like you (either former military or real military geeks) then yeah that would matter. However, if I’m writing an action novel where the focus is more about the characters than reality – then it’s a forgivable sin.

    At the end of the day we have to remember we are writing fiction. Not non-fiction. Story and characters matter most. If people really want to know the 100% truth – then go lookup Wikipedia.

    • Hello Mark. I suppose you can say I’m a picky reader. Certain elements have to be made up when it is fiction, of course, but I still like to see threads of reality in the story. I need to be made to believe those things could happen. In some cases, such as super powers, alien technology, etc. I can suspend my disbelief so long as the story is well told. Yet when I see things I know aren’t possible, it does bother me. It doesn’t mean I drop the book, provided the story isn’t flooded with these errors, but it does mean I’ll notice it. I read Amazon reviews all the time and see where readers catch these flaws. You would be amazed how many people are bothered by little innacuracies. Besides, when an author uses facts, it means I might learn something- which is always a good thing! It makes the story so much richer. Thanks for commenting 🙂

  2. At the very least, Susan, I would do an online search for information – and, in fact, have done so!
    I have occasionally experienced a little shudder about attracting the attention of Homeland Security – like when I did a search on “how to make a pipe bomb.”
    But (since my books are fantasy/detective), I’ve also done searches on issues like “what’s the decay rate of the human body” (narrowed down to what the body will look like between 24 and 48 hours) … and “what does it feel like to get shot?”
    Because of my eclectic reading habits, bolstered by 30-plus years of writing for newspapers, I do have a reservoir of useful stuff that I already know. But even then, I will do searches to refresh my memory on stuff that I THINK I know. And … not just online. I will do searches at the library, talk to people … and my personal library includes books on forensic science and not-so-common ways to commit murder (poisons, etc.)
    You’re right – Nothing disenchants a reader faster (or drops them out of your book and into the real world faster) than an author not getting her/his facts straight. Nobody’s perfect, but perfection is the goal I strive toward.

    • PL, I know you have talked about your in-depth research in the past and I fully believe you do a great job. The one book I’ve read by you so far was excellent and very detailed. You have no complaints from me. My point in this post was more to get people thinking about points they may not have considered before. Especially newer writers with less experience. Some authors already have a good handle on this, such as yourself. Regardless, I think you brought up some great points about things to be researching and studying for stories with police procedural/detective settings. If I ever have to worry about medical science in my writing, I’m coming to you for tips!

  3. It is a fine line, how far you can push a reader’s willing suspension of disbelief, even in real world fiction with no supernatural elements. I also always strive to get my facts straight, but as a reader, I could probably forgive many errors, depending on what they are and if I’m even aware of them. There are some things I wouldn’t even think to look up, like local laws for various weapon usage. If the story and characters are really good, most errors should be easily forgiven (as long as there aren’t too many happening in the same book). I think frequency is also important. One minor fact off? Okay, no big deal to me. A half dozen facts off base? Then I start getting the sense the writer didn’t do any research at all.

    • That is a point, Angela. The number of problems makes a difference. One error isn’t a huge deal, but many of them would be. I’ll admit the choke hold thing bothered me, but I have done it hundreds of times and could practically do it in my sleep, so it stood out for me more. Most people who haven’t studied the martial arts that use it probably don’t care. Yet it does leave the reader with the impression that it is a good way to knock someone out for an extended time, which isn’t true. Luckily, most people aren’t running around using it or even have a reason to, so at least it shouldn’t affect the real world!

      • Lol. Disclaimer at the end of the book: “Kids, don’t try this at home. No really, don’t…” Even so, sometimes I enjoy nonrealistic action just for that, like the movies with crazy martial arts effects or the super spy movies. Yeah, completely unrealistic, but guilty fun nonetheless. 😀

        • Oh, don’t get me wrong, the non-realistic stuff can be great too. I just can’t buy it if the person is totally human with no magic source. Of course, Hollywood can pull it off in the movies because of all their special effects props, but with books that is harder to do.

  4. True, Angela. As a reader, there are probably times when I read right over minor factual blips – and don’t even recognize them. But, as you said, if there are enough noticeable errors in the book, it kind of spoils the illusion for me.

  5. Great post! Just because it’s fiction doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be fact checked. Your examples really drive this point home.


  6. Thanks, Susan. And … no brag was intended … I just think that it’s important for an author to do some research to give at least a feeling of realism to the story. To me, writing is all about submersing your reader in the story, and anything that will pull the reader out of the story, even if it’s only a quick “Huh??”, is a distraction that shouldn’t be there.
    Even when (as a writer), you think you know what you’re talking about, a few minutes spent refreshing your memory on something can’t hurt.

    • Well said, PL. It certainly doesn’t hurt to check. I used to read a lot of historical romance just because it was a fun way to learn history. Most authors in that genre take creative license but will put a note in the back saying where they broke off from the truth. It made it fun to submerse myself in a different time when the writer included political discussions that would have taken place back then, plus the sights, smells, and clothing. I know the historical fiction writers must do a ton of research to pull that off.

  7. I think one of the reasons I enjoy writing fantasy, Susan, is that I can occasionally get away with my heroes doing something absolutely, incredibly impossible and – “blame it on magic!”
    There’s so much more wiggle-room when magic gets involved …

  8. I have found that it’s best to rein magic in with at least a few rules, Susan. If for no other reason than that, if you can do absolutely anything with magic, then you have no conflict, no plot … no book, LOL!
    And … confession … all that research is one reason I won’t write historical fiction. Mainly because I love doing research … so much that I will follow research threads as far as they’ll take me – and history is one of my hobbies.
    So I would never actually get down to writing the book!

    • I thought of caveating my last comment with “magic must have rules” so I’m glad you covered it. There definitely has to be boundaries!

      That is the tricky thing with history, even when I’m researching for my immortal characters’ backgrounds it is easy to get lost. I begin to think of all the possibilities for how their life would have been back then and most of it isn’t even making it into the actual book! It is totally understandable that you recognize your limitations, lol. History can be a lot of fun to read about.

  9. Such a good reminder. I mean the little things that anger one reader can stop them from recommending your book to five others, and that means those five people won’t have the chance to share the book with others, and etc. It all adds up.

    I know so little about guns and knives — typical girl, ey? — so I try to do my research as in-depth as possible.

    Good little and big examples of discrepancies here.

    • I admit, that review I read about the author messing up the sunrise turned me off buying the book. All I could think of is that if they couldn’t get that right, what else did they mess up? The reviewer did mention their descriptions of Denver were poor so you didn’t feel like you were there. So technically it was a couple factors that kept me from reading it. Never hurts to be as accurate as possible on the stuff you can find out fairly easily. I don’t think I’ll be writing any books involving rocket science though. Somebody would catch me up on that one for sure and most science books make my eyes cross. It was only though a lot of studying amd extra credit that I got an “A” in the intro meteorology course I took. Plus I really wanted to know how to predict tornadoes.

  10. About the rocket science, Susan … I love to read science fiction, but I haven’t tried writing it. Because some of the SF fans – while they are loving and supporting to authors they like – can be absolutely brutal if you get your science wrong!
    I’m just not strong enough in my science knowledge to pull it off.

    • I am not much of one for pure science fiction, though my father is. On the other hand, I do enjoy sci-fi romance. It lacks all the scientific stuff, which is good for me, and the fans don’t expect it. I actually started writing a sci-fi romance but took a break from it since earlier this year because I need to work on the plot before going further. It was one of those stories where the beginning comes to you so clearly but the end, not so much. I’m hoping inspiration strikes one of these days so I can get back to it because I love what I’ve written so far.

  11. I hope you get back to it soon too, Susan. ‘Cause I’d love to read it!

    • Thanks PL. It is an interesting story. Basically, a few years before aliens invaded earth and took over the planet. Much of the human population was killed but a few million survived. They were herded off onto several reservations around the planet. My characters live in a reservation in the West Bank near Jerusalem. It is comprised of Americans, Israelis, and Arabs (they think the aliens did this on purpose hoping they would kill each other off). Although there was a bit of resentment at first, they end up banding together to fight the aliens. My lead character is an American female who fights in the human resistance but is caught by the aliens and has to find a way out. It is fun to write as I can use some interesting politics in it that I studied while earning my degree. If only I could figure out how to end it to my satisfaction. I’m sure it will come to me, eventually.

      • I hope so. But have faith … I’ve found that, if I just relax and let it happen, my subconscious will kick in eventually with a solution …

        • Speaking of books. Have you heard anything more from your publisher on releasing funds? Is there someone I should be emailing and complaining to so the ball gets rolling? I’ll be happy to tell them that I want your next book out on Kindle NOW!

          • Thanks, Susan! Hang on … I’m really pushing for the book to be released soon … It is available in hard cover, but I’ve re-edited the ebook – and my publisher has done a new cover – so I really, really want it out before the end of the year.
            Give me another few days … THEN … I may be providing you with my publisher’s email!

          • If your publisher doesn’t get it released soon, do give me the email. I’ll politely, but sternly, tell them that they need to release it. Especially since lots of people will be getting Kindles for x-mas and will be looking for new books.

  12. That’s a really good point, Susan. And something … I think … my publisher may need to hear from someone besides me. You have a deal! If my publisher (her name is Pam) doesn’t give me a clear answer by … say … next Wednesday, you get her email!

  13. A little late, catching up on my email after holiday madness, but I had to comment on such an interesting topic. I can’t help but think of Arthur Conan Doyle, whose inconsistencies in the Sherlock Holmes stories spawned a whole cottage industry! He made numerous mistakes but they have enhanced rather than hindered the work. Sherlockians get so much pleasure out of debating them! The obvious answer is: create an immortal character and you can get away with a lot 🙂

    • I must admit to seeing huge discussions on one point or another for a book that might have been an inconsistency. Those things bug me, but if they don’t occur often in the story I can usually get past them. Of course, every reader is different. Sherlock certainly had a huge following so Arthur Conan Doyle must have been doing something right!

  14. Very true! And I love Sherlock Holmes. He was the first fictional detective I met and still my favorite – so much so that there is a hint of him in my elven detective, Tevis Mac Leod.
    And … Susan … speaking of Tevis … Are you interested in receiving a pre-release copy of Stormcaller (the ebook) for review? If so, contact me through my email.

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