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.