Thursday, January 10, 2013

Guns. Lots of Guns.

            This is my rifle, this is my gun.  One is for killing, the other’s for fun.
            A while back there was a discussion on a page I browse semi-regularly.  A few folks were moaning about the overzealous use of firearms terminology in some stories.  It can get frustrating and distracting, I admit.  There are writers who feel a need to show off their knowledge by naming every single weapon, component and accessory their protagonist or villain is using.  Every time they’re seen.
            The term I’ve heard for this, which I have to admit I love, is gun porn.
            The real question, of course, would be... is this a bad thing or not? 
            The answer is one of those gray areas of writing.  It depends a bit on what the author’s trying to do.  It depends on the character.  Honestly, it’s a simple issue, but because firearms tend to be a very divisive subject—where some folks love and worship them to an almost obsessive degree and other folks hate and revile then to an equally obsessive degree—they get brushed into their own special category sometimes in writing, even though they don’t need it.
            See, a pistol or rifle is really just like any other object in my story.  It’s a name, and there’s a time for proper names and a time for pronouns.  To paraphrase the song, if every time Rufus Xavier Sarsaparilla walks into a room, Rufus Xavier Sarsaparilla makes a point of patting the holster of Rufus Xavier Sarsaparilla’s Sig Sauer Pro2340 pistol and considers that now maybe it’s time for Rufus Xavier Sarsaparilla to draw his Sig Sauer Pro2340 pistol...
            Well, Peter William Clines will be putting that manuscript down pretty fast.  Peter William Clines can tell you that much for sure.
            We’d all much rather read that when Rufus walks into a room he makes a point of patting the holster of his pistol and considers that now maybe it’s time for him to draw it. 
            Sometimes.
            On the flipside, I was watching an old giant monster movie the other day.  Not one of the classy ones from Japan, but a western attempt to cash in on the  craze.  At one point, the characters are gathered in the war room looking at a map of the city, trying to figure out if they’ll be able to stop the monster or not.  And the three-star general stabs his finger down on the map and says “We’ve got to get it out in the open so we can throw all our stuff at it!”
            All our stuff...?
            Y’see, Timmy, just like some characters, there’s going to be times it makes perfect sense to write out the full name of a pistol, and some when it’s perfectly fine to just call it “her pistol” or “his rifle.”  There will be times when the full name of a weapon is going to be a distraction more than anything else, but also times that it’s going to seem silly and out of character not to use it.  It’s important for me to remember that it isn’t always about what I know or what’s right—it’s about what the character knows and thinks is right.  A trained assassin might see a Heckler & Koch G36, but a schoolteacher's probably just going to see a big, scary-looking machine gun.
            In my own book, Ex-Patriots, Stealth is a deductive genius and a walking Wikipedia.  She’s Sherlock Holmes in spandex and body armor.  Early in the book, when she first encounters the soldiers from Project Krypton, she immediately identifies the exact model of rifles they’re using and realizes the unusual way the weapons are being used.  Yet in that same moment, it’s clear St. George—a former maintenance guy—has no clue what kind of rifles the soldiers are using.
            Watch The Matrix sometime.  Is that a love letter to gun culture or what?  And not a single weapon is named in the movie.  Not one.  The closest they get is when they talk about the EMP they use against the Sentinel robots.
            I just finished reading one of the Harry Dresden books by Jim Butcher, and at one point Harry and his friends end up with a few pistols and shotguns.  And that’s what they’ve got—a few pistols and shotguns.  Harry identifies one of the pistols as a 9mm when he gets it, but that’s all the explanation we ever get.
            Ash may have his double-barreled Remington 12 gauge, but most of us just think of it as his boomstick.  And that name really fits with a guy who’s not too bright and making a lot of stuff up as he goes.
            We all know Chekhov has a rifle hanging above the mantle, and we accept that as sage bit of writing wisdom.  Yet who among us has stopped to question what kind of rifle it is?  I’d bet a ton of money that nobody here has, because it’s just not important.
            As a small side note, I mentioned a ways back that this is a good rule of thumb for screenplays.  Unless it is life-or-death important to the plot that the bad guy is carrying a Glock 34 9mm with a custom rubber grip—I mean, the plot will collapse if he doesn’t have this specific weapon—then I’m not going to waste my words naming weapons.  When the movie gets made, there are going to be prop masters and armorers who know much more about this stuff than me, and they’re going to make good choices so we all look good.  Until then, my characters can just have pistols, shotguns, machine guns, and so on.
            And on another somewhat related note... a common criticism I see is folks shrieking, “They’re called magazines, not clips!”  This is kind of the same issue as above.  Sometimes I need to make sure that the weapons are loaded with magazines, but there are just as many times it makes more sense to call them clips—even though it’s inaccurate.  Yes, many folks who knows their weapons knows the difference.  If my characters don’t, though, then it wouldn’t be that surprising for them to call that thing holding bullets a clip.  It’s been a common mistake for almost eighty years, after all.  In fact, it’d come across a bit odd and fake if every non-soldier and non-gun-enthusiast in my story used precise firearms terminology.
            So here’s a little suggestion I’ll toss out for you.  Maybe this’ll work for you, maybe it won’t.  The next time one of your character pulls his pistol or swings up her rifle, ask yourself this...
            Would you be as specific and descriptive with the weapon’s name if it was a bow?
            There are lots of different types of bows, with many strings, grips, pulls, models, extra add-ons, and so forth.  That’s not even counting the arrows themselves, and the different shaft lengths, fletching, heads, and notching.  Professional archers are very specific about what they will and won’t use.  So at this moment in your story, if someone aimed their bow at your character... how much detail would you feel compelled to use?
            If the answer is “not much,” maybe that’s a sign to rethink how much detail’s going into that firearm.
            Next time, courtesy of the Beatles, we’re going to take a little trip.  Odds are you won’t enjoy it.
            Until then, go write.

6 comments:

Cole said...

I would. But I'm an archer as well as a firearms enthusiast.
If it's a very deadly situation, at least describing the bow's tremendous poundage and the arrow's razor-sharp three blade broadhead would help drive that point home.

Virtual Stranger said...

Ah, perfect answer, Cole. If implies there are also times you wouldn't bother to mention all those factors, even though you know them. And that's the whole point I'm trying to make. ;)

Matthew Baugh said...

There's a writer named J.T. Edson who does westerns and dabbled a little in fantasy/SF. He loves guns and gives tons of detail. I read a pseudo-Tarzan story he did and his characters had high-tech bows and state of the art hunting knifes that he described in similar detail. For that matter, he even included his heroine's measurements (40-22-36 IIRC) in the story.

I would usually not describe any of these things at this level of detail.

Midas said...

How do you feel this is impacted in fantasy settings where weapons may have real names (or even personalities), or in space fantasy like 40k where a noble weapon may be more famous than the warrior carrying it?

Travis said...

if the weapon essentially becomes a character, then of course it needs to be described more. i totally agree with all this though, some of the zombie books i have read are written by military people and they describe the guns forever! i have guns, i like guns, but i don't care about exactly what type of gun you are using unless its a situation where it matters as described here or if it matters because of a certain attribute....like new american mossberg shotguns jam up all the time and are crappy.

Virtual Stranger said...

Midas, very fair point. If we're talking about Excalibur or, what, Dorn's Arrow or something like that, then of course these weapons are going to be more like characters than objects (like Travis said).

However, I shouldn't be constantly describing characters in heavy detail, and definitely not again and again. Pronouns exist for a reason. There's a time to mention Phoebe, her statuesque figure, and her flowing waterfall of platinum-blond hair, and there's also a time to just say "she"... ;)