What does a character know, and when does she know it?

I recently attended the LTUE Symposium in Provo, and one of my favorite panels was the one on getting your firearms right.

Now, you may not be a gun nut, and you may not care, but I can practically guarantee that just about every author who’s written about guns has gotten some–ahem!–feedback on what they got wrong.

So let me lay it out as (a) a gun-nut, (b) a writer, and (c) a reader. These states of mind are not separate. They overlap.

Let me take off my shooting hat (yes, I have one to keep the brass out of my cleavage) and put on my writer hat (let’s say it looks a bit like a crown).

Just because I know the difference between a magazine and a clip doesn’t mean that every character I write does. Just because I know the difference between an auto-loader (semi-automatic) and full-auto doesn’t mean that every character I write does. Got that?



Let’s say I’m writing from Lizzie’s viewpoint. She is Mark’s girlfriend. Mark is a gun-nut. He wears Hoppe’s as after-shave. He carries a bore-snake in his hip pocket. Lizzie on the other hand knows which end is the shootie end and that there’s a thingie that you pull and it makes the gun go boom.

Lizzie settled into Mark’s bed, all alone. He’d gotten called in for overtime on a mid-shift. She’d fallen asleep easily enough, but the sound of glass breaking woke her as if someone had tossed a bucket of ice-water on her body. Over the thundering coming from her chest, she heard footsteps. She scrambled for her cell-phone. No signal. None. Lizzie grabbed at the nightstand drawer and pulled out the gun just in time to shoot the big, bad guy barging through the door. He dropped to the floor.


Notice how I didn’t get into the muzzle, cylinder, or cocking the hammer, or sighting in? Notice how I didn’t even tell you it was a revolver? Why didn’t I? It’s not because I didn’t know the proper terminology. It’s not because I don’t know what it feels like to experience this exact scenario.

I could’ve quite as easily written this:



Lizzie lifted the Smith & Wesson 357 Magnum with its six-inch, weighted barrel. She’d loaded it with 38 Special ammo to further reduce recoil and had custom grips made. Its more than 56 ounces was a reassuring weight in her hand. She looked down through the adjustable rear sights and placed the partridge dovetail of the front sight right where it needed to be–between the rear sights and on the intruder’s center of mass. She cocked the hammer. The cylinder made that satisfying click. The trigger pull was smooth as silk; the report, as quiet as a whisper. So, this is time distortion. This is auditory exclusion. This is surreal.


So, why didn’t I write the second version? Because Lizzie is not me. Lizzie is not a gun person. She doesn’t know these details (that’s actually a competition gun, BTW, but the use of 38 Special ammo in a 357 Magnum is deliberate). She doesn’t know about time dilation and compression. She doesn’t know about auditory exclusion.

Does genre matter?

No. It doesn’t. Even in the gun-nut genre, if you are writing from Lizzie’s point of view, you have to stay in Lizzie’s head, or else you’re going to have a world populated by gun-Mary-Sue’s. All your characters will read the same.

The second version is actually far more appropriate to Mark’s viewpoint, although even there, it’s arguable that he’d go on and on, describing his gun in THAT moment. Now, he might well describe it in such detail if he’s putting it away in the drawer, just before he leaves. Maybe he was cleaning it and got the call to go in to work. Maybe he loaded it just in case, because the self-defense gun was still on the kitchen table being cleaned and he figured that it was better to have the competition gun ready than have none at all. But he wouldn’t describe it in detail as he was shooting it. He might think about lining up the sights just right, but he wouldn’t tell us about the type of sights. He might not even notice the time dilation or auditory exclusion as it’s happening. Later he might, though.

Point of view matters.

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