A key aspect of any good novel is the author’s ability to establish a set of rules early and to stick with those rules. One of the best ways to turn a reader away from your work is to tell them that something is impossible in the first chapter, then have a character perform that exact feat a few chapters later. In this blog post, we’ll take a look at this aspect of our writing and explore ways to keep from violating your own tenets.
If your genre involves historical or contemporary fiction, odds are that this will not apply to you as much. Your characters live in the same world that we live in, and as such they must follow the same rules as you and me. But even then, you must be certain to research anything you’re not familiar with. An incorrect assumption could lead to a lot of heated emails from readers, or even cost you future sales.
One example that I see abused quite frequently, especially in thriller novels, is the use of the Taser. Over and over, established authors (even those who are on the best-seller lists) have characters using the Taser in ways that it can’t be used. The most frequent problem is having the Taser render its victim unconscious. This doesn’t happen. When the Taser is used in the “probe” mode, it fires a pair of darts at the target. If both succeed in making contact, it sends a few thousand volts of electricity through the body, causing the muscles to convulse and lock up. If the person is standing, he or she will almost certainly fall over. The jolt lasts for five seconds, unless the user turns the Taser off sooner or holds the trigger down for a longer shot. In either case, as soon as the electricity stops, the target will be fully functional and ready to fight.
The other Taser issue I’ve seen, less frequently, is having a person who is touching the target also receive a shock. Again, this goes against the laws of physics. The electricity, like water and used car salesmen, will follow the path of least resistance. In this case, it flows between the two probes. As long as you don’t touch someone between those probes, you can hold onto him and not receive a shock. In fact, when we do demonstrations at my police department, we have two people hold onto the target officer while he is being Tased. And they never feel the electricity.
Firearms present another problem. If you are familiar with the different types of weapons, you should have nothing to fear. But if not, please make sure to read about the particular firearms your characters use before you write the book. It will save you headaches later on. A great example, and probably the most abused firearm in all of literature: the Glock pistols.
Glock is a very popular brand of firearms. In my jurisdiction, it’s carried by more officers than any other weapon. Their pistols are durable and reliable, with minimal mechanical issues. However, as a writer, there are some quirks you need to be aware of. First, there is no external hammer on a Glock pistol. I can’t tell you how many books I’ve read where a character draws a Glock pistol on someone, then emphasizes a point by cocking the hammer. Impossible, but writers continue to do it. Another issue: Glocks have no safety lever. But authors continue to have characters turn the safeties on their Glock pistols on and off.
A quick side note for gun aficionados: yes, I know that the “safety” on a pistol is not actually called a “safety.” On pistols, this device is referred to as a “decocking lever.” The purpose is not to render the weapon safe, but rather to lower the external hammer without firing the weapon. Since Glocks have no hammer, they have no decocking lever.
[NOTE FROM RICK: Scott shared similar information about Tasers and Glocks in a post last year (9/12/11), so you might want to look at the one as well.]
What about medieval novels? If your book is medieval in nature but does not contain fantasy elements, then you need only familiarize yourself with the reality of life in medieval times. How much does a sword weigh? What types of armor did people wear? What weapons will penetrate different types of armor? If you do a little research, you can get these things right.
However, if your story includes fantasy elements—magic, gods, monsters—you have a whole new set of issues to deal with. You still need to know all about medieval weapons and battle tactics. But now you must establish rules for the use of magic in your realm. What can be accomplished with magic? What cannot be accomplished? How does one learn magic, and how long does it take to become proficient? Are there any penalties for the misuse of magic? All of these need to be established, and most importantly, adhered to.
For my three fantasy novels, The Piaras Legacy, Archon’s Gate, and the forthcoming A Matter Of Faith, I first sat down and wrote the rules for the different types of magic. In Faith, this meant three different kinds: those who worshipped the goddess Silana, those who worshipped death, and those who worshipped chaos. In my other novels, I had life magic, death magic, and chaos magic. In any case, it makes a better story if the antagonists’ magic is a bit more powerful and less limited than the good guys’. This will add a bit of stress to the story and allow you to put your characters into greater peril.
A great example of this in the difference between life magic and death magic in Legacy and Gate. Followers of life magic can never directly use their power as a weapon against another living creature. The necromancers had no such barriers. This placed the protagonist and his companions at a distinct disadvantage. Necromancers could use their power to kill at will, while the users of life magic could only use their power for defense.
But it was just as important that I stand by this rule. If, at some point, a user of life magic had used his power to kill someone and suffered no penalty, I would have lost credibility with my readers. However, I was careful to adhere to all the rules I set down. At one point, a user of life magic did attempt to use his power to harm someone, and he suffered horribly as a result.
It’s important not to make your protagonist or his/her allies too powerful, either. Think about the early Superman comics. The only thing that could hurt him was kryptonite. Nothing else. This is way too much power for a protagonist. How do you put Superman in danger, other than by the same tired old mechanism of exposing him to kryptonite? Now if the bad guy has Superman’s power, that’s another story. You’ve created a super antagonist who will present a real problem for your characters. So give your protagonist some ability, but make sure to include plenty of weaknesses and faults, and set some tight guidelines about what the character can do. It will make your character more believable, as well.
Science fiction presents another set of challenges regarding the setting of rules. In fantasy, you can use magic to violate the laws of physics at will, as long as you stick within whatever guidelines you’ve established. Science fiction, however, is a projection of humanity into the future, a future constructed by the author. The same laws of physics that govern our world should be in place in the future you create. A character on Earth couldn’t use an FM radio to carry on an instant conversation with someone on Mars. FM radio waves travel at the speed of light, which can take 45 minutes to reach Mars, depending upon the relative distance between the two planets. That’s not to say the characters can’t hold a radio conversation. You either need to have them wait while the transmission is made in each direction (a cumbersome literary process), or you invent a new technology that allows instant communication over interstellar distances.
Travel between star systems is another example. Since we know that it’s impossible for a ship to attain the speed of light, an author shouldn’t have ships do so. Instead, you find a way around that barrier. Star Trek uses “warp drives,” which bend the fabric of space-time and allow a ship to travel great distances at relative speeds greater than light. The same goes for “hyperspace” in Star Wars. In my two science fiction novels, the ships created artificial wormholes and used them to “jump” between systems. But even there, I put limits on the technology. There was a maximum distance a ship could travel in one jump. They had to wait a few hours for the engines to cool down before another jump could be attempted. This presents problems from a military standpoint: jump into a combat situation where you are outmatched, and you can’t leave for a while! I also added in the fact that gravimetric disturbances could pull ship out of its wormhole, or prevent it from creating one in the first place.
Keep this in mind during the world-building portion of your project. Set up the rules early and stick by them. Readers are adept at spotting rule violations, and they are quick to point them out! Keep those rules handy, refer to them often, and your novel will be much better for the effort.