One of the reasons I love thrillers is the genre’s dedication to authenticity. Cops talk and act like cops, spec ops guys see the world much differently from ordinary people, and so on. The genre provides a dramatised window into the lifestyles and activities of these professionals, and how they see the world.
Key to portraying an authentic violence professional is preparation, both mental and physical. People who do bad things to bad people know the costs and consequences of violence, and prepare themselves accordingly. They tool themselves up to meet the threats they expect to face, and seek out training to expand their repertoire. Done properly, a writer can awe the reader by demonstrating the triumph of the prepared individual even in the most extreme of environments.
Conversely, when not done right, it leads to many eye-rolling moments.
Daniel Silva’s Gabriel Allon is a top assassin for the Israeli Mossad. Throughout his career, he’s been captured and beaten up by bad guys with depressing regularity. You’d imagine that after the first or second abduction, he’d invest in martial arts and counter-custody training and gear, and insist on his operatives doing the same. But he doesn’t. You’d be hard-pressed to find a Gabriel Allon book where he or one of his team mates isn’t captured. Sure, torture and interrogation scenes are an easy way of adding drama, but if you see the same sequence again and again in every book, it gets old.
Likewise, Andy McNab’s Nick Stone is a hardcore killer. He began his career as an SAS soldier and graduated to becoming a deniable operator, before embarking on freelance missions as a civilian. Throughout his adventures, he always fights bad guys in close quarters, and is sometimes captured and tortured and interrogated. You’d think that a man who chooses a lifestyle as violent as his would train in martial arts and secrete kit on his body for these moments, to give himself an unfair advantage when he goes looking for trouble. But it never happens. This makes it hard to believe that Stone is truly a former SAS soldier and deniable operator.
Fortunately, in the thrillers I’ve read, characters like these are (usually) the exception to the rule. Unfortunately, I write in the genre of science fiction and fantasy, where unprepared characters who are allegedly violence professionals are the rule, not the exception.
Violence professionals who operate at the highest level of capability are always prepared. To authentically portray such professionals, you need insight into their world.
The difference between a rookie and a pro is mindset.
A greenhorn isn’t prepared. Or even if he is, he doesn’t have the requisite experience to understand the little things that spell the difference between success and failure, life and death.
A pro understands the need to be prepared for all possible eventualities. He trains for his environment and expect threats. He learns the ins and outs of their trade and tools. He hones and expand their skills. In any environment, he logs the exits, the danger places ad people, and potential weapons.
Many fictitious shows and books have, as their trademark, characters improvising and crafting tools on the fly. The old TV series MacGyver is the embodiment of this trope. In more modern times, Burn Notice exemplifies this as well, mixing it up with social engineering.
it makes for good drama, but when used poorly it leads to raised eyebrows.
Pros don’t make stuff up on the fly. Improvised kit is always less effective than purpose-designed kit. While a prison shank can kill you just as well as a 12-inch bayonet, the bayonet is stronger, sturdier and can be used for more than just stabbing.
Pros anticipate the problems they expect to face, and kit up accordingly. If they have to improvise, it means something has gone terribly wrong. Which isn’t a bad thing, but it must be plausible and surprising enough that even the pros are caught off-guard. At moments like this, the pros stand out from the amateurs by displaying the skills, training, experience and intelligence to improvise solutions on the fly.
Likewise, when they kit up, pros also think about gear carriage and accessibility. Where to place their kit, how to access it, whether they can access it from different and awkward positions, where to place redundant kit to cover gaps in coverage, and so on.
There are many, many, many websites out there about Everyday Carry gear and load carriage. It can become an obsessive hobby. But to pros, it’s not a hobby; it’s a way of life.
In my own novel, Hollow City, protagonist Adam Song displays this mindset in spades. He pays careful attention to what he carries and where he places them, so he can readily access them in an emergency (which often happens). When he learns that gangbangers are after him, he tools up with multiple pistols and knives, positioning them so that he can access a weapon with either hand, no matter if he is standing, kneeling, or flat on his back.
Gear access is especially important for characters who may face imprisonment. In the video game Splinter Cell: Chaos Theory, protagonist Sam Fisher can be knocked out by the guards in one mission. When he comes to, he is interrogated by the enemy, with his hands cuffed behind his back.
Fortunately for Fisher, he packed a set of lockpicks at that spot for just this occasion.
Pros are prepared for every possible occasion they expect to face, from the best case scenario to the worst case scenario. They seek training, tool up, and carry their tools that allow for easy access should the worst come to pass. This is the difference between an amateur and a pro.
Don’t be Overprepared
Conversely, it is easy to get caught up in the minutiae of gear descriptions and have an overburdened character. Such a character would be derided in the real world as a gearhead — not a pro.
Ten years ago, I read an urban fantasy book starring a witch and former soldier who was trying to make her way in a world ruled by angels. When gearing up, she wore two blades on her forearms, two on her back, two on her hips, and two on her thighs.
It was overkill — and this is coming from a guy who routinely gives his characters maximum kit. More so since in the fight scene that followed, she didn’t use any of her backup tools.
Violence professionals understand that mobility and concealment is just as important, if not more so, than carrying gear. It can be useful to carry redundant kit, especially if you’re expecting a fight, but you can only go so far before you enter the realm of the ridiculous and bog yourself down with so much kit you clank every time you take a step. It doesn’t matter if you’re carrying the latest and greatest in kit if you’re so heavily bogged down the enemy can just outrun you.
Which, incidentally, was a not-uncommon occurrence in Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan. Insurgents carrying minimal kit routinely outmaneuvered and outran US soldiers bogged down with gear, allowing them to avoid being pinned down and destroyed, and to live to fight another day.
Operators at the highest level live by two maxims: Pack light, move fast. Stillness is death.
The ability to move fast and far is more important than carrying tons of stuff. You need to go where you need to go and go back home, and in a fight you have to keep moving. Stuff is only good if you can reach it and if it is useful in the moment; if you’re carrying useless kit, you might as well leave it at home.
When thinking about how much kit a character should carry, I follow two simple rules: He should carry just enough to make the character plausible and the scene exciting, and the text should mention only the tools he will use. As in real life, too much prose bogs down the story.
Drama and Underpreparedness
Characters should be prepared for trouble — but they shouldn’t solve problems easily either. If they can breeze through difficulties, you don’t have drama, just an overpowered character. There are two ways around this.
First, throw your character into a situation he isn’t prepared for and has no reason to believe he should be ready for. For instance a beat cop or a SWAT guy could ambushed, knocked out, then cuffed and interrogated. He tries to break free, but he doesn’t have the right gear. This is plausible, since most police won’t think they’ll be on the wrong end of the handcuffs.
Second, make your hero plausibly underprepared. This is more common than you may think. He thinks he’s ready, but he doesn’t realise it under it’s too late. Brad Taylor’s Pike Logan is a great example. As a hardened special operator, he understands the dangers of being captured, and stows a handcuff key on his person. Unfortunately, the key is buried in his wallet, and he had never trained to access the key. Which becomes a problem when he is captured by the enemy.
Should the hero survive, he should learn from his mistakes. This demonstrates character growth. Barry Eisler’s John Rain is an assassin who specialises in natural causes, and is a judo exponent. But his age is catching up with him, and he can’t overpower younger and faster enemies any more. After a near-death encounter in Winner Take All, he starts carrying weapons on him, signalling a shift in mindset and tactics. It is an acknowledgement that he is growing older and he has to change the way he lives his life, and also serves as a symbol of his refusal to retire completely — and his inability to.
Preparation, Preparation, Preparation
Someone who spends his life looking for trouble will prepare himself for it. He will pack tools, seek training, seize every advantage he can get. If he isn’t prepared, in a plausible universe, he will suffer greatly, or die. If he survives, he will learn his lesson and evolve.
Done properly, writing the prepared character creates opportunities for drama, excitement and tension. But you need to do the research, or it will blow up in your face.
In my latest novel, DUNGEON SAMURAI VOL. 1: KAMIKAZE, preparedness spells the difference between life and death. Check it out here!
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